It’s all-change in cider-country from this weekend (05/09/15) as First pulls out lock, stock and barrel from it’s Hereford operation after the last service on Saturday night.
Of course, this is business. There’s no room for sentimentality in today’s high-powered world – but you’re excused a smidgen if, like me, you’re a bus enthusiast and purveyor of fine slabs of social history, more of which to come.
From a current day passenger’s perspective, there isn’t too much to worry about. Most of the network is being taken on by local independent Yeomans Canyon Travel – who are also taking on most of the drivers. Another local independent – DRM, run by the effervescent David Morris – takes the trunk 420 Hereford – Worcester service, on which they already run Hereford-Bromyard. Will locals notice too much when corporate pink/purple is no more?
Yeomans take over most of First’s abandoned Hereford services…
Die-hard enthusiasts like me don’t even notice Barbie. We still see it as red. Midland Red.
And “Red” it has been since 16th March 1920, when three Tilling-Stevens bone-shakers appeared in the City. They were garaged in something little more than a shack in Bridge Street, which didn’t even have any lights! In that same year, a certain H.H. Yeomans hit upon an idea to use his cider lorry to transport passengers into Hereford for the Wednesday market! Bus! By 1934, Yeomans were taking over routes from Midland Red – a scenario repeating itself 81 years on!
Midland Red got itself a new garage – with lighting – in 1925, on Friar Street, which is still the one in use today (albeit with various extensions added over the years).
First’s depot in Hereford opened in 1925…
If you guffawed at Blakey & co in the On The Buses film when they took on women drivers, Hereford garage pre-dated this by a good many years – “HD’s” first lady driver got behind the wheel in November 1941, and was a company first. Another first for Hereford was one-person operation, in 1956, which was as a result of poor patronage and staff shortages – the era of phasing out of conductors on the Midland Red started here.
Hereford also played a part in the very early beginnings of deregulation, way back in 1978. Two years earlier, Midland Red had commissioned the “Viable Network Project” as a response to falling passenger numbers. This was further developed into something blandly titled the “Market Analysis Project”, with the County Council offering itself up as a trial area, which was to be devoid of the then normal licencing arrangements. An early exercise in branding took place, with Hereford Midland Red buses appearing as “Wandaward” – a name that would continue until 1984.
By this time, Midland Red had split into 5 different companies. From September 1981, Hereford garage fell into the Midland Red West operation – one of 6 garages in the new company.
1986 of course saw the bus world turned upside down with deregulation and privatisation. Midland Red West acquired an attractive new red/cream livery to go with it’s newly-found freedom, and before long found itself in bed with Badgerline, born out of a similar split in the Bristol area. 1995 saw Badgerline itself merge with GRT (born out of Scotland’s Grampian Regional Transport) to form a new super-company – FirstBus.
As the group flexed it’s muscles, local operator names began to disappear. Midland Red West – as well as it’s widely-admired livery – became subsumed into a simple “First”, with corporate pink/purple livery (known in enthusiast circles as “Barbie”). First went on to conquer the World (well, trains and American school buses at least) but of late has been retracting out of what it sees as unprofitable operations.
From a purely business perspective, Hereford hardly fits the bill for something as big as First. The small operation has less than 20 buses and carries only 3500 passengers per day. “Profitable” is a wide-ranging word. Hereford is evidently not “profitable enough” for First – an operator which is increasingly focussing on it’s large urban operations such as Bristol or Leeds, for example. Not only has the once mighty Midland Red operation long gone and been chopped up, the Midland Red West network since deregulation nearly 30 years ago now only has Worcester left. In 2013, First sold it’s Redditch and Kidderminster operations to Rotala’s Diamond bus operation. The number-crunchers have decided there isn’t enough in these, or Hereford’s operation. But “profitable” Hereford must be. Yeomans have taken it on, in the style of many independents over the years, who’s expectation of “profit” is less than the big groups. It remains to be seen what might happen in Hereford after, say, 6 or 12 months of operation – will the smaller guy shrink it’s operation there?
It’s yet another example of the perils of commercial bus operation in these uncertain times. Hereford has been no stranger to concerns over viability. As we’ve seen, the Market Analysis Project all those years ago was looking to address such concerns, and of course even further back, Midland Red were handing what were seen as unprofitable routes to Yeomans in 1934! Hereford may be bustling, but it’s surrounded by lots of green fields. The local estate routes may be viable, but the longer trunk routes continue to be a challenge for commercial operation.
I saw this for myself when taking the 420 out of the City back towards Worcester via Bromyard. Full-size bus operation, but barely half a dozen of us on board, only 3 of us actually handing over a cash fare. The train on this corridor provides stiff competition, but it’s a sobering experience to see how bus operation in semi-rural areas faces a challenging future. It may not come as such as surprise that Cornwall is going down the route of a form of “quality contract” for its large swathes of green fields and sparse operations. Might we see such offerings in places like Hereford?
First bid a fond farewell to their customers in Hereford…
…as DRM prepare to move in on the 420 (without the help of spellcheck…)
My own memories of Hereford are happy ones. As a post-deregulation teenager in the late 80s, a ride on the monster X92 from Birmingham to Hereford was magical, being operated by coaches as part of the “Midland Express” network – all the old Midland Red companies joining up to provide a yellow-liveried limited stop coach operation. In the City itself, this 80s child found Leyland Nationals – some still in drab National Bus Company-liveried poppy red, some in the exciting red/cream “privatised” livery and later a small corner of Tesco’s car park given over to form a “City bus station” full of brightly-coloured Mercedes minibuses providing the “Hereford Hopper” network. It was about as far as I could go with my scratch off Midland Red West “Go With The Wyvern” day ticket.
October 1986…”Midland Express” Birmingham to Hereford X92 (although this one had broken down!)
Also October 1986 – the old National Bus Company “poppy red” livery…
…the new post-deregulation livery was widely-acclaimed…
Whilst I was down in the City 2 days before the end of First’s operation photographing the scene, a friendly driver was chatting to me. He told me that most of the staff had found alternative employment, and that he was only there covering because most of the staff had already gone. He also told me of a nice touch whereby a party was taking place on Saturday night, and that the longest-serving member of staff – who had started in 1968 – was chosen for the final service to return to the garage. I also came across a woman who was also taking photos of the garage in Friar Street who explained that members of her family had worked there over the years. We had a good chat and she told me she was close to tears! And in a fitting tribute, the heritage-liveried single decker that wears a 1960s version of the Midland Red livery is on loan from Worcester garage for the last few days of operation – the name “Midland Red” is back on Hereford’s streets for one final time!
First’s 1960s heritage “Midland Red” liveried bus is working the final few days on loan from Worcester to Hereford garage…
Happily for passengers, the network (for now) remains largely intact – all that users will see on Monday morning are different coloured buses on unaltered routes / timetables.
But for enthusiasts / historians who have followed the much-loved Midland Red and it’s successors down the years, a little bit of transport history has gone forever.