Transport passion drives JAK Travel Service’s Alan Bonson

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There are many reasons why people start in the coach industry, but for Alan Bonson it was just pure chance. After 27 years the West Yorkshire operator is not only able to reflect on that career-changing decision, but on the nature of the industry then and now.

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Alan Bonson admits to a childhood obsession with coaches fuelled by the proximity of the former Shearings fleet based near his family home in Altrincham.

Alan Bonson: 'A lot busier now than last year'
Alan Bonson: ‘A lot busier now than last year’

However, it was a more general interest in transport that took him to a degree in Transport and Management at the University of Birmingham where he met his soon-to-be wife, Kathryn. Employment in the haulage industry followed, but it was redundancy that forced the couple’s career-changing decision to start up as JAK Travel Services of Bradford in 1988.

Taking initials from their Christian names, JAK started with a single coach, a second-hand Plaxton-bodied Bedford YMT… the sort of vehicle that was found in countless coach operators’ fleets at the time. Although underpowered by modern-day standards, it was nonetheless a very tidy example that was perfect for the sort of work then common throughout the industry – i.e. private hire trips for clubs, societies and schools.

Steady evolution

A second coach, a Plaxton-bodied Leyland Tiger added extra capacity and longer legs for longer journeys. These first two coaches used a white-based livery, but a third acquisition to replace the YMT in 1991, a Caribbean-bodied Volvo B10M, was painted in a deep blue colour, which became the fleet standard until very recently.

Blue livery stems from third coach purchased
Blue livery stems from third coach purchased

As vehicles became more powerful (and more reliable) and society became more car-dependent, the industry was changing and JAK evolved, becoming firmly established, while adapting to meet the needs of its customers.

Although the fleet grew rapidly over the first few years, it has stayed at its current size of five coaches, though a strong preference for buying new ensures a modern image is maintained and the vehicles are perfectly suited for work that also includes an established tour and day-excursion programme.

A move to a former filling station site in Sandbeds near Keighley in June 1993 enabled office and parking to be brought together, overcoming the ever-present challenge of an operating base and administration centre faced by a young company. JAK had the security of owned accommodation during the decades of change that followed.

As a young couple running a young company, Alan and Kath had to beat the path up the inevitable steep learning curve, though they had the advantage of starting at a time when many of the traditions and conventions of coaching were still alive and well.

Alan is particularly grateful for the support given by local operators such as Sid Dewhirst and is mindful that the risks to the business of breakdown, particularly on the road, were overcome by the mutual aid convention that provided support.

Nevertheless there were moments in the early days when the firm’s future stood in the balance – mainly because of vehicle-related issues.

Dark thoughts…

He remembers when the YMT failed at Birch services on the M62 near Manchester. Although the coach was empty and was rescued by a friendly operator, this left Alan to find his way back to Bradford in the early hours of the morning. He succeeded in obtaining a lift as far as the A602 link, but was still faced with a long walk home. Fortunately a passing motorist took pity on him, avoiding the wind-up of the business becoming anything more than the dark thoughts of a sleep-deprived coach operator.

“The worst point,” he says, “was when we only had three vehicles and two broke down at the same time.

“Mobile phones had just come in and we managed to get one of the coaches going, while the third coach packed in on its way to rescue the second one. Meanwhile the exhaust fell off Kath’s father’s car. That was all in one weekend.”

Like all operators, Alan can recall a time when either cash flow threatened to dry up or events could have conspired to bring a premature end, though nothing compared to the period that followed the banking crisis.

“We’d just taken delivery of a new coach, a Temsa Opalin, in 2010,” he says, “and we were financially stretched. Our passengers became nervous about the future, so as a result things have been very tight in recent years.”

However, a 63-plate, 53-seat Plaxton Panther-bodied Volvo B9R was delivered recently, replacing a B7R Profile, and, as if to symbolise a restoration of confidence, the new coach is in the original white-based colour scheme.

