Got a spare £20m? First Greater Manchester are selling its bus operations to rival operators in the conurbation
First Greater Manchester is set to quit Greater Manchester, as the transport conglomerate reviews its operations across the UK. The fourth largest part of the FirstGroup bus empire has recorded sharp losses in the last year. Its Greater Manchester bus operations made a £5.7 million loss making it their worst performing constituent of the Aberdeen-based company.
According to The Daily Telegraph, the business was originally valued at £100m. FirstGroup are offering the business for £20m – with the option to sell each of its depots to separate operators. The company has four depots – Bolton, Oldham, Queens Road, and the closed Bury depot – which has been mothballed.
In the last month, it has closed the former Finglands’ depot in Rusholme with its services transferring to Queens Road. In 2017, it made further economies by closing the Dukinfield garage and the Bury depot.
In the last five years, FirstGroup’s financial situation has been well documented. As well as its problems with the buses, its Transpennine Express franchise hasn’t performed as well as expected.
In Greater Manchester, its problems are more deep-seated. They go back as far as the split of GM Buses by the Conservative government. During the split, GM Buses North was more profitable than GMS Buses. This changed when the two companies were sold to FirstBus and Stagecoach.
By March 1997 – a year after GMS Buses’ sale to Stagecoach Holdings, the tables had turned. GM Buses North under First became the poor relation. Ruthless cost cutting made for a shabby appearance with few new buses. FirstBus – in the eyes of the average Greater Mancunian – became a byword for missing buses, high fares and ancient vehicles.
Even with the arrival of new vehicles in 1999, 2005, and 2012 – 2014, that image stuck. It still sticks today. So much so that the average Greater Mancunian who has waited an hour for a bus service with a ten-minute frequency would be jumping for joy.
Besides unreliable buses, the internet has also provided a coffin nail for First’s Greater Manchester operations. Some passengers might be thinking to themselves: “Why wait for that 17 bus if I could save myself this misery by logging on to my favourite tax-dodging online retailer?”
From the Transport for Greater Manchester point of view, FirstGroup’s departure might be a blessing and a curse. In the former, there may be far fewer complaints to deal with. In the latter, goodness knows how many emergency tenders to grapple with before the next set of service changes. If they are pulling out of Greater Manchester, would FirstGroup entertain bidding for a franchise should Andy Burnham introduce a London-style franchising system?
So, where do we go from here? If you’re a bus driver, you might be hoping the next operator retains your position via TUPE. As a long-suffering passenger, there may be cause for celebration – supposing its successor delivers a better service.
So to quote the Chinese proverb, “we live in interesting times”. I know of one person who may be torn between jubilation or relief. He’s the gentlemen that could be changing Greater Manchester’s buses for the better.
S.V., 05 February 2019.