47 years ‘on the buses’: First West of England Managing Director James Freeman reflects

PROFILE: James Freeman, 64, who started his career as a bus conductor and is currently the Managing Director of First West of England, the area’s main bus operator, retired on 31 March 2021. 

His retirement marks the end of a successful career on the buses spanning not far short of 47 years. 

In the past 6.5 of those he has overseen a major transformation of the West of England’s largest bus company including the introduction of one of the largest fleets of bio-methane buses in the UK and the roll out of metrobus rapid transit services in Bristol.

Prior to the impact of the coronavirus on the industry, the business had seen growth in passenger numbers of between 6-10% per year during his tenure, amounting to a significant 50% over six years. He has led a reinvention of the Company and seen its reputation rise since 2014 so that today staff are proud to say they work for First West of England.

James started his career in 1974, working as a bus conductor before going on to graduate from the University of Southampton with a degree in History.

Prior to First West of England, he had held leadership positions with Reading Buses and Stagecoach, where he was Chief Executive Officer and a Managing Director respectively.

He had previously worked as Managing Director of Badgerline Transit Developments in 1990 which was eventually subsumed into First Group which is the parent company for First Bus. In 1987 he led the uniquely egalitarian employee buyout of what became People’s Provincial Buses.

He was just 28 when he was appointed to his first Managing Director role at Shamrock & Rambler Coaches in Bournemouth.

During James’ long career he’s also seen a revolution in public transport, from the days when buses had a crew of two – one to drive while the conductor collected the fares. His PCV licence (which he still proudly holds) was gained on an old Bristol double-decker with a crash gearbox requiring double de-clutching.

Today, the latest gas-powered vehicles to Euro VI standard are  a far-cry from that experience – smooth and clean – while the ticketing and payment methods have been revolutionised. 

James said: “I am just so lucky in that I have been able to spend my career in a sector which is my lifetime’s passion.  From an early age I have always been fascinated by buses (although I soon realised that it was the people who made it all so interesting) and it was always my ambition to be in charge of the buses in Bath, where I was brought up. That’s just what I have been doing, since 2014!

“In fact my first contact with the company was in 1968 as a 12-year old when I stepped onto a brand new Bristol RE bus on display outside Bristol’s Marlborough Street Bus Station in 1968. The very patient chap who was on duty that day readily answered my many questions – it was an experience that convinced me that I would make my career on the buses.

James says amongst his greatest achievements have been building a management team that was capable of helping the staff to believe in themselves.

He believes that people want to be winners, whether they are customers or indeed staff. His job has been to give people reason to be confident – and it has gradually borne fruit over the years.

He has also done his best to establish First West of England at the forefront of sustainable developments in the bus industry to minimise the impact of its vehicles on the environment and enhancing air quality – hence the bio-methane gas bus project in Bristol; he saw early on that smart-phone payments had huge potential and in 2016 launched the revolutionary mTickets which are now the principal means of buying bus travel.

He has also made it his business to build strong working relationships with local leaders to ensure buses are, and remain, a critical and prominent part of a sustainable mobility strategy for cities, towns and outlying areas across the West of England. 

James added: “I am immensely proud of my team in the way they have helped keep the buses running during the pandemic. We lost two drivers early on from this dreadful virus. Martin Egan and Hussen Mudei will not quickly be forgotten. I pay tribute to all our staff across our depots who have worked tirelessly to serve key workers and now those returning to work, school and further and higher education.

“Whilst retirement will take some adjusting to, not least because I’ve made so many wonderful friends amongst colleagues and customers alike, it is the right time to pass the baton as the business needs constant regeneration, and therefore fresh thinking, particularly in the wake of Covid -19.

James will be succeeded by Doug Claringbold who has enjoyed a long career in commercial and operational roles in the transport, latterly with London-based private hire and courier firm Addison Lee.

Today, First West of England employs some 1,700 staff and has a fleet of 550 vehicles covering Bristol, Bath, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and parts of Somerset and Wiltshire.

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