Lost Welsh Independent Bus Companies

It was before Christmas 2017 when the idea for this post entered my head after learning about more Welsh bus company collapses. Though I might have had the motivation to write it up then, the topic felt unseasonal so I left it to one side for a while.

There are plenty of reasons why the subject is too sober for what was supposed to be a joyful time of year. In the companies listed below, there seems to be a repeating story of hardship and subsequent collapse. In some cases, business management was not what it should and the Welsh traffic commissioner never takes too kindly to sudden closure of any bus company and there has been too much cause for hearings to take place in Welshpool.

Most of the affected concerns operated rural bus routes under council contracts, an easier revenue earner during the years of Labour government in London but much tougher now in more austere times. Such is the geography of Wales, that many firms prospered once more funding was on offer from the late nineties until the end of the next decade. One bus industry professional commented that he was involved in setting up a business in the nineties because public subsidy was about to increase and the Cheshire bus network was much stronger back then so the same might have been possible for Wales.

That is not how it is now and bus patronage cannot be helped by service cuts either so a vicious circle comes into being. Then, smaller firms suffer and the hilly nature of Wales makes it hard too for large operators with Arriva and Veolia pulling out of mid Wales. It all makes for a troubled network so the presence of the Welsh Government support TrawsCambria network is invaluable because we cannot say that all is well yet.

When you see the list below, it is easy to see how instability can rein so anything that helps has to be good. After all, bus passengers need to sure that services will operate as advertised and the last thing that councils need is repeated re-tendering of services. Hopefully, the decline can be halted and we see a reduced number of failures over time. You only can hope for better.

D & J Jones and Son

In the wake of the collapse of GHA Coaches, this Wrexham based operator took on a lot of extra work before it too collapsed immediately before Christmas 2017. It was said that staffing issues were the cause rather than financial pressures but it left Wrexham Council with the task of replacing many services in order to keep transport services going in the borough.

Express Motors

2018 started with much change in the bus network in northwest Wales (Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy) because of this operator’s loss of its licence. The cause was a coach crash in France that revealed discrepancies in vehicle maintenance records. There were two family owned companies on site with similar names, one offering private and the other providing local bus services. Both were closed and a replacement company appears not to have been set up to continue in the bus service business. The result is that all council contracted routes were retendered.

GHA Coaches

GHA Coaches rose very quickly across North and Mid Wales as well as Cheshire and Shropshire. It now looks as if the expansion may have been too rapid for service quality declined and cashflow problems meant that taxes were unpaid and service quality suffered too. In the end, the company was wound up by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC). The company’s directors tried starting another company but were disqualified from continuing with such operations by the traffic commissioner, an understandable action given how quickly GHA Coaches had collapsed and the chaos that resulted.

Padarn Bus

Llanberis’ Padarn Bus was another bus company that failed in northwest Wales and there was a fraud investigation mounted after that happened. That happened in 2014 and so comes before others on this list. It was a sign of what was to come.

Silcox Coaches

This Pembrokeshire operator failed for financial reasons not long before GHA Coaches. The business had been sold in order to gain added investment that never materialised. It then was bought back by the family that owned for much of its long history but it never recovered.

Getting to and about Pembrokeshire without a car

Though it’s at the southwestern corner of Wales, Pembrokeshire is worth the extra effort taken to make a visit there and you can manage one without using a car too. There are regular train services and the county council expends some effort on its bus network too. Thus far, I only have made two visits to these parts with the most recent one updating and refreshing my knowledge of the available travel options.

Trains

The county has no less than three railway lines serving it with Arriva Trains Wales running the trains: one each to the terminii of Pembroke Dock, Milford Haven and Fishguard. Each of these is largely single track in nature so service frequencies are not hourly. Those three railways start out as a twin line from Carmarthen before the Pembroke line splits off after Whitland and the Fishguard one after the request-only train stop of Clarbeston Road.

The Milford Haven line seems to see the more traffic than others with many services travelling all of the way to Manchester using two carriage trains, something that Arriva Trains Wales may need to revisit in light of a recent Saturday journey on a busy Summer Bank Holiday weekend though another on the following Monday worked out less busy.

Though the port only sees two daily ferry departures to Rosslare in Ireland, Fishguard too gets a reasonable service even if the frequency is less than the two hourly one enjoyed by Milford Haven and Haverfordwest (Pembrokeshire’s county town). Last May, it also gained a new station called Fishguard & Goodwick so that’s something for the locals in both places.

The Pembroke Dock line also gets a largely two-hourly service (less than that on Sundays though) so it’s an option for getting to attractive spots like Tenby and Manorbier. Pembroke too is a ferry port with departures for Rosslare though it is Fishguard that enjoys a service meeting its early morning arrival from across the Irish Sea.

Ferries

The mention of ferry services brings to mind a curiosity about services to Wales from Rosslare in Ireland’s county of Wexford. The Stena Line ones go to Fishguard while those operated by Irish Ferries go to Pembroke instead. While I might have thought that history might explain this situation, it seems to be a recent phenomenon and one for which I have yet to find an explanation part from running different routes for the sake of personal success. Maybe it’s down to competition on the Irish Sea? After all, there was a time when both forbears of Irish Ferries and Stena Line used Fishguard for a time. Then again, there was opposition mounted by Sealink (Stena these days) to the commencement of a Dublin-Holyhead operation by the B+I Line (now part of Irish Ferries) when that replaced the previous long standing Dublin-Liverpool service when that became unsustainable after 159 years.

