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Wednesday, 23 July 2014

From First to last...A farewell to First London...the story from 1997 - 2013

The selling off of First London was similar to the sort of transfer embargo you would encounter in the football world, however normally things are resolved fairly quickly, but not this one. When First sold off Orpington in 2007, it was a sign that someone at McMillan House in Paddington was not happy. But not for one second did I ever think that they wanted out. An operator that I grew up around departing London? That was silly talk! So what were my first memories of First? Possibly the Handybuses on the 223 that I grew so used to whilst I was a child. They were fast, comfortable and sounded like beasts! What made them stand out? Hmm I have to say the large F Circles either side of the blindbox on their vehicles? I remember when I was younger I could always spot when the 18 was coming apart from the 182 despite the fact both routes used similar bodied vehicles.

First Capital Leyland Olympian 206 S206 LLC negotiating the corner at Northumberland Park © Matthew Wharmby
When going out as a youngster to somewhere unfamiliar, the sight of a First vehicle would instantly remind me of home, and that certainly stayed with me growing up, although they weren't my favourite operator, neither one I disliked, the sight of their vehicles gave me a strange sense of comfort and direction if I was ever lost, its like I knew civilisation was never too far off....Weird I know! So how did they come about?

First Centrewest Wright bodied Dart DW17 JDZ2317 rests at Willesden Junction Station having just completed a trip from Wembley Station on the 224 © Bingley Hall
First London was founded in 1997 following a merger with Badgerline and Aberdeen based GRT Group two years earlier in 1995. The product of the merger was First Group who formed the London subsidiary, First London, although their history can be traced back to as early as 1990 when Badgerline acquired Eastern National. The Essex based company operated many routes in the East London area, benefiting from the tendering system which commenced in 1984. Following the purchase, Thamesway a new brand was formed, but was short lived to say the least and was later re-branded as First Essex.

Badgerline M138 FAE at Uxbridge Station on the 222 at Uxbridge Station © AndrewHA
FirstBus a growing force, signaled their intent in London, with their purchase of Centrewest in March 1997, the primarily West London operator were very successful in their own right, initially owning four garages, these being Greenford, Alperton, Uxbridge & Westbourne Park, with Westbourne Park being the most central of the four garages. Centrewest themselves were a subsidiary of London Buses before being sold in a management style take over following the privitisation of the buses in 1994. Typical of London Bus subsidies, the vehicles were branded according to their geographical location, for example vehicles running out of Uxbridge were branded as Uxbridge Buses and so forth. Upon the purchase, First decided to keep all the original identities the same, however the vehicles received the corporate ' f ' logo to signify the presence of First.

In March 1996, the group acquired Southall based London Buslines, although in due course all routes were initially transferred between Greenford and Alperton Garages and the Southall base was closed by 2001.

London Buslines 37 H137 FLX at Edgware Station on the 79 in 1993 © Peter Horrex
By December 1997, First formally announced their presence, well aesthetically... in a series of changes which saw FirstBus become First Group and the Centrewest brands rebranded as First Centrewest . this ensured that the local brands retained their identity however the 'First' was prominent....This truly was the start of a new era.

Centrewest MCW Metrobus BYX230V at Golders Green Station in 1986 © Peter Horrex
Following the successes of their first purchase it seemed as if First Group found London to be just the ticket, this was made apparent when they made their second purchase, this time it was Capital Logistics on the menu in 1998. A successful East London based company who akin to Eastern National benefited from the new tendering system that had been implemented in 1984.

Capital Citybus set up shop in 1985.  However the company as we knew them announced themselves following their purchase of Ensign's LBSL Tendered operations in 1990. The acquirement of Ensign ensured that the vehicles Capital Citybus inherited had nothing short of a striking livery which was nice, but it proved quite costly to repaint and this became evident as many of the vehicles remained in their former operator's livery albeit with Capital Citybus branding painted over the former's fleet names. The livery was subsequently changed to a striking yellow colour, with a red band, complete with two arrows either side of the blindbox. Some vehicles did receive Chinese characters which were symbolic of the company's Indochinese descent.

