James Freeman: Bringing down the curtain on a 47-year career

James Freeman, First West of England MD

James Freeman retires from the position of First West of England Managing Director today (31 March) after almost 47 years in the bus industry.

James began his career in 1974 as a conductor before going on to graduate from the University of Southampton with a degree in history. Prior to joining First in 2014, he held senior positions with Reading Buses and Stagecoach.

Before that, he was employed by Badgerline Transit Developments – which was eventually subsumed by First Group – and in 1987 had led the “uniquely egalitarian” employee buy-out of what became People’s Provincial Buses. His first MD post was at Shamrock and Rambler Coach in Bournemouth.

James Freeman: Bus industry a ‘lifelong passion, not just a job’

James describes the bus industry as his “lifelong passion.” It has seen significant change since he started a career in days when buses had crews of two and with his PCV driving licence having been obtained on a Bristol double-decker with a crash gearbox.

Today’s Euro VI biogas-fuelled Scania Alexander Dennis buses in Bristol, the introduction of which he led after doing the same in Reading, are a far cry from those days. Ticketing and payment methods have been similarly revolutionised.

James Freeman, First West of England MD
James Freeman has been a strong advocate of biogas power, and led the introduction of such vehicles with both First WoE and Reading Buses

“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,” says James.

“That is just what I have been doing since 2014. My first contact with the company was in 1968 as a 12-year-old when I stepped onto a brand-new Bristol RE on display outside Bristol’s Marlborough Street bus station.

“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.”

More recently as head of First West of England, James says that his greatest achievements include building a management team that can help staff to believe in themselves. He has also established the operator at the forefront of sustainable development in the industry through the biogas project.

Additionally, he recognised that smartphone payments had huge potential and in 2016 launched mTickets. They are now the principal means of paying for bus travel in the First West of England area.

Rebuilt and new partnerships at FWoE among achievements

Relationships with local leaders and stakeholders have also been rebuilt during James’s tenure with First West of England, he notes. That led to work that has cemented buses’ position as a critical and prominent part of a sustainable mobility strategy for cities, towns and outlying areas across the patch. His tenure has also seen the reintroduction of the post-deregulation Badgerline identity to buses in Weston-super-Mare among other local brands.

James Freeman, King Alfred Buses
Besides his day job, James Freeman is well known for his association with the Friends of King Alfred Buses enthusiast association in Winchester

He adds: “I am immensely proud of my team in the way that they have helped to keep buses running during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We lost two drivers early on from this dreadful virus. Martin Egan and Hussen Mudel will not be quickly forgotten.

“I pay tribute to 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.

“While retirement will take some adjusting to – not least because I have made so many wonderful friends among colleagues and customers alike – it is the right time to pass the baton. The business needs constant regeneration, and therefore fresh thinking, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.”

James will be succeeded by Doug Claringbold. Doug joins First West of England from London-based private hire and courier firm Addison Lee.