A brief history of Western Greyhound
It used to be, and maybe still is the case, that many parents could recall how their sons, at an early age, would say that they wanted to become train drivers when they grew up. Few of them ever did. In contrast Mark Howarth 's parents remember that, during a family holiday in Tintagel, he had said that one day he would love to run a bus company in Cornwall . Mark has now done that twice! Not only was he is charge of Western National empire under the Badgerline era but he then went on to set up the highly successful Western Greyhound company.
In 1997 he left First Group which by then had taken over Western National, and, choosing to stay in Cornwall , became a self-employed transport consultant. But, within months, he was back into hands-on operations when the proprietor of a small Newquay coach firm, Cornishman Coaches, decided to retire at the end of that year. Jointly with Robin Orbell, another career busman and former Badgerline manager, Mark and his wife Mari took on two contracts and a Leyland Leopard and Leyland Tiger from the retiring Cornishman Coaches, who kindly also gave Mark the private hire order book and a great deal of start-up help. And so Western Greyhound (referred to from now on as WGL) was born. Interestingly, the original Leopard coach which Mark collected from Cornishman, LUA 282V, is still retained as a heritage vehicle.
Within weeks, another small Newquay business, R & M Coaches, was closing down. In January 1998, along with one Leyland Tiger, Mark took over the lease of their office in East Street , Newquay, a prime site directly opposite the town's bus station. Further unexpected growth followed shortly when the only other independent coach company in Newquay, Pleasure Travel Mini-coaches, ceased trading. WGL took over all their contracts, private hire bookings and a motley assortment of mini-coaches. Using his bus-industry scheduling experience, Mark was able to inter-work the various contracts acquired with these different businesses, creating an opportunity to take-on further contracts without increasing the fleet.
Up to now WGL had only been involved in contract and private hire operations but new Rural Bus Challenge funding enabled Cornwall County Council to invite tenders for improved bus services. WGL won a 3-bus contract for services 592 (Newquay - Truro) and 594 (Truro - Wadebridge) starting 14 th December 1998 for which 3 brand-new Plaxton Beaver bodied Mercedes Varios, with high-quality seating, were ordered. Until these arrived, 4 older Mercedes were hired from Simon Munden of Bristol to cover the first few weeks' operation.
Mark was determined that WGL would be a distinctive, high quality operation. All vehicles were painted into eye-catching pink and, with the new service work, the fleet livery became more familiar in the area. The company was also gaining a reputation as a quality private hire operator and increased business meant that more vehicles were required. Having had experience of the various models acquired, WGL came to favour Mercedes buses and Volvo coaches but regretted the purchase of some Plaxton Paramount bodied Leyland Tigers which needed major refurbishment.
Contracts for Cornwall County Council supported bus services in the Newquay area were re-tendered in 2001 and WGL won them all, adding work for a further 4 buses with notably a much improved winter service between Newquay and Padstow. More Mercedes Varios / Plaxton Beavers were acquired but, for the first time, a double deck was needed to cater for school traffic. Mark knew that Brighton and Hove were disposing of their last Bristol VR deckers and he purchased 2 along with a supply of spares for which B&H had no further use. Additional VR's were added as WGL won new double-deck school contracts mainly given up by First. The VRs were solid workhorses despite their age, but gradually they were replaced by Leyland Olympians.
A larger depot was needed and WGL leased part of the former Harris Coaches yard in Summercourt and contracted its maintenance out. Subsequently Carminow Taxis, which had rented the adjacent depot, gave notice and WGL was able to take over the whole Summercourt site and maintenance was taken in-house.
WGL's pink became less distinctive once First Group introduced their ‘Barbie' livery. Mark's response was to repaint the whole WGL fleet into a simple green and white livery, green being familiar in the area from Southern and Western National days during the Tilling and NBC eras before privatisation. Mark is now mildly amused at being perceived locally by some as the ‘traditional' Cornish operator!
Seeing the lack of a Newquay - Bodmin bus service as a significant gap in the network, WGL persuaded the Countryside Commission to finance the introduction of a service between these two towns which were the largest two towns in Cornwall not connected by a bus service..
First thoroughly revised their Cornish operations in April 2003, simplifying their network and withdrawing from some routes. WGL gained several council contracts for replacement services, adding work for a further 8 buses and extending the company's network to Bude. The opportunity was taken to integrate and reschedule services so that each route was operated at regular intervals with connections wherever possible with other routes. This created new travel opportunities and, coupled with a reputation for reliability, resulted in a 50% increase in passenger numbers in the area north of Wadebridge within the first 6 months.
Subsequent further rationalisations of First's network have seen WGL's operations expand. But WGL's gradual growth has not been solely as a replacement for First. When Plymouth Citybus withdrew their 77/78 (Bodmin - Liskeard - Plymouth ) service in January 2004, WGL extended the 593 (Newquay - Bodmin) via Liskeard to Plymouth , offering a two-hourly through service. DAC Coaches of Liskeard took the decision to retrench from the area and this network of routes were taken-over in September 2004, adding Callington and Looe to the WGL route map and, in the Bude area, services previously operated by Hookways were also added taking WGL to Kilkhampton and Marhamchurch.
