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A privatised London Bus in 2001, a Leyland Titan (B15), in the colours of London Central, part of the Go-Ahead Group

The privatisation of London bus services was the progressive process of the transfer of operation of bus services for public transport in London from public bodies to private companies.

For half a century, operation of London bus services for public transport was under the direct control of a number of entities known as London Transport. New legislation in the mid-1980s, however, obliged the establishment of an arm's-length bus operating company and the offering of routes to competitive tender, introducing private operators to the market. This set the ball rolling for privatisation, which progressed over a decade until ending with the selling off of the remaining routes in the mid-1990s. Since then, direct provision of bus services in London has been run entirely by various private companies.

Unlike those in the rest of the United Kingdom, the bus services in London, although still ultimately privatised, were not deregulated to the same extent. In London, details of routes, fares and services levels were still specified by public bodies, with the right to run the services contracted to private companies on a tendered basis.

The privatised period produced for the first time buses in London painted in different schemes from the traditional red. This was reduced in a ruling in 1997 requiring buses to wear an 80% red livery (excluding advertising boards).


Formation of London Buses

In June 1984, in the general move towards deregulation, responsibility for running London bus services transferred from the last public body running London's buses, the Greater London Council (GLC), to London Regional Transport (LRT) under the London Regional Transport Act 1984. This Act obliged LRT to set up a wholly owned arm's-length subsidiary to oversee operation of bus services, and on 1 April 1985 London Buses Limited came into being.[1]

Initially, bus livery continued to be all-over red with a simple solid white roundel [1][2], but in 1987 this livery was revised with the addition of a grey skirt and a white mid-level relief line; in the same year a modified red and yellow roundel, with the name 'London Buses' in capitals, was introduced.[2]

Introduction of competition

Under the 1984 Act London bus services were to be tendered. The first round of tendering took place in the summer of 1985, bringing the first private operator into the market, in the form of London Buslines on route 81. By 1988 Metrobus, Grey-Green and Boro'line Maidstone were also operating numerous London routes.[3]

Controversially, these operators were not required to wear a red livery, meaning that for the first time it was possible for non-red buses to run into the centre of London, such as those on high profile route 24 operated by Grey-Green. The only requirement was to display the London Transport roundel on the bus, to designate a London Transport tendered service. Ironically, several of the new private entrants were descendants of London Transport's former 'green' buses division, which operated outer London services that were passed to the National Bus Company's control as London Country Bus Services, in 1969.

The private competition was not without controversy, with objections to non-red buses leading to a change in the rules in 1997 to specify 80% red liveries. The tendering also caused problems with several operators needing to hire buses due to late delivery of new buses for newly won routes.

One such controversial route was the arrangements for tendering route 60 which was initially awarded to Capital Logistics. Difficulties in setting up the route eventually saw operation by 8 different operators and 10 different bus types in a short space of time, before the route finally gained a stable arrangement.

The collapse of a rather large private operator, Harris Bus, led to the formation of East Thames Buses by London Transport, as an arm's-length company to provide temporary operation of the routes. It was since subsequently retained by the new Transport for London authority, for tendering for routes itself. In 2009, it was announced that East Thames Buses was to be transferred back to the private sector with sale of vehicles and TUPE transfer of staff to London General, part of the Go-Ahead Group.

Break-up of London Buses

In late 1988 London Buses was separated into different business units, in preparation for sell-off. The companies were created along geographic lines, with all but Westlink having routes running into central London. The division names and a small graphic device were added to the buses, in white. An exception to this was the Westlink unit, which received a new livery altogether.

The separate units created were:

Division Area Logo Ref.
Centrewest West Arrow (then various) [3]
East London East Barge [4]
Leaside River Lea Swan [5]
London Central South central Ship [6]
London Forest Waltham Forest Oak tree [7]
London General Southwest Omnibus [8]
London Northern North Parliament [9]
London United Southwest Crest [10]
Metroline Northwest Stripes [11]
Selkent Southeast Hops [12]
South London South Tower Bridge [13]
Westlink Kingston n/a [14]

Unlike the other units, Centrewest quickly branded its buses into separate groups, in the main removing the London Buses roundel in favour of various gold designs, with just the central services remaining in a slightly altered roundel based scheme [15]. The group brands were: Challenger [16], Ealing Buses [17], Gold Arrow [18][19], Uxbridge Buses [20][21], Hillingdon local service [22], Orpington Buses [23].

Intermediate operation

During this time of separate business unit operation by London Buses, many new bus types were also being introduced, notably the Dennis Dart midibus as well as numerous minibuses. Several of these new vehicles received specialist branding from normal unit liveries, such as:

In the new era of private tendering, in an effort to compete with the new private operators entering the market, London Buses set up some low cost units to compete for tenders, painted in non-red liveries. The most notable were Harrow Buses[34][35] and Bexleybus[36][37], tendering for routes in the Harrow and Bexleyheath areas respectively.

These units were not overly successful, due to unreliable service, and industrial disputes due to lower pay rates than for the main London units. Their routes were quickly surrendered to other units or private operators.

Business unit sell-off

In 1994, the separate London Buses units were sold off. Competition rules restricted the amount of units that could be bought by one group. All the units were sold either to their management or employees, or to one of the emerging national bus groups that had been growing through acquisition of deregulated companies in the rest of the UK. The exception was London Northern, which was bought by MTL, itself an expanding company formed from the privatisation of the Merseyside PTE bus company.