Capital Citybus Metrobus 166 in Romford on the Route 165 in June 1996 © ndl642m
In a £14.1 million deal First Group successfully acquired London Operator Capital Citybus who at the time had a 5% share in the London bus market. The deal was completed on the 8th of July 1998, however the companies operated separately for a while and the deal was quite a controversial one to say the least. First Inherited a £10 million debt and of that  £14.1 million fee £11.6m was in cash whilst the other £2.5m was in FirstGroup shares that were handed out to the senior management of CNT Group, the parent company of Capital Citybus.

One of the recipients of the shares was Steven Norris, the former Conservative Party Transport Minister who had long expressed his desire of Cars over Buses and Trains, described public transport passengers as "dreadful human beings" causing a fair bit of contention. The companes operated separately for a while following the controversy, and at a latter date, the vehicles were subtly re-branded as 'First Capital' 'North & East'.

First Challenger Olympian G52 XLO on the E1 at Ealing Broadway Station in 1998 © johnmightycat1
By the time of ordering new vehicles it was quite clear to see that someone within the orders department had quite a specific specification, bonded glazed windows seemed to be the theme complete with the swirls on the nearside and offside bodywork, as well as this, a wider blindbox on their double deck bus models would always follow suit. First were very different to any other operator at the time, they didn't take a liking to the Pointer Dart it seemd, with the Marshall Capital being the preferred body despite its non-industry standard build quality but in spite of all of this I liked buses and I quite liked First too. The specification of their vehicles always seemed more upmarket than that of what I was used to and I like many others appreciated it. The lightweight seats in their vehicles made for an airy interior compelled with the choice of colour. I'm not too sure what it was but there something different stepping on a First bus. First were becoming quite a force in London and operating as far west as Uxbridge and as far south as Orpington. Their plan seemed simple, take over and expand and it worked...

First Capital East Marshall DMS333 on the D8 at Stratford Station in 2000 © jmupton2000
In March 2001 First consolidated the former Centrewest & Capital brands in order to strenghten the brand image, with all brands becoming First London. Both brands were now managed from the Centrewest headquarters in Paddington, along with First Berkshire & Beeline, another business purchased from the Q-Drive Group in 1996. By the end of 2001, all the brands were now operating under one idenity which was shown throughtout their new vehicles.

First London VDN34042  P242 UCW nearing the end of its journey at Uxbridge in 2005 © AndrewHA
Continuing on with the trend of unsual vehicles as seen with the mass delivery of Marshalls, First took on the delivery of VE953. In 2002 the company took on delivery of 20 Plaxton bodied Tridents for new Route 414 which linked Maida Vale and Fulham. The new vehicles were aesthetically different to the other Plaxton bodied presidents in the fleet, with their gasket glazed tinted windows and more narrow blind boxes. The more narrow blind boxes however were here to stay.

First London TN33240 LT52 WVJ at Marble Arch  © Bowroaduk
By 2003 First London recoded their vehicles into the National Fleet Voyager system which saw the codes become longer and more complicated to decode for the average enthusiast. For example VE953 became VNE32052, this became synonymous with First London fleet codes which made it quite fun to guess the fleetcodes of new vehicles. A new base in Harlesden was also opened, dubbed Willesden Juncion to house the newly converted 18s operation to Bendybus.

First London EA11007 LK53 FBA on the Route 18 © AndrewHA
2005 saw a specification change of their vehicles, which saw them drop the famous 'f' in the circles either side of the blindbox as well distinctive swirls which gave even the most unattractive of vehicles a decent look. This became evident following the delivery of Gemini bodied Volvos VNW32661-68 to Dagenham Garage. A new base in Hayes was also opened to house the newly converted 207s operation to articulated vehicles.

First London VNW32661 LK55 AEJ on the 252 in Romford © AndrewHA
In December 2007, First sold of their Orpington base to Go-Ahead subsidiary Metrobus, the sale included 35 Buses and the company aside from First London were the only other company to operate Marshall bodied Darts in mass. The sale was cleared by the Oft and the transaction took place on the 8th of December 2007. It appeared that Orpington was a bit far out to effectively manage unlike the rest of the garages, this was backed up by the statement made by the Managing Director, Adrian Clarke who stated the following "Orpington depot no longer fits within First’s proposed development plans for the London bus market, due to its geographic position in relation to our other depots to the north of the Thames. This is a strategic step towards First’s strategy of maintaining a successful, respected and efficient presence in London. We have no plans to curtail any of our other services within the London area." 