Further recent extensions have seen the 519 extended to Clovelly with connections to Stagecoach Devon buses and also a new coastal route between Newquay and St Ives, Clovelly and finally a new route 510 between Newquay and Exeter . Volvo coaches are used on 510 but all other routes are operated by Mercedes Varios, of which WGL now operates 55, with a few workings mainly on 556, 557 and 586 provided by double-deckers. Finally, in October, another Cornish stalwart, Hamblys of Pelynt (well known for having “near England ” on the back of their vehicles) retired and WGL took over bus services in the area integrating them with its own network which provided more buses into Polperro, Looe and Plymouth .
Newquay is no longer a resort attracting mainly families and the elderly. Most holidaymakers are now in the age 18-30 bracket. The demand for day trips has reduced but traffic to some of the nearby holiday camps has increased, notably Sunnyside Camp where well loaded WGL double-deckers provided a service until 0300 hours although this holiday camp has now closed. Younger tourists have encouraged budget airlines and even British Airways to introduce regular flights to Newquay Airport and WGL started a connecting double-deck service from the town, route 737.
Besides Olympian double-deckers, WGL also owns an open-top VR which had been purchased by an Isles of Scilly operator but proved too big for the ferry. This, with an open-top RM as back-up, works a round-Newquay service 500 and is also popular for wedding hires. An RMA-class front-entrance Routemaster is also available for service and the double-deck fleet is completed by three buses owned personally by Mark as reminders of his earlier career, RM1062 painted in London Transport red livery, an ex-Eastern National FLF EOO 590 and the last half-cab in the Southend fleet where Mark previously worked, Leyland PD3 MHJ 347F which awaits restoration. The open-top RM was entered in the Newquay carnival last year, appropriately decorated, and won several prizes.
Mark thinks it is important for bus operators to be prominent in the community and he serves on several industry and local bodies. He represents both south-west and independent bus operators at the Confederation of Passenger Transport where he is on CPT Council and also on the CPT Bus Commission, and is past Chairman of CPT SouthWest Region. He is also on the Executive of the Newquay Chamber of Commerce and Tourism and is also Chairman of the Newquay Airport Forum, involved in the rapidly expanding Cornish airport. WGL is proud to have been one of the first operators to set up a website with downloadable timetables, also to have been invited to manage the new bus terminal that the council built in Newquay in 2004 and to have won many awards, including being the winner of the Operating Excellence Award at the UK Bus Awards and runner up of the Bus of the Year Award for the last two years in a row. This is quite an achievement for a company only founded in 1997.
Despite its growth, WGL still feels like the ‘family business' that was founded with just two coaches. Mark remains Managing Director, his wife is Company Secretary, his daughter Hendy (albeit currently on maternity leave) is Personal Assistant and Robin Orbell is the Non-executive Director. They are backed up by a good team of dedicated people including Brian James as operations Manager and Steve Harris as Engineering Manager. They are proud of their attitude to staff, over 60% of whom have attained NVQ2 certificates. Driving duties are generally arranged in small rosters so that differing preferences (e.g. short shifts or long shifts; a variety of routes or the same daily run) can be accommodated. Western Greyhound has now started doing its own in-house training having trained its own instructor and now trains suitable drivers from scratch.
The concessionary free-travel scheme, introduced in April 2006, was seen as an opportunity not a threat and has generated extra passengers, WGL seizing the opportunity to promote the scheme. The government's improvement to the scheme in 2008 allowed passholders from other parts of England to travel free whilst on holiday in Cornwall . This will result in yet more passengers and Mark is already involved, through CPT, in talks about how that national scheme will be administered. Those councils in tourist areas will require a greater share of the new funding, an aspect still being negotiated.
Even now passenger loadings are giving rise to capacity issues on some services and, conscious of the need to address the disability access issue, WGL have trialled some medium sized low-floor single-deckers including the Plaxton Primo, the Optare Solo, the Optare Tempo and shortly the Optare Versa. Mark is concerned about the higher running costs and fewer seats than the preferred Mercedes Varios and this will inevitably impact on fares and levels of service. The double deck fleet is relatively modern and most are mid-life Volvo Olympians from Nottingham City Transport.
The network has been changed in April 2007 increasing frequencies and generally making all the “bolt-on” operations much more efficient. Many frequencies were increased, a mark of confidence by WGL about the future.
In 2004, WGL purchased a green field site in Summercourt and obtained planning permission to build a brand-new purpose built depot and office. This was built by Midas Construction and enabled both the rented site and the rented shop in Newquay to be given up, as at the same time, the Travelshop was moved into the new Bus Station.
Life does not stand still and there will inevitably be more interest as time goes on…….