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Leicester – The New Bus World Promised Land 


I recently attended an excellent two-day conference in Leicester, a city that I used to work in many years ago when I worked for First Bus. I was the grandly titled HR and Strategy Manager; my job was to discipline bus drivers, a frankly depressing experience, if the truth be told, but someone had to do it. After 8 years of managing bus depots, you got to try and be as fair as you could while protecting the company’s interests. 

 First Leicester 

The Leicester depot that I knew then was large, well-managed, and very diverse, reflecting the huge multiculturalism of Leicester’s population. In truth, I enjoyed working there, as they had a really motivated and enthusiastic team and made a lot of money.  So, fast forward to Monday, 6th of November and the very first UK Bus Centre of Excellence conference begins. As an advisory board member of the UK Bus Centre of Excellence, I felt duty-bound to attend the conference held in the city’s municipal hall, and a fitting venue it was, too. 

 Exploring The Leicester Bus Partnership 

 There was an excellent social gathering on the Monday night after two earlier visits had already taken place in the daytime. One was to the brand new First Bus depot, where its fine new fleet of bright green electric buses were housed and juiced up with a full tummy of electricity. The local First team organised an excellent presentation on how the mobilisation of building a new depot with a complete electric charging regime had been built in, to support its brand-new fleet of fully electric buses, a challenge in its own right, but achieved on time and fit for purpose. 

In addition, a second tour option was on offer, which was a walking tour of the city centre infrastructure where you really could see the network operate in all its glory. The 7 partner bus companies just seemed to fill the city centre, with a real kaleidoscope of colours of different liveries.  What is really interesting is that there are no cars in the city centre and indeed parking is very expensive; all essential parts of the pro-bus jigsaw. 

 In May of this year, the partnership celebrated its first year of progress, and by August the partners announced that had already delivered on 75 goals and are on course to deliver the rest by May 2024. 

So, before I visited Leicester, I had no real idea just what has been going on, but my word was I impressed. In essence, off-the-radar they have built a fantastic partnership between Leicester City Council, and six quite different but engaged bus companies including Arriva, Centrebus, First Bus, Kinchbus, Roberts Travel, and Stagecoach, who together formed the Leicester Buses Enhanced Partnership in May 2022. Its aim is very simple: to make bus travel electric, frequent, reliable, easy, and great value. The partnership is legally committed to deliver 100 goals over a three-year period. 

 Generation Bus 

 At the conference there were three excellent speakers who focused on Generation Bus, and more specifically, focusing on the Leicester Bus Partnership, which I have to say is where the future of Generation Bus should be going. The first speaker was a video link with Richard Holden MP, The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Roads and Local Transport. He was really enthusiastic about the future of the bus. Not surprisingly, he spoke about Bus Back Better, and the support given to the industry, the £2.00 flat fare, etc. He also spoke very highly of the excellent work achieved in Leicester by the partnership. 

 Sir Peter Soulsby 

Next up to bat was Sir Peter Soulsby, the Leicester City mayor. He spoke with passion and authority about how and why the partnership was formed, and what had been achieved. He had been involved in local bus issues since the days when Midland Red Bus Company had been running the show, when the UK bus industry was nationalised under the banner of the National Bus Company. So he had great knowledge of what was needed to create the perfect storm to encourage bus use. Including, most vitally, ensuring the infrastructure of bus lanes and bus priority was well established – never an easy political decision, but one achieved all the same. If other mayors shared his vision and courage, then the UK would benefit significantly.   

David Leeder, Director, Transport Investment Limited (TIL) 

 Next up was a man who I have deep respect for and who has been a good friend of mine for many years: David Leeder, Director and Managing Partner of Transport Investment Limited  (TIL). Former MD of First UK Bus, I would pay good money to listen to David speak. His presentation was excellent; very honest, brilliantly researched, on occasions extremely funny, and delivered with his unique oratory and eloquence. It also challenged the bus industry to be proactive and bold in promoting its cause especially at local authority levels.   

Louise Collins, Director, Transport Focus 

 Last but not least was Louise Collins, Director, Transport Focus. A really interesting presentation detailing key factors that passengers value most in a kind of “top ten chart hits”. Not surprisingly, she drew parallels with what has been achieved in Leicester and  how they matched customer expectations. 

In conclusion, an excellent experience. I watched the buses around Leicester  carry lots of people and just spending time in the city’s new bus station showed the magnitude of how many people simply depend on the bus network. And it showed me that if you get the formulae right between all operators, the local authority, and other key partners, you can change the world.

And as the one and only Mr Bruce Springsteen famously said “I believe in the promised land”. Well, in this case, that bus promised land is Leicester. So well done, team Leicester and the team at the UK Bus Centre of Excellence.

Austin Birks.


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