Buses

Returning the world of land transport, Pembrokeshire does have a reasonable bus network and inspection of bus timetables reveals that council financial support is needed for most if not all services. Richards Brothers of Cardigan seem to operate most of the services in Pembrokeshire along their workings in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. First Cymru do operate a Haverfordwest-Tenby service but otherwise Pembrokeshire seems to be a bastion for local independent operators and it’s no bad thing to see.

There’s multi-operator ticketting too with West Wales Rover Tickets valid here as they are in Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire. An adult day ticket will cost you £7 and it’s £28 for an adult weekly one. There are equivalent child tickets costing half the prices of the adult ones.

Richards do their own day and weekly tickets too and these cost less than their multi-operator counterparts and only apply to their own services. An adult day Explorer will set you back £5.50 and it’s £18 for a weekly Explorer. The child equivalents of these cost £3.50 and £12, respectively. Interestingly, there’s also a family day Explorer ticket for either two adults and two children or one adult and three children. With my seeing quite a number of families around on my last visit, I reckon that this is a great idea that should be adopted in more places.

In terms of the type of bus services being operating, there’s a mix of trunk routes and other more visitor friendly coastal services that aim to give folk an alternative to clogging up narrow country roads with car traffic; some only are a single car’s width with hedges on either side so it’s best to be warned. Given the wonders of Pembrokeshire’s coastline, it is easy to see why so many visitors come here and there’s a National Park protecting it all along with the Preseli Hills too. Traffic jams and conservation don’t go hand in hand so something had to be done.

The trunk services do their bit for curtailing car usage too with services like Haverfordwest-Fishguard-Cardigan (412), Haverfordwest to St. Davids (411), St. Davids to Fishguard (413) and Haverfordwest to Tenby (349) offering decent service frequencies from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays though, there is a markedly reduced frequency on some of these with the 413 not running at all.

In fact, my last visit saw me make use of the Sunday 412, operated by W. H. Collins of Haverfordwest with a Duple-bodied Dennis Javelin coach that was more than twenty years old so low operation only seems to be a Monday to Saturday affair on this route. The vehicle’s age became more apparent when the windscreen wipers needed to be put going because of a rain shower though the coach ran well otherwise. There was ticket machine on board either so the validity of my return fare of £5.75 (the single is £3.40) depended on my being remembered by the driver! With three to four services on Sunday, no staff changeover was needed and I got back to Haverfordwest from Fishguard without any bother.

The coastal services especially come into their own during the summer months when seven day operation is available with three services each way a day being common. Away from the May to September period, the days of operation need checking since a number are Monday/Thursday/Saturday only and routes alter too. However, Saturday visitors should be fine all year around and there is something to be said for exploring somewhere when it is quieter too though a coastline of around 180 miles in length should have plenty of unoccupied nooks and crannies.

The northern and western coasts are well served and the southern coast isn’t neglected either. The Strumble Shuttle (404) runs from Fishguard to St. Davids and calls at Strumble Head, hence the name. Buses take a while to cover their route on this service so it could be a good one for those wanting to let someone else do the driving and look at what they pass along the way. Mind you, it can get cosy on the small buses used during the school summer holidays but that’s such a not a big price to pay. Also running from Fishguard is the Poppit Rocket (405) that calls at Poppit Sand and other places by the coast on the way to Cardigan; in the off season, it starts eastbound journeys from Newport instead though.

In the west, there’s the Celtic Coaster (403) and the Puffin Shuttle. The former of these is a summer only shuttle service for St. Davids peninsula. Given that Britain’s smallest city has its share of attractions and is not far from alluring coastline, it is not surprising to learn that it is something of a visitor magnet so this bus service is an attempt to curtail traffic in the area to keep it appealing to those coming from elsewhere. The latter route is in two parts though: St. Davids to Marloes and Martin’s Haven (400), and Haverfordwest/Milford Haven to Marloes and Martin’s Haven (315). On my first visit to Pembrokeshire, I made use of the latter though it doesn’t seem to be what it was back then with afternoon journeys to Haverfordwest seemingly unavailable; a journey by train looks to be in order.

Services 387 and 388 (the latter is summer only and both get the branding of Coastal Cruiser) get you from Pembroke to delights such as Bosherston, a recommendation from a local on my first visit that I have yet to follow up, Freshfield East, Angle and Freshfield West. On my latest visit, I played with the idea of catching the 349 to Manorbier and then the 387 or 388 from Bosherston after a walk before sticking with trotting between Strumble Head and Fishguard instead. The unused idea could be handy yet.

Summary

All in all, Pembrokeshire is well supplied with train, bus and even ferry services. A little upfront work might save a lot of driving and not a little congestion. So far, it has done just that for me and there is more of Pembrokeshire for me to savour yet.