Alan happily confirms the turn-around. He says: “Although private hire nose-dived and has yet to return to previous levels, short trip and excursion bookings are up after we cut back the number of advertised trips, and schools seem to be booking more trips and are prepared to go further afield. Whatever the reason, we are certainly a lot busier now than last year.”

Targeting smaller groups

Despite these positive developments, Alan is resigned to the decline in private hire bookings, observing that the market has changed, probably for good. “No longer do we get bookings from what we used to call ‘granny groups’. Nor do we see any of the business with sports and social clubs that at one time could be relied on for day trips to the coast.

“In summer we’d be doing back-to-back trips and there was a strong camaraderie between the operators, because we’d all be doing the same thing. In the last 25 years, that’s all gone.

“With that went much of the fun and the infamous characters.”

Indicative of the trend is a marked decline in the number of requests for a 49-seater. “That’s why in 2008 we bought the Temsa Opalin, a 35-seater,” says Alan. “Everyone knows we’ve got one and it enables us to make competitive quotes for smaller groups.”

Temsa meets demand for 35-seater
Temsa meets demand for 35-seater

Nevertheless he acknowledges that the lack of legroom and narrow width makes the Opalin less than perfect when compared with the four Volvo/Plaxton full-size coaches in the fleet. With this in mind he is looking at replacing the Opalin with a Plaxton Panther Cub next year. This would further standardisation on the Volvo/Plaxton combination. In addition to the Opalin and B9R, the company runs two 49-seaters, a 59-plate B12B and a 05-plate B12B, and a 53-seat Y-reg B12M.

Demand for 49-seater in decline
Demand for 49-seater in decline

Pressure is obvious

Back in 1988 Alan’s secret ambition was to retire when aged 55. He is now aged 60 and since he and Kath separated in 2006 he has been running the business alone. Their two children, 23-year-old Michael and 20-year-old Jennifer, display no intention of coming into the business, because, according to Alan: “They’ve seen the hours that I work – up early, back late. It only needs a phone call for them to have seen the pressure.

“We came into from the outside, so for us it was completely different.”

Meanwhile Alan has taken steps to minimise the stress and the excessive hours. “We’ve got away from the dubious jobs, the late-night returns, and we avoid hen, stag and night club jobs.”

JAK could have got bigger, but Alan has always derived much of his job satisfaction from driving, though this has been curtailed in recent years by the increased demands of legislation and enforcement agencies. He says: “This has been the biggest change in the last 25 years.

“The increased amount of work needed to ensure compliance means I have to spend more and more time in the office, so I can’t get out talking to customers quite as much, while to be bigger, means more headaches.”

He’s also an ardent supporter of the CPT, the industry trade association, as a way of keeping in touch with industry-related developments. He says: “Any criticism of the CPT is surprising. It employs some very good people who are very well informed. The problem is that the coach industry is a disparate collection of operators, while the bus industry has bigger companies and a louder voice.

“Ultimately it’s hard to get sufficient volume of people prepared to take action – e.g. Dave Parry’s 12-hour-day campaign.

“Therefore the perception is they [the government and EU] run rough shod over the coach industry and this applies even locally with tourist attractions.”

The rewards are there

Despite these reservations he sees the challenges faced by the bus industry as greater than those facing the coach sector. “I don’t know how they keep up with everything.”

Although free concessionary travel is just one of the issues challenging bus operators, Alan is acutely aware of its damaging effect on coaching, saying: “The availability of free bus travel now means that all public transport is seen as being cheap.”

Yet, he believes operators can directly influence those perceptions by pressing home cost-comparisons with the cost of fuel for equivalent trips by private car. “A lot of operators, including ourselves, have missed a trick.”

Likewise he sees potential for a positive backlash when it comes to coach brokers… something else that is new in the last 25 years. “If they get people to pay higher prices, this could help operators get higher rates.”

So, having successfully negotiated all that has changed since those early days, are there still rewards to be derived from being in the coach industry? “Yes,” was his instinctive response. “Vehicles are more reliable and far better for passengers, though you have to be prepared for the unexpected large bill. You always seem to be paying out for something.

“So, yes it’s profitable, but it’s probably no better than when we started.”