First Bus Southampton closes

First Bus Southampton closes

I'm sorry to hear that First Bus has felt it necessary to close its Southampton depot.

I really mean that. I worked there for a while in a non-driving, pen-pushing capacity, and while just about everybody I worked with has already moved on, I still feel a bond with whoever their replacements are - even those in other First bus depots who will still be rocked by the news.

I'm also not surprised it closed. Ever since the Empress Road depot opened, bitter internet trolls were spreading rumours that the company was in trouble. Eventually they got it right, but eight years later than the naysayers predicted.

The blame doesn't rest with the internet trolls though: there is no smoke without fire. People wouldn't be so keen to spread rumours that the company is in trouble if they didn't already have a reason to hate it. They hated us, and the blame for that lies with those who allowed the company to be associated with aggressive business practices, incompetence and corporate blandness.

That isn't the reason the depot had to close either. Here are some more important points I noted:

The whole bus industry is struggling, and that is not First's fault. People knew this long before Covid, but the lockdown period exposed those issues even more.

In order to survive in such tumultuous times, you need a strategy and you need to stick to it. First has never had that strategy; that much was clear even while I was working for them.

Instead, the company constantly bounced from one extreme to the other. If something didn't produce monumentous results within a few months, there would be a change of senior management and a change of strategy.

Our frequent changes to routes put off customers and led to public mockery, but it wasn't that we were perfectionists making minor changes. Network reviews were happening frequently because we had no long-term vision for what we were trying to build up and senior management expected immediate results from everything.

Customers don't like change, and as a result they warmed to the companies who showed some commitment.

Meanwhile for us, things were changing so often that sometimes we'd receive an email from management to say that the tickets we are selling had been withdrawn the previous day. Customers would be told that what they'd bought wasn't valid, and then they'd be told a few days later that another meeting had decided to reinstate them. Great image again.

It wasn't all bad. At the time we were operating as First Hampshire & Dorset, which meant I got several trips to Weymouth: firstly to cover during strikes (Weymouth staff were terribly underpaid, but as I wasn't doing much better myslf I could hardly turn down the overtime); and secondly during the catastrophe that occured during October 2012, where poor maintenance meant that the majority of services had to be cancelled. Management keeping their eye on the ball.

I hesitate to criticise the staff because while I was there I formed some friendships for life. 90% of the staff at the raw end were absolutely brilliant, many were hilarious.

Management were something else. Senior management, in particular, had a habit of ignoring you whenever they saw you - some every day. I hold particular disdain for the very senior official whom I wasted two days tidying the whole building for, only to have him enter, walk around a bit, and then leave without saying a single word to any of the staff who were sat there in freshly ironed suits and polished boots, all because we were told that we had to impress him. His silence made his view on his staff clear.

Take the Greyhound service. This was excellent, received great feedback and made a profit - because it had a dedicated team who cared about it and took every complaint to heart. They moved on for reasons I can't remember, and Greyhound became the nuisance child who was passed between business units who treated the thing like a giant game of Buckaroo: take away one frill at a time to save money until you're left with nothing at all. Nobody was deliberately trying to kill it, though at times it was run by people who didn't care for it; they just didn't understand that if you make it worse people will stop using it.

The trend I noticed is that as time got on, management became less interested and more unpleasant. That's not a surprise considering the feeling of crisis in the building was growing. By the time I left, the few people I respected had been kicked out and a couple of really nasty, scheming types were replacing them.

We wasted so much mony on a ridiculous bus war with Bluestar. Sadly, that's just business and Bluestar were far from innocent in all this. But as frontline workers, we felt our job was to serve the public, and it was frankly embarrassing having to defend empty buses running behind each other up Redbridge Hill while at the same time saying we were cutting off Harefield because there wasn't enough money to go round.

By far the worst thing about working for First Group - whatever the good bits, of which there were a few - was the IP book. The idea behind this was sound: working with buses can be dangerous, and the company quite rightly wanted to avoid all staff injuries. However the way they wanted to achieve this was by encouraging staff to report dress-down and then tell on colleagues who they saw doing something 'dangerous'. In the real world, of course, the people who were doing the actual hard work didn't care for this, the only people who enjoyed holding their 'IP book' were office staff who were on the look-out for offences such as cutting a corner while walking across the car park or not putting headlights on when driving in broad daylight.

Some of these 'offences' might be understandable in a dark and narrow depot, but in the Southampton depot's modern and state-of-the-art car park, it was crazy to think that the company didn't trust you to be able to walk along a path without wearing yellow jacket. The outcome was that the vast majority of staff ignored these rules but were permanently on the lookout for the one or two people who took joy in hiding round a corner ready to report you. The fact senior management took pride in harvesting this toxic environment between colleagues is at the heart of why they couldn't understand why, at the time, the company culture was falling apart.

There was a growing culture of fear, of rumour and of distrust between different departments. This is what happens when you lock your staff out of company news, or try to freeze them out of 'management business' entirely. Colleagues being held out on a limb and then made redundant with a few days' notice was a particular low point.

Am I susprised the Southampton depot had to close? No because we had been told to expect it ever since it opened.

What would I say to someone who works for First Group? Jump if you can, but if not don't worry, better things will come. I think each part of First Group will slowly be broken off and sold to someone who couldn't be any worse. Just don't let anybody walk over you.

© 2024 Johnathan Randall

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Travel historian, travel reporter, and radio producer. I love the places people pass through along their journey.

I research and write about how our need to get around continues to shape our world through roads, railways, airports and whole new towns.

My thoughts and/or research have been published by the likes of Truck & Driver, BBC local radio, Daily Express, The Guardian, Mail Online and The Independent (detail).

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Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.

© 2024 Johnathan Randall.