In the end, the merger of Stagecoach with National Express did not happen at all. The attentions of the Competition Commission meant that an overseas investment fund takeover by DWS could happen. Thus, Stagecoach Group continues to exist largely as it was but what the change means for its flair and competence remains to be seen.
What we do know is that its last rail working in the U.K., Sheffield’s Supertram, is to go into public sector operation next year. There are also moves around the U.K. to move into public transport franchising, particularly in Manchester but also in Wales. This is usually not Stagecoach’s preference, but it will need to adapt. In addition, enhanced transport partnerships are developing too. Stagecoach did increase its stake in Scottish Citylink by adding Megabus operations to the company, which means that ComfortDelGro has a say in those operations too. Acquisitions continue too in the form of an increase to its presence in London.
Go Ahead was another operator to undergo a change of ownership. That was the result of a joint bid by Australia’s Kinetic Group and Spain’s Globalvia. The first of these already operates bus concessions across Australia and New Zealand, while the second is a transport infrastructure company. Given Go Ahead’s moves into Asia, Australasia and other parts of Europe, the fit makes some sense, and what likely is coming in the U.K. is not incompatible either. After all, mistakes like what caused the loss of the Southeastern franchise need to be avoided at any time, especially these.
Scotland’s McGill Group is expanding too with its acquisition of First’s eastern Scottish operations. There already has been rebranding using the older names of Eastern Scottish and Midland Bluebird. The first of these includes Edinburgh and West Lothian, while the second is centred around Stirling. When I was around Stirling during August and September, the changeover was in progress behind the scenes. Investment in new vehicles has been promised, but it remains to be seen what can happen to what was a tired if efficient operation in the testing times in which we now find ourselves.
The current economic and budgetary conditions mean that the sort of expansiveness that some of us may recall will not be extensive for a while to come. It is as if we have gone from the optimistic zenith at the turn of the century to the current nadir. That will mean many more changes like those described above and that entrepreneurial experimentation and innovation will not pervade until things improve. We need to be patient in the meantime.
One of the big developments that emerged in the U.K. transport services world in the last few months has been the possibility of National Express and Stagecoach coming together. This time around, it is National Express that is the senior partner and that is very different to how things were ten years ago. There were talks around that time that never came to anything but it would have been Stagecoach that led in those days.
Things are serious enough that Stagecoach’s express coach service operations are to go to Comfort DelGro, their partners in the Scottish Citylink operation. It extends further than that though because MegBus and South West Falcon would be sold to them as well. That would leave National Express coach services and allow the possibility of using Stagecoach depots for these as well.
Currently, the deal is on hold pending the outcome of an inquiry by the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority. If it were to proceed, then a new international transport company would be created. Within Britain, it would be mainly a bus and coach service operation along with the Sheffield SuperTram in the light rail market. Because of respective travails, it has little impact on the rail network.
There was a time when National Express dominated the U.K. rail industry with numerous franchises that included ScotRail, Central Trains, Midland Mainline, Wales & Borders, Wessex Trains, c2c and National Express East Coast (NXEC). Most of these were lost on re-tendering while NXEC did not make enough money to pay the franchise premium and c2c was sold to Trenitalia.
Stagecoach also became a pervasive operator with South West Trains becoming one the longest-lived private sector operators and East Midlands Trains taking over from National Express undertakings. Another long-lived association was with Virgin Trains in its CrossCountry, West Coast and East Coast incarnations. While the brand was spared the indignity of operating through the pandemic, their uplifting, optimistic and somewhat cheeky air is something that I still miss a lot. The execution may have been imperfect but their heart was in the task and there was an entrepreneurial air that needs rekindling in these darker times. Stagecoach eventually gained such a reputation for competence that they too might be missed and they did get a fitting send-off in the National Rail Awards.
The company tried out all sorts of things in its day with even a hovercraft service across the Firth of Forth being tried for a while. Some of the innovations remained while others did not last but there was a sense of experimentation that was laudable. Numerous overseas ventures were attempted even if a lot of them did not persist. Despite these initiatives, they never forgot the core business so you could depend on them and that is more than be said for some operators today.
To me, National Express makes more of a steady-state impression and their white coach liveries are in line with this. Their bus operations are limited to the West Midlands these days with their Dundonian ones having been sold to McGill’s. Given that, you might think them smaller than Stagecoach with its more pervasive bus networks but that is not how it is. innovation does not strike as a hallmark of the company but it is promising a big switchover to electric vehicles as part of the merger outcome.
Losing Stagecoach’s inventive spirit would be a loss but I still am watching what happens. For now, my vantage point is through the pages of Buses magazine rather than something more speedy in information delivery terms. It looks as if a big changeover is coming so we may have little choice but to await what comes. It could be just the shake-up that the bus and coach market needs.
Perhaps unwisely, this website has gained a technology overhaul. It was powered by WordPress for a long time until I got fed up with its slowness. While a server upgrade would have helped, I went for something more drastic: a switch to something completely different.
It is all on a new server anyway so I thought that I would try something else: the automated building of a static website from MarkDown files using Hugo. With less happening on the server, you should see things load faster albeit with some front end scripting to enliven things a bit. In this, I am not alone but it is a more technical approach that may be for everyone. My skills fit this and it is good to try something else.
