Newest Review: ... current one are a credit to First Bus, being curteous and well mannered and generally on time. however, on my homeward journey to-night ... more
Economy Group Buses, more like
First Group Buses
Member Name: davidbuttery
First Group Buses
Advantages: By no means the worst public transport operator in the UK, give change
Disadvantages: Their "Enjoy travelling First" slogan is a bit of a joke, can be expensive
Ah yes, buses - the poor relation of the great national transport family. Often rather neglected when talk turns to public transport, but actually important to far more people on a daily basis than are trains, trams, boats or whatever. It doesn't help that national media coverage is so poor; I'm consistently astounded by the number of pieces which focus on London, possibly because of sheer journalistic laziness: it's a city which is *massively* unrepresentative, not least because it was the one place exempted from the (largely disastrous) deregulation of the bus industry in 1986. All we've really done, now that so much consolidation has taken place in the sector, is gone from a nationalised near-monopoly to a set of regionalised private near-monopolies.
Of the major bus groups, First is the one I have the most experience with, seeing that they have become the dominant player both in my home area of Worcestershire and in a city I know very well, Bristol. In Worcestershire they took over Midland Red West, and over the course of several years progressively diminished the prominence of the proud old Midland Red brand (why do they *do* this? You don't see "Volkswagen" in huge letters on Bentleys) until now the only sign that it was ever there is the legal name of the operation, "First Midland Red Buses". That means we get the usual, and extremely dull, First livery of mostly white with a couple of bizarre pink-and-purple stripes at the bottom.
Service standards on First are generally okay, if rarely anything special. In both areas I'm familiar with, there are a few long-standing grumps which don't seem to be addressed, generally to do with the age-old "nothing for ages, then three come along at once" problem. This is not quite so bad in Bristol because being a large city it has quite an intensive service on the major routes, but in Worcestershire it can mean the difference between waiting ten minutes and hanging around for three quarters of an hour. There is no easy way of finding out what's happening unless you are at an actual bus station (some Bristol bus stops have electronic displays, but they're not very accurate) and the driver of a no. 1 rarely has any idea why the 1A didn't turn up 20 minutes ago...
The bus fleets themselves aren't too bad, although there are problems. Some of the Worcestershire buses are now more than 15 years old, dating from pre-First days (you can tell by their "MRW" number plates!) but these are generally quite comfortable - old-fashioned bench seats really are better! The very newest ones aren't bad either, though we don't see many of those on the Kidderminster routes. The buses that cause the problems are those from around five to ten years ago, when the people in charge of specifying them seemingly lost the plot entirely and ordered buses with seats so hard you go numb within ten minutes, almost no knee room for anyone over four foot three, and horizontal bars near the bottom of the windows that only work if passengers remember not to possess shoulders!
The situation is broadly similar in Bristol, although here the problems are slightly different, as there are a lot of double-deckers in the city, a form of bus almost absent from Worcestershire these days. Again, though, lack of space is a big problem on the "nearly-new" buses, with First seemingly having followed Travel West Midlands' disastrous example of about a decade ago of getting double-deckers with so little leg room that someone like me (five foot 11) literally could not wedge myself in without sitting diagonally! Happily, the very latest Bristolian buses are really remarkably comfortable, and although like just about all buses they suffer badly in the summer when the large glass area makes them oven-like, the rest of the time they're more than acceptable.
There are a couple of points on which I will happily praise First. The first (no pun intended!) is that they haven't followed many other operators in completely banning eating and drinking on board, instead simply asking passengers not to eat takeaway-style food, or drink hot or alcoholic drinks. I suffer from coughs and dry throats, and on a hot summer's day find a 90-minute bus trip with nothing to drink extremely uncomfortable. To be fair, I have never been told off for having a gulp or two from a bottle of water, but I'm always conscious that I'm not quite sticking to the rules. First this summer put up a poster actually *advising* passengers to drink plenty of water in order to stay cool, and I think that is the better way to go, despite the litter considerations. (On that score, the press adverts that try to equate leaving a clean, current issue of Metro folded on your seat to leaving piles of empty crisp packets there are quite, quite absurd - especially as it's the transport companies that put the papers there in the first place!)
The other praiseworthy thing is that, certainly in the places I use them, First buses give change. And yes, that includes on busy routes in central Bristol, which rather gives the lie to certain other companies' plaintive cries that they can't possibly do the same, for speed and security reasons. Of course they could if they *wanted* to, but I suspect that they just want to make a bit of extra money from passengers who don't have the right coins! Not that I use cash for my own travel very much now anyway: the recentish "First 10 Journey" ticket, which as its name suggests is valid for 10 single journeys anywhere in a specified area, is exactly what I need and has certainly saved me a considerable sum of money since I started buying it. It's available in advance from PayPoint outlets, which I find convenient.
That takes me on to the fares themselves, and here my opinion is rather more mixed. Bristol is the problem: it is, I believe, the largest city in England without a Passenger Transport Executive, and this means that there is no equivalent to (for example) the West Midlands' Daytripper, allowing travel on almost all local public transport for a lowish price. The fares in Bristol seem to me to be consistently a little higher than they really ought to be; for example, an off-peak adult day rover costs £4.00, as opposed to £3.50 for the equivalent in the West Midlands, which covers a significantly larger area. Fares in Worcestershire seem mostly to be considerably more reasonable, and in fact in some cases are lower than they were a decade ago!
In general, the attitude of First bus drivers is quite good, perhaps because the need to give change means they are required to interact a little more with passengers than in places where they act as little more than driving machines. The usual toughened glass panels around their cabs are present and correct, but they're often left open, at least in the daytime, and this certainly creates a less intimidating atmosphere. Although it is quite rare for this to be needed, they do when necessary intervene with passengers who are causing a nuisance, for example asking them to use headphones rather than speakers to listen to music. My one real complaint is that one or two of them spend so much time smoking! Not in their cabs these days, of course, rather getting out briefly at stops, but you can certainly tell from the waft of air when they get back on...
At least in Worcestershire, there has been a small campaign this summer with First putting up posters explaining how to use buses: how to ring the bell, make sure you hold on tight, etc. I'd like to think that this was because more people were starting to use public transport, but I am decidedly sceptical about that. It's a somewhat imperfect campaign: for example, one poster tells passengers who've rung the bell to remain seated until their bus actually stops, which a) nobody ever does, b) risks the driver thinking it was just an inquisitive child playing about and so not stopping in the first place, and c) is rather a problem if it's standing room only! (To be fair, this is something I encounter less these days than I used to when thoroughly inadequate minibus-sized vehicles were quite regularly used on many local journeys.)
So overall, I think that First provides a reasonable service. I don't feel any connection with the brand in the way I used to with Midland Red (another thing the corporate types don't seem to care about), and they are a long way from being the perfect bus company. However, I have very rarely become utterly furious with their ineptitude the way I did a few years ago with one of their railway relations, First Great Western. Their bus division seems to me to be an absolutely middle-of-the-road undertaking (not literally, one hopes!) and if pushed I would probably say it was better than having Stagecoach doing the honours. I'm bracing myself for the possibility of the Bus Service Operators Grant being cut by the government, which will have a severe effect on a lot of people with no practical alternative to the bus, but for now First provide a fair service. Not wonderful; not dreadful; but okay.
Summary: I still miss Midland Red, but it could have been a lot worse, really