FirstGroup Restructuring: Sale of Bolton Depot to Rotala

Reorganisation of First Greater Manchester to leave Oldham as its only depot

In the continuing saga of First Greater Manchester’s contraction, FirstGroup have announced the sale of their Bolton depot to Rotala plc. The transfer of its Weston Street garage, over 500 staff and 18 bus routes is expected to be completed within months.

First Greater Manchester have had a rather chequered history in Bolton. In the last decade, their Bolton operations have contracted with some services being withdrawn or changing hands. Most of which have been at the expense of Arriva North West (a greater player since the purchase of Blue Bus in 2005) and local operators like Vision Bus.

To cut costs further, they sold their original Bolton depot for cheaper premises on Weston Street. The depot they inherited from GM Buses North was built with ratepayers’ money for Greater Manchester Transport in early 1979. On its site is a retail park with a Sainsburys superstore.

In 1998, they closed the Atherton depot at Howe Bridge and purchased Timeline’s bus operations. This gave them a greater market share in Leigh, Atherton and Walkden – historically Lancashire United Transport territory. Some of Timeline Travel’s buses were cascaded to other First depots in Greater Manchester such as Queens Road and Dukinfield.

First Greater Manchester’s eighteen routes from Bolton depot include the 8 to Manchester, the bus that L.S. Lowry used to catch from Pendlebury. Other services include the 471 from Bolton to Rochdale, the 582 from Bolton to Leigh, and the 36 to Manchester via Swinton. Excluded from the transfer to Rotala are First Greater Manchester’s Vantage family of bus routes.

In Bolton, First Greater Manchester has faced competition from Arriva North West. Other operators have included South Lancs Travel, which after a spell of ownership by D&G, was sold to Rotala in March 2015. South Lancs Travel was founded in 1998 as Green Triangle Buses by David Stewart and Martin Bott. Who would have thought Green Triangle Buses’ successors would have bought a chunk of FirstGroup 20 years ago?

Though they have owned South Lancs Travel since 2015, Rotala are a relatively new name to Greater Manchester’s bus users. Much of their early expansion took place in the West Midlands – through the acquisition of independent local operators. In the North West they have owned Preston Bus since 2011. In 2017 they took over Go-Goodwins Coaches’ bus operations.

Subject to regulatory approval, FirstGroup’s Bolton operations may fall under the Diamond Bus North West umbrella. If accepted, the Weston Street depot’s 18 routes and 125 buses will make Rotala the second biggest operator in Greater Manchester. By the end of 2019, Greater Manchester’s third biggest operator could be Arriva North West. First Greater Manchester, reduced to one depot in Oldham could be joint fourth with the Go-Ahead Group’s Go North West operation.

In the months leading up to the sale, First Greater Manchester will see out its last summer in Bolton. At this time of writing, FirstGroup will retain their Oldham depot. Given the company’s febrile climate, this may be subject to change. Some contraction has already been made with the 415 service transferring to Stagecoach Manchester. By summer, their journeys on the 346 service will follow suit. Perhaps they may be thinning out the Oldham depot for another reorganisation.

So to borrow the company’s tagline for their rail franchise, ‘where next’? With the recent news, bus passengers have taken to social media to tell FirstGroup to sell off their Oldham operations. Perhaps they are keeping Oldham to keep their hand in for a slice of the franchised bus pie under Andy Burnham. Maybe Oldham depot could be part of a trans-Pennine base with the 180 and 184 routes a spinal cord from Manchester to Saddleworth and Huddersfield.

Whatever happens, we eagerly await the next instalment. The Greater Manchester bus scene never fails to spring any surprises.

S.V., 27 June 2019.

Postscript

The training centre and Vantage services will move to Rusholme depot which, in the last six months, has been mothballed.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. So presumably there’s something in the Vantage contract that stopped them including it in the depot. And/or those contracts will be up for renewal soon.

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  2. Leeds says:

    Hello, I’m thinking more and more that First will retain a slimmer Oldham operation (maybe off loading marginal routes to one of the smaller firms like Stotts) and have it as part of First West Yorkshire a bit like how the York operation is.

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    1. Hi Leeds,

      That seems to be consistent with one possibility I had in mind. They have already shed some of their tendered services to other operators, with the evening journeys of the 350 being one example. Likewise with the 353 and 354 (to Nexus Move). Also with some of its commercial journeys going to Stagecoach (the 415 since the last changes, and the 346 following suit in July).

      In the next six to nine months, I think they would have pulled out of the Tameside area by then (apart from the 409 route). I could see more of the Ashton circulars going to MCT Travel with the 350 being 100% Stagecoach. Integrating the rump First Greater Manchester within First West Yorkshire might be a non-starter, but I think the thinning out we are already seeing does seem like a step towards another sale.

      Warmly,

      Stuart.

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  3. Michael Tinker says:

    i would love to see Stotts take over the 350 service they have some good drivers and good buses

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