It is funny how life can change at the drop of a hat. I will never forget the day back in 1997 when I was working for First in the Midlands Bus Company. I was, at the time, the Commercial Development Manager having managed bus depots in Hereford and Kidderminster for nearly 9 years and I really enjoyed managing bus men and women. But it was time to step up and join the head office team and report directly in to the Managing Director, my friend and mentor Big Ken Mills ‘The Boss”, before Bruce Springsteen.
All was going well and the summer was drawing to a close when I was summoned for an emergency meeting. We used to operate quite a few school and college contracts across the West Midlands, Worcestershire, and Herefordshire, which were operated either as a free standing commercial contract or with subsidy from local authority. One particular contract was with a very well respected grammar school based in Worcestershire. With less than one weeks notice, we were informed by the local authority that the subsidy that kept the service viable had been cut, leaving us with a massive problem.
There was no way that we could operate it commercially so we had no option but to advise the school that with deep regret we would not be able to deliver the service. A lot of parents had already paid for their season ticket which was several hundred quid each, and were waiting for postal delivery of the bus passes for their little cherubs to further their education. Well, the Company planning Manager had the difficult job of informing the head teacher who went instantly ballistic and made his anger very clearly felt. To be fair with justification as he then had to inform the parents, who went into fellow more ballistic mode, as they were blaming him as the messenger of bad news.
The very next day the phone calls from angry parents started at 09am for the rest of the day, and guess who they had been told to speak to? Yes, you guessed it, yours truly. Big Ken, called me in “OK young one, it is time to earn your money. You’re the best person to deal with this as you are calm and good with people. Try not to take the abuse personally because you will get a lot of flak. Well, that was the understatement of the year. I had no idea what was about to unleash. To be fair, they parents split into two clear camps. Camp one was very angry, and rude. Camp two was more angry, rude, and threatening.
Do not get me wrong, I did my level best to stay calm and not react, which is frankly difficult call after call. In addition I also had to manage the press, radio, and local TV, so I was basically outed as the face of evil and injustice across the West Midlands. This went on every day, all week. I was getting to the point where my own personal security was being threatened which was not very nice.
Well, I certainly did earn my money that week. Luckily Big Ken stepped in and we went to meet the leader of the Local Authority who had scrapped the subsidy. We had what big Ken called a full and frank exchange of view. Ken pointed out that the local politics meant that the leading political party had won the local election by the narrowest of margins, and the local elections were imminent. The parents had been told that the cause of the service being withdrawn was directly due to the council’s decision. The parents, after a week of abusing me and the Company, were now actively turning their attention to the people who took the decision to scrap the subsidy, and literally vote with their feet, or even more disturbing with an X on the ballot paper.
Well, amazingly the leader of the council went a funny white colour as the implications of the decision sank in, within less than two hours the money was found and a press release was issued and the school and parents were informed. The lads in marketing worked all night and the bus passes were delivered in time. It was on reflection a horrible experience, not one single phone call was received to offer any thanks, but that was fine.
The reason that this buried nightmare resurrected itself is because this very week, a Bus Company called the Green Bus Company have had to tell parents of a number of school services that sadly, with a week to go, that he has had to cancel the services, as his insurance premium has gone up 38% and he simply cannot afford to lose money. He has had to let 15 drivers go, and is very apologetic. I feel your pain Ian Mack MD. I have known Ian for over 20 years and remember meeting him with Eamonn when we first started uTrack back in the UK in 2010. To be fair, he has built a tidy bus company that operates in a striking green livery and has worked hard to build a reputable business. I feel his pain, I have been there, I have worn that t-shirt, as I watched him last night on the local BBC news bulletin being grilled by the reporter.
Sadly, I fear that Ian will not be the only bus man having to make similar tough decisions, but this is the reality of operating bus Companies in 2023 with Companies only carrying 90% and often less than they were pre Covid. It’s a tough world out there! One local Coach operator in Telford Elcock Reisen who have been operating for 95 years, went into administration just last week. And the industry faces some major challenges right now, but it is an industry of innovation, and hard work, and while challenges will always be on the horizon it is committed to its purpose of keeping the wheels of the nation moving.
One final observation, thinking back to my parental abuse experience, a famous British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan once famously said, and I quote “There are three bodies no sensible man directly challenges; the Roman Catholic Church, the Brigade of Guards and the National Union of Mineworkers”. On reflection I believe he was fortunate enough not to confront the angry grammar school parent! Come to think of it they could replace the National Union of Miners, who Harold’s later PM successor Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady herself would effectively destroy when she privatised the UK and defeated the miners in the great strike. As for me, I shall now go and take two aspirin and have a lie down in a darkened room as I manage the PTSD from a certain school in Worcestershire.