Metrobus Dart 123 V358 DLH formerly First London DMS41358 © Matthew Wharmby
Despite a few tender losses in 2011, the company enjoyed quite a successful year, notably winning the 70,206 and 266 from fellow operator Metroline and a new base in North Acton was opened in anticipation of the new routes, so it seemed as if First were here for the long haul, however the recent set of financial reports showed that First group as a whole were in a £100m debt, much of this influenced by the recent reccssion. Rumours began to spring up about First wanting to flee London deeming it non-profitable, this was only substantiated when the sale of Northumberland Park was announced in March 2012. The deal was completed by end of March that year costing £14.0m with assets including 130 buses and over 400 staff.

Go-Ahead WVN26 BG59 FXC formerly First London VN37829 © AndrewHA

Upon the sale of Northumberland Park it was quite clear to see that First wanted out of London, despite the fact there was no official announcement, but following the antics of two sales, it seemed as if Adrian Clarke had gone against his initial statement in 2007, that the company had no plans to leave London. It took over a year for an official annoncement to materialise, thus coming on the 9th of April 2013, when it was announced that the company would be sellling of the eight of its remaining depots.

Following this announcement, it became apparent that a new operator called Tower Transit would come into existance, with the Austrailian based firm taking over Altlas Road, Lea Interchange and Westbourne Park Garages in the process taking over 400 vehicles and 1500 employees whilst existing operator Metroline, would form a new company called Metroline West inheritting 494 vehicles and 1700 employees. Thus truly earmarking the end...

The changes took place on the 22nd of June that year and the rebranding commenced that day. I remember looking at the former First vehicles with their Metroline decals thinking "this doesn't look right" whilst on my way to work, the departure of First was hard to swallow, but unlike many before them, they First had a huge precense in London, a void that couldn't be filled up by any other operator. Tower Transit did their bit to keep the prescense of First alive by leaving the fleet numbers unchanged but I suspect this was done for logistical reasons rather than for enthusiast approval.

The same day Routes 193, 368, 498 plus school routes 608, 646, 648, 652, 656, 667, 679 and 686 passed to Go-Ahead London operating under their Blue Triangle brand their Rainham base. 

Tower Transit DN33639 SN11 BPU formerly First London DN33639 at Euston Station © AndrewHA
Metroline West TE1580 LK08 FNA formerly DN33517 at Hayes & Harlington Station © JackM 
Dagenham Garage continued operating London routes however under the stewardship of First Essex. Routes 165,179,252 and 365 all transferring to Stagecoach on the 27th of September 2013, following the termination of their contracts. The 179 was due to meet its fate on the 28th of October 2013, however the date was brought forward by mutual consent. The last First London operated vehicle left Rainham Abbey Wood Lane on September 28th 2013 at 1:52am, thus truly marking the end of an era...

First London DML44079 YX58 HVJ at Rainham Abbey Wood Lane on September 28th 2013 © Thomas Drake - The Last ever First London operated service
I was very tempted to title the post, R.I.P First, however I think I'm wishful in thinking that one day the operator will return although someone in the know strongly believes they won't. I would just like to thank everyone who contributed to the writing of this article and urge everyone who reads it to comment on what they will remember about First.

Credit to all of the photographers whos photos enabled this post to materialise, it is much appreciated.Below is a slideshow of First London buses through the years. Enjoy!



2 Comments:

London Bus Breh says:
at: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 3:29:00 pm said...

'The sight of a First vehicle would instantly remind me of home, and that certainly stayed with me growing up.' That is what I miss about First London. And, of course, the Dennis Dart Marshall Capital.

Brath Kaj says:
at: Wednesday, July 23, 2014 7:28:00 pm said...

What I loved about First London was their Caetano Nimbuses mounted on the Dennis Dart SLF chassis. I especially loved their DHLxxx classifications at the start, but then I was annoyed when First changed it to DMC 4xxxx. In my defence, I think the Caetano Nimbus was slightly better than the Marshall Capital, what would've been better is that if they had the Euro 2 engine with the Allison Gearbox, just like in London United's DPS531 (X531UAT). I miss that era so much! But I miss DPS531 most, the best vehicle in the LS fleet.

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