A Leyland National Greenway in post-privatisation London General livery with Go-Ahead Group logos

Following sell-off, most units had their fleet livery changed, either to all-over red or having the skirt or roof repainted. Most units also chose to withdraw the logos they had received in 1988, although East London and Selkent later brought their logos back [38].

The only unit not to be sold off was London Forest, which was wound up in the autumn of 1991 following poor financial performance and industrial action; its operating area was subsequently taken up by East London and Leaside, although 11 of its routes in the Walthamstow area were passed to private operators Capital Citybus, Thamesway Buses and County Bus.

The sell-off of the units proceeded as follows:

Division Buyer New livery Subsequent fate
Centrewest management [39] sold to First in 1997
East London Stagecoach [40] sold to Macquarie Bank in 2006
Leaside Cowie Group [41] rebranded into Arriva in 1997 (now Arriva London North)
London Central Go-Ahead [42] no change
London General management [43] sold to Go-Ahead in 1996
London Northern MTL [44] sold to Metroline in 1998
London United management [45] sold to Transdev in 1997
Metroline mebo [46] sold to ComfortDelGro in 2000 (retains Metroline name)
Selkent Stagecoach [47] sold to Macquarie Bank in 2006
South London Cowie Group [48] rebranded into Arriva in 1997 (now Arriva London South)
Westlink employees no change sold to West Midlands Travel in 1994, then London United in 1995

List of independent operators

In the period before the sell off of the main business units, London saw operation by several private companies who gained tenders for routes. Many of these either ceased trading, or were ultimately purchased by large groups, some of which also bought some of the ex-London Buses units. Below is a list of private operators, some of which still operate.

  • Armchair ― acquired by Metroline
  • Atlas Bus (Pan Atlas) ― merged with London Coaches, later acquired by Metroline
  • Blue Triangle ― London operations acquired by Go-Ahead Group
  • Boro'line ― London operations acquired by Kentish Bus
  • BTS (Borehamwood Travel Services) ― acquired by Blazefield Group and renamed London Sovereign
  • Capital Citybus ― now First Capital
  • Capital Connections
  • Capital Logistics ― acquired by Tellings-Golden Miller
  • Carousel Buses
  • Centra
  • Cityrama ― sightseeing company acquired by Ensignbus
  • Connex bus
  • Connexions
  • Crystals ― Dartford-based operator acquired by Tellings-Golden Miller
  • CT Plus (Hackney Community Transport)
  • Docklands Buses ― acquired by Go-Ahead Group
  • Ealing Community Transport
  • Eastender Bus
  • Ensignbus ― London operations sold to Hong Kong Citybus and renamed Ensign Citybus, then Capital Citybus
  • Frontrunner
  • Grey-Green ― now Arriva London North East
  • Harris Bus ― operations reorganised into East Thames Buses
  • Kentish Bus (originally London Country South East) ― now Arriva Kent Thameside
  • Kingston Bus
  • Lea Valley ― Hoddesdon-based operations of County Bus (now Arriva The Shires & Essex Ltd)
  • Limebourne
  • London Buslines ― now part of First Centrewest
  • London Coaches ― London operations acquired by Metroline
  • London Country North West - acquired by Luton & District
  • London Country North East
  • London Easylink ― operations acquired by East Thames Buses
  • LondonLinks ― merger of London operations of London & Country and Kentish Bus
  • London & Country (originally London Country South West) - now Arriva Guildford & West Surrey
  • London Sovereign ― sold by Blazefield Group to Transdev London
  • London Suburban ― acquired by MTL
  • Metropolitan Omnibus (London) Ltd t/a London Traveller purchased by Thorpes
  • Luton & District ― now Arriva The Shires
  • Metrobus
  • Mitcham Belle
  • Nostalgiabus
  • NCP Challenger - (renames NSL ) and has since been acquired by Transdev (London Sovereign)
  • Quality Line (Epsom Buses)
  • Riverside Bus
  • R&I Buses ― acquired by MTL
  • Sampsons ― Hoddesdon-based operator acquired by County Bus
  • Scanbus
  • Southdown PSV
  • Sullivan Buses
  • Sutton Bus
  • Tellings-Golden Miller ― London operations sold to Travel London
  • Thames bus
  • Thameside ― Grays-based operations of County Bus (now Arriva Southern Counties)
  • Thamesway Buses (Eastern National) ― now part of First Essex
  • Thorpes ― acquired by Metroline
  • Timebus
  • Town Link ― Harlow-based operations of County Bus (now Arriva East Herts & Essex)
  • Town and Country
  • Travel London --- acquired by NedRailways in 2009 and rebranded Abellio London
  • Wings Buses ― Hayes-based operator acquired by Tellings Golden-Miller. It is now part of Abellio London

See also


  1. ^ Wharmby, Matthew, The London Titan (Ian Allan Publishing, 2008). ISBN 978-0-7110-3299-6
  2. ^ London Transport Museum LB roundel
  3. ^ King, Nicholas, London Bus Handbook Part 2: Independents (Capital Transport, 1990). ISBN 1-85414-127-9


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