Bill Cottham 1944-2021: A bus industry powerhouse

Bill Cottham – a key figure in the bus and rail public transport industry in the 1980s and 1990s – has died in Portugal aged 76.

Having lived for many years with Parkinson’s Disease, Bill died of pneumonia caused by Covid-19.

Born in Liverpool in 1944, after leaving school at 15, he joined Liverpool Corporation Transport Department as a messenger boy and then an engineering apprentice. In the early days of Bill’s career, friends and colleagues would have known him by his family name of George. 

He was a technical assistant on Merseyside from 1965 to 1971, during when he was awarded a first-class degree in mechanical engineering from Liverpool University.

He later became a Bachelor of Law at the University of London, joining Gray’s Inn, and rose within Merseyside PTE to become Personal Assistant to the Director General, and subsequently its St Helens district manager.

Having cut his management teeth on Merseyside, he joined Newport Borough Council as Transport Manager in 1977. In 1980 he became municipal operator Cleveland Transit’s General Manager.

Bill played a leading part in developing the Bus and Coach Council’s 1982 campaign Future of the Bus and was the BCC’s North-East England spokesman.

The 1982 publication of The Future of the Bus was part of a campaign by the industry’s trade body, the Bus & Coach Council (today called CPT) as sweeping legislative changes were being proposed by the UK government. Bill Cottham played a leading role in developing the campaign

By 1983 he was considered to be one of the industry’s “high fliers,” and aged only 38 became Britain’s youngest PTE Director General when he moved to Wakefield to join West Yorkshire PTE.

Here, he led the development of the PTE to become a free-standing commercial company – Yorkshire Rider – owned by the Passenger Transport Authority on the deregulation of the bus industry in 1986.

He was also involved in the PTA’s decision to buy its own trains for the local rail network, centred on Leeds.

Concerned that competition from the newly-privatised and deregulated bus companies could undermine the viability of Yorkshire Rider under PTA ownership, he was instrumental in planning and leading the buyout of Yorkshire Rider, the first of its kind in the local authority sector.

The buyout took the form of an Employee Share Ownership Plan, unique in the industry at the time, which was fully supported by politicians and trade unions. This structure was later replicated in employee buyouts in other local authorities.

During his time at Yorkshire Rider, Bill became President of The Bus and Coach Council, the bus industry trade association.

Yorkshire Rider was sold to Badgerline (now FirstGroup Plc) in 1994 to further strengthen the future of the business.

After the sale Bill retired from full-time employment and became Chairman of CentreWest in London from 1995 until 1998.  He and his wife Joan spent their retirement between their homes in Nevis, Florida and Portugal.

Bill Cottham was a charismatic figure, a natural leader with a strong innovative and decisive approach to the bus business, but with a humanity and warm sense of humour which won him many friends throughout the industry.

He was well respected and greatly admired by his colleagues. His negotiation, communication and presentational skills were exceptional.

Bill was always great fun and great company. One of his favourite quotes was “The only mistake I ever made was when I thought I’d made a mistake and I hadn’t.”

Throughout his career, Bill was always supported by his wife, Joan, and our condolences go out to Joan, his daughters Nicki and Sarah and his four grandchildren.

With thanks to Phil White, (former Stagecoach Board member and former CEO National Express Group) and Ian Buchan (former CEO National Express’ trains division) for their assistance in preparing this obituary

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