Attention to detail

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The more you plan, the better you will be. That was part of the philosophy that made Epsom Coaches a success.

An example was the morning ‘run out’. “The vehicles are really packed in,” says MD Steve Whiteway. “We get 150 coaches and buses on just over two acres, which nobody else does, and we’ve got a very precise plan.”

As of Sunday (25 June) the firm, based in the town of the same name, south of London, ran its last coach trip under the Epsom Coaches banner, and Epsom Coaches ceased trading.

While the site and some coaches remain, it’s all now under the auspices of RATP Dev London under the Quality Line brand – a name introduced by Epsom for its ‘red bus’ services in 1999 when Epsom introduced a new fleet of higher specification buses, with driver air conditioning as one then unique feature.

Today, it’s mainly a red-bus garage and the remaining coaches are mainly used on contracted work.

It means that owner RATP Dev now has three London bus brands in its portfolio – London Sovereign, London United and Quality Line – running 1,200 vehicles.

This expansion into bus work started when Epsom was still in family ownership as de-regulation came into force in 1986. It became an increasing part of the business and one of the attributes that made it so attractive to the French group when the Richmond family sold in 2012.

With Steve Whiteway at the wheel, the final Epsom Coaches trip heads for home (PICTURE: CHRIS DEW)

Although the firm, started by Herbert Richmond in 1920, is three years shy of its centenary, and MD Steve Whiteway, who left on 25 June, was also three years away from 40 years at the firm, modern business can have no place for sentiment.

Changing times

Steve explains the preparation he used to do (in pre-sat-nav days) as a coach driver before trips. Not just route planning but also making notes. “I took a group of Americans around the Ring of Kerry and they said ‘Steve, how do you know so much?’ The truth was I’d never been before, but I’d done my research. Now, people expect it all on a plate.”

But like everything, it’s got harder and harder, he adds. And that’s one of the factors in winding up Epsom Coaches. “I’d rather do it properly, or not at all and that’s the crux of it.

“It’s still profitable, but it’s getting increasingly difficult.”

A challenge has been getting people to drive coaches, be the host and be “all the things you take for granted”.

He says: “It’s not to do with pay, but it’s social. Nothing whatsoever to do with pay.

“How can we recruit people to go to work dressed smartly with a Windsor knot in their tie, when I stand at my local railway station and see people going to work in the city not dressed in a suit – sometimes even in flip-flops and a t-shirt – yet are paid more?

“If you dress smart, you drive smart. Do you have a pride in your appearance? We seem to have lost that, and that’s part of society.

“People expect higher standards, but their own standards are lower.

“Nowadays people will expect a lovely coach, but trash it. They wouldn’t do it at home.

“People aren’t as respectful. They just go into work scruffy. Their employers allow it. It’s getting increasingly difficult to get people who know how to tie a tie, or even have a collared shirt.”

From the bottom

Steve’s own career has shaped his views and how, when promotion beckoned, he treated his staff.

“I’ve never forgotten what it’s like to start at the beginning, as I did 37.5 years ago. I came here on a cold January morning and I was the trainee coach driver.

“The first thing I thought was, nobody’s talking to me – I was only 20-odd and a bit shy – and I felt a bit lonely. The trainees then went to a café and it was all a bit of an ordeal.

“I always vowed that I would never forget what it was like to be that person who comes in new, so now they always get buddied up with someone who’s going to be their friend.

“I tried to break those barriers down.”

While the traffic is much heavier, and with more hazards, Steve says that in the 1970s it was harder as a coach driver.

“There were no sat-navs and fewer motorways. If you wanted to stop for coffee you had to research a café and pre-book – by phone – no internet then. And when you got back you had to clean your coach.

“Today’s coaches are easy to keep clean and to clean, and nobody smokes anymore. But the hours were long, say 20 hours on a two-driver job.”

When Steve became the boss he engaged cleaners. “Why should a coach driver have to clean his coach? Bus drivers generally don’t, train drivers and pilots don’t.

“Also it means you get one consistent standard. You tell your cleaning team what the standard is and make sure it’s observed. If there’s a problem, you call the cleaning contractors, plus there’s none of the issues with a part-timer who has taken a drivers’ coach out and brought it back dirty.

“We were the first to do it, but few people emulate us. They say ‘we can’t afford a cleaner’. But a cleaner costs less than a driver, certainly these days. When we’re on tour, we book it in somewhere to get it cleaned.”

Treating people right

“At the end of the day if you treat people right, you’ll get staff retention. You need good work conditions, not just in the office, but also the restroom.

“We have drivers who come from north London and go past 10 other garages to get here, so it’s not just about money. They say, ‘you’re treated like an individual here, not just a number’, and that’s important.

“It’s a real family here; we all look after each other.

“I like to look after my staff. I’ve helped them out; I’ve even done babysitting when they couldn’t get help, so they could drive. I’ve sorted out housing problems, because that stuff is easier for me to sort out than some of drivers find it to do.

“People said to me years ago that we wouldn’t be able to keep that family atmosphere up when we got bigger, but we’ve got 400 staff and we still have it.”

Wood crafts

Steve left school and took an apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner, with a small building company. “Carpenters always wore a tie on site. They were the senior trade. I learned a lot there; it was a tough trade but there was a lot of respect. For example, in the 1970s you’d never touch someone else’s tools on a site.”

Although Steve progressed well, he soon realised it was time for a change. He’d travelled on other operators’ coaches – mainly traditional-style day trips of the era – but he says: “Epsom Coaches always seemed ahead of the game. For example they had tinted glass.

“I admired the driver of the coach, because it’s the only vehicle where you’ve got 50 people admiring your skills, unlike an artic lorry, despite the greater difficulty in driving one.

“It was art, and I was fascinated by it, so I joined to become a coach driver. It was a skill. For example when reversing into a tight spot, you’d get a round of applause from the passengers. There were no reversing cameras then, maybe a prism on the back window if you were lucky.”

After five years he moved into the office and also put his carpentry skills to good advantage on building maintenance. He eventually became one of the three foremen, doing allocations of the 50 coaches and hiring in.

‘Red bus’ operation, under the Quality Line brand, continues from the Epsom site

Back then, it was all done manually, and without the aid of mobile phones. “I think life’s easier in that respect; technology's made it easier,” as he recalls the move from Telex machines to word processors and now online – continuous improvement that Epsom was always leading.

“Deregulated buses started in 1986, and we got involved a lot with that.

“Then after US President Ronald Reagan’s 1986 bombing of Libya, targeting Colonel Gaddafi, and the subsequent bombing of Pan Am flight 103 at Lockerbie, the Americans stopped coming to the UK on holiday. The coach work, already in decline in London, slumped, but the bus work built up to compensate.”

The future

Thanks to efforts with other operators, retirements and new posts, only three people have been made redundant as a result of Epsom Coaches’ closure.

Steve, married for 24 years and with a 14-year-old son, looks forward to more family time and new ventures.

“My two years as Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) President in 2010-11 was very useful to me and the business – I learned so much. Maybe I’ll do some project work; but there will be other things. Also, I’m going to write a book.”

It’s clear that although the chapter is closed on Epsom Coaches, it’s not on Steve’s career, while RATP Dev Quality Line will continue to flourish thanks to the good foundations of the Richmond family business.