The Final Years of First Northampton by Matt Cooper
Prior to living in Northampton frequent visits were made to see family as well as the buses, for me at least! In early 1993 the transport scene was one which had changed very little over the preceding years. Council-owned Northampton Transport’s smart red buses dominated the town services using a standardised fleet which later favoured products by Volvo. Its routes gradually altered and adapted as the town expanded but most still followed paths created in Corporation days. No return fares or day tickets were on offer in the Northampton Borough all single fare journeys falling into the three zones applied.
Stagecoach had acquired United Counties from the National Bus Company in 1987 with their corporate stripes soon applied to the ‘green bus’ services. These were mainly suburban and interurban with some longer coach routes also serving the town. Some joint operation still existed on town services with Northampton Transport through an agency agreement and all Sunday operation was contracted out to Stagecoach. This led to some more unusual types operating over ‘red bus’ territory. Local independent operators were numerous and visited the County town especially on market days.
Service changes in April and May 1993 were relatively minor but by June 1993 the Council’s intention to sell Northampton Transport was out. Stagecoach introduced several high frequency routes in the town competing directly with Northampton Transport. Retaliation saw red buses running on newly introduced routes into Stagecoach territory. This made for an interesting summer with the chance to travel on the different operators’ bus types to familiar destinations.
The period of competition was soon over with the Council selling the bus company to Grampian Regional Transport in October 1993 closely beating a bid by the organisation’s employees. My book picks up here at what would become the final two decades of its history. Grampian had purchased Leicester City Transport from the council a month after Northampton and the two were soon linked by a common livery as well as behind the scenes operations such as management and engineering. Employees recall that although disappointed their bid for the company was not successful the group Grampian Regional Transport had created was small enough not to lose focus and autonomy existed regarding management and scheduling. We take a look at the liveries which took over from the traditional red as well as views around St. James Depot, the long-established home of the company.
While researching material for the book it was at this point when the Grampian and Badgerline Groups merged in April 1995 that the most paperwork, information and details existed. Prior to privatisation service changes were minor, maybe confined to once or twice a year, which remained to a large extent under Grampian’s sole ownership. However, from April 1996 changes were made on an unprecedented scale. A dearth of contracts was acquired which required recruitment of more drivers with the buses they would drive drafted in from fellow FirstBus operators. These bought chassis and body combinations unfamiliar to the town the new routes took them into most neighbouring counties as well as within the borough. Indeed, my school bus from Wellingborough changed from one with Souter’s stripes to a Northampton Bristol VR! Shunting staff at St. James facing the nightly challenge of housing just over 100 vehicles where there had previously been just over half this number.
Northampton were early users of low floor vehicles with a trio of Volvo B10L’s introduced in 1995. These were followed in 1997 by similar vehicles powered by compressed natural gas (CNG). Their use was largely undermined or overshadowed by staff shortages and frequent substitutions made by step-entrance vehicles, often of more senior age, used on these recently re-launched ‘quality’ low floor routes. Notices appeared daily in the town’s cavernous Greyfriars Bus Station advising uncovered journeys. For the enthusiast these vehicle types bought a lot of interest to the operation as well as the chance for me to catch something out of the ordinary to work or college!
Following consolidation by 1999 a great number of contracts had been surrendered with greater focus made on the town network. Where once standard vehicle types had existed drivers joining the organisation at this point were subjected to all manner of buses and coaches often with little type training or familiarisation. Changes to senior management and the operating region within which First Northampton sat, brought different directions, ideas and working practices. No uniformed look was given to the town’s pubic with several livery schemes tried and even the new corporate image was applied with several variations.
It was pleasing to see that by the mid-00s the town network had significant coverage, most part of the ‘Overground’ scheme with colour-coded routes running at high frequencies. The operator’s image greatly improved with new single and double deck vehicles giving Stagecoach a run for their money in the town. Stagecoach also introduced a couple of competing routes into ‘First Northampton’ territory in 2004 which they would soon withdraw from. However, First Northampton’s feel-good era was very short lived and within a year most of the new vehicles had been transferred out to other group companies replaced by a multitude of older step-entrance vehicles some of which had previously been withdrawn by Northampton! Staff were somewhat dissatisfied at this as were the public.
Stagecoach used this opportunity to full advantage by making some small, simple changes to their network coupled with the steady arrival of numerous new low floor buses putting First Northampton very much on the back foot. Having left the area by this time I watched with interest as well as sadness as First’s remaining network in the town was chipped away, some routes even being withdrawn altogether. Much speculation surrounded the operator’s future in Northampton especially as from 2011 First Group were disposing of some depots and operations. It would be as late as July 2013 when the official announcement of the depot’s closure was made and eventually closed on 14 September 2013. Most staff would move over to Stagecoach who had registered to run along First’s former routes or work for other operators in the town which then included Uno who were running services to the University. Several staff from all grades within the organisation remained to the end, some with considerable service, who simply clocked off after their last shift and the doors closed. So ended 132 years of the operator’s service to the County town.
Come and join me on the final roller coaster ride of Northampton Transport’s existence. Views are taken around the town, the surrounding areas where contracts were gained as well as images of St. James Depot and Greyfriars Bus Station, also now just a memory. Numerous vehicle types are depicted along with a wide variety of colour schemes marking the Final Years of First Northampton.
Matt Cooper's book The Final Years of First Northampton is available for purchase now.