First Glasgow About To Change Hands?

Recent reports in the Scottish press are ripe with speculation that the mighty empire which is First in Glasgow may well be about to change hands and become a Council owned Bus Company. This is of course in line with two recent changes that have taken place. The first being the option introduced in the latest Buses Bill that allows for bus Companies to potentially come under public ownership. And the second being the decision of Firstgroup’s board to sell off the UK Bus business, even though it has started to make money and been the groups piggy bank for as long as I can remember.

The decision I find slightly baffling as it was only a couple of years ago that I was at an excellent conference held in Glasgow where the Secretary of State for Transport was Humza Yousef, he was an impressive guy who said all the right things about partnerships and bus infrastructure. Sadly he has been moved onwards and upwards to Justice Minister, and for reasons unbeknown these days First apparently do a poor job and the Council could do better. Well, I beg to differ, I think that the team in Glasgow under the leadership of my friend Andrew Jarvis, have done a superb job against a background of ever increasing congestion.

Not being funny, but painting the buses a different colour and sticking the money into not for profit services is fine and noble as indeed is the theory of cross subsidising loss making routes. However, if buses are stuck in longer and longer queues then less people will use them and journey times will get longer and the whole spiral of decline will continue. What they need to do is make the City a bus and public transport hub. Reduce congestion stop free on street car parking, and allow technology to enhance the passenger experience. Start carrying enough passengers and the likelihood is that the fares will reduce. It is a rather strange world that we live in, I recall a conversation with my dad many years ago. He told me that basically history repeats itself, and as I become older, he has been proved right. Nationalising the UK Bus industry happened in 1968, for a reason, it stabilised a national network, that allowed local bus Companies united in one Government owned livery to operate local services. Very often in conjunction with a plethora of local municipal bus Companies both large and small. Today less than a handful of municipally owned bus Companies survive, and suddenly the legal framework exists for Local Authorities to take back control.

The cynic inside me feels as though political ambitions within Glasgow council want to own the giant that is First Glasgow. The reasons are varied on the what was once called the looney left has been a long held hatred of the Bus barons, and all that malarkey. In addition methinks that they look down the road to their neighbours at Edinburgh, who always maintained ownership of Lothian travel, and have built a quality operation presently lead by Richard Hall. What I find distasteful is that from my observation First Glasgow ran a good tight ship. Trouble really started when congestion got worse, however they really delivered the goods with the Commonwealth games back in the day. And they have some great innovation, just look at their Airport route, in my view one of the best around.

So, eventually the Conservative Government under Mrs Thatcher deregulated the Bus Industry and sold off the Bus Companies, mostly to their young management teams (including a 26 year old me). They did this because they thought that it had become a large inefficient monster and was also loosing money, which they blamed on inefficient management (completely ignoring the two car per family and calamity of congestion etc). If the truth be told in certain pockets around the Country silly things began to happen, that simply fuelled the Conservatives view of socialist nonsense gone mad. Especially in the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire where subsidising cheap bus fares cost local tax payers an absolute fortune.

So, as ever I will watch with great interest, to see just what happens in Glasgow and elsewhere across the nation. The wind of change is upon us, not just in Glasgow and Manchester, but local mayors in places like Liverpool, and Leicester are also looking to see how the bigger change of ownership will take place. One thing is for sure, history has a pattern and maybe I will live long enough to watch Mr Corbyn renationalise the UK Bus industry again. And then wait another 25 years for a Mrs Thatcher type body to re-nationalise it again. As ever dear chums answers on a postcard!

Written by Austin Birks

June 28, 2019

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