It also was a chance to reorganise the existing content and even to remove obsolete items so some old links may not work as they did. Some broken links did get fixed though and it reminded me of my mindset and situation earlier in the site’s history. Then, I was a commuter who had enough time to use trains and buses on hill walking and other excursions as well. These days, I work largely from home and the ongoing pandemic has reduced the extent of my outings. The latter hopefully will expand as things improve but there is something else too: I used to keep more up to date on what was happening in transportation.
These days, I limit my Twitter use because there is too much bad news around for my psyche to take and that curtails my learning of new developments. Still, some things come my way like the ongoing travails of rail funding and an upcoming reorganisation and there also is the new buses initiative in England that is long overdue and may prove to be a case of being too little too late.
While travels were curtailed by the pandemic, many services were cut and ceased to run altogether. Then, there was not much to say but an increasing sense of normality could change that and more travel means more experiences to relate too. Also, being out and about means that anyone should come across things that they would have learned otherwise.
After the technical changeover, it is time to keep adding content and I hope that there will be much more to come. Stories of old overseas escapades could make a start and we badly need an uptick in transportation initiatives because it all feels as if things have been on hold for far too long.
Last year, D&G Buses took over services 109 between Macclesfield and Leek and 108 between Leek and Ashbourne. When that happened, I was looking forward to the services being operated by a more mainstream operator and even travelled to Leek to commence hikes from there.
The first of those was in September of 2020 when I walked from Leek to Buxton and the experience was a satisfactory one apart from there being a group going to Leek for what appeared to be a day of drinking. The first period of lockdown had passed and things were opening up though coronavirus case numbers were rising. Social distancing was being observed and only one passenger was not wearing a face covering.
Several lockdowns later, I travelled again from Macclesfield to Leek in June of this year. That was not such a happy experience and reflects how cordiality on the part of a bus driver makes things feel much better. Using a card with the ticket machine did not go smoothly and even attracted a comment like “I could wait here all day…” before the ticket was issued. The bus was quieter and I got off at the same time as another passenger to leave only the driver on the bus; it felt better not to be braving a soul that had the air of being a grumpy old jobsworth who was putting down time until retirement. If anything, there is a need to be careful how you come across to others.
After that sour experience, I did not let it ruin my day as I hiked from Leek back to Macclesfield again. Though parts were busy because tier 3 restrictions remained in place, the glorious sunshine, the wonderful scenery and the occasional friendly soul all made it worthwhile.
What I was not to know was that D&G were to give up routes 108 and 109 at the start of September. Given my June experience, I now wonder if others were put off by driver attitude because I did overhear a conversation discussing that subject with regard to one of the D&G drivers on another of their routes in July 2020. There have been multiple lockdowns so it might not be just that but there was a break in service when things got complicated.
For one thing, Hulleys of Baslow decided to offer a limited stop service between Ashbourne and Manchester Airport. This was to be numbered X1 with calls at Waterhouses, Leek, Bosley and Macclesfield along the way. In the event, nothing came of it and D&G Buses won a contract for service 108. That left route 109 but Aimee’s Travel have stepped in there with a new contract so services between Macclesfield and Leek have been restored.
The outcome is what was wanted but execution felt clumsy. Communication was not what it should have been and changes continued until everything settled down again. It all is a reminder of what we lost when the original X1 between Derby and Manchester was broken up into different sections. Another point is that we need a national networks or a set of regional ones in England to do what TrawsCymru does in Wales. Leaving everything to local authorities does not make for joined-up thinking and you only have to look at the decline of route 130 that once extended from Macclesfield to Manchester to see what that means.
This has been a rough year for the railways and it is little wonder that Rail magazine constantly bangs on about getting passengers back. The safety of travel by train is espoused by various authorities and my own experiences during the past summer do little to contradict this but there is a flaw in the argument that safe travel by train is enough to bring back paying passengers.
The real issue for me is actually having somewhere safe to go. After all, many cities have been blighted by COVID during the last few months and that is likely to remain the case during the coming months too. Vaccination is ongoing but will take time to take effect, assuming that the virus does not evolve faster than the rollout. Going to rural areas could be an option and I certainly enjoy exploring hill country but those living in such places are understandably nervous about incursions from elsewhere.
The same problem affects bus services and there is the added issue of travel restrictions applying to areas such that you cannot go into or out of them. With a new strain of virus proving to be more infectious, that is not so likely to change for a good part of 2021 if not after that.
In tandem with all of this, many office workers have been developing a taste for working from home so will commuting be reduced in the future? It is a consideration being pondered by railway commentators but we have to get that far first. Thinking that far ahead when progress appears slow seems premature.
For now though, the government has stepped in with financial support for rail and bus services for those who need them. For rail services, that gets us into 2022 and looks sensibly farsighted while funding for bus services could do with extending.
To finish, 2020 felt a long year and signs are that 2021 may not be so different. Hope is facing a stern test so we need to find any kind of positivity that we kine so it can be relished. The ongoing pandemic looks like a long haul right now.