Bath’s bus boss to retire, 46 years after joining industry he is passionate about as a conductor

September 9, 2020

First West of England managing director James Freeman, whose 46-year career on the buses has taken him from conductor to leading an organisation with 1,800 people and 600 vehicles, has announced he is to retire next May.

James, pictured, a self-confessed bus enthusiast who often spends his holidays travelling on them, has overseen a major transformation of the company since he arrived six years ago.

These include launching one of the UK’s largest fleets of biomethane buses and the roll-out of Bristol’s £230m rapid transit Metrobus system, pictured below

James, who lives in Bath, has also led the business through a period of growth which has outpaced other parts of the UK.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit services, passenger numbers had grown annually by between 6-10% during his tenure.

As the region’s main bus operator, First West of England operates across Bath, Bristol, South Gloucestershire, North Somerset and parts of Somerset and Wiltshire.

Prior to joining the business, James held leadership positions with Reading Buses and Stagecoach, where he was chief executive officer and a managing director respectively.

He was just 28 when he was appointed to his first managing director role, at Shamrock & Rambler Coaches in Bournemouth, before going on to become managing director of Badgerline Transit Developments in 1987, which was eventually subsumed into First Bus parent company First Group.

James said: “I am a very lucky person in that I have been able to spend my career in a sector about which I am extremely passionate.

“From an early age I was fascinated by buses and felt then that I could help to make them run. 

“My first contact with the company was when I boarded a brand new bus on display outside Marlborough Street Bus Station in Bristol in 1968. The man I talked to on that day helped make up my mind day that I would make my career on the buses.”

He got my first paid bus job as a conductor in 1974 and, after graduating from the University of Southampton, has spent his entire career in the industry.

He said among his proudest achievements had been establishing First West of England at the forefront of sustainable developments in the industry to minimise the impact of its vehicles on the environment and enhance air quality. 

Others include digital innovations introduced before and during Covid-19, which he said were taking customer service to a completely new level, as well as the strong working relationships the firm has forged with local leaders to ensure buses remain a critical and prominent part of a sustainable mobility strategy for the region’s cities, towns and outlying areas.

“Consequently, the general public, as well as local leaders, regard us an important part of local life, contributing to making the West of England a place where people want to live and work,” he added.

“Last, but not least, I have been immensely proud of my team in the way they have helped keep the region moving during the pandemic. We have lost drivers as a result of this dreadful virus, who will be forever remembered, alongside our staff across all our regional depots who have worked tirelessly to serve key workers and now those returning to work, school and further and higher education.

“Whilst retirement will be a wrench, as I’ve made so many wonderful friends amongst colleagues and customers, it is the right time to pass the baton as the business needs constant regeneration, and therefore fresh thinking, particularly in the wake of Covid-19.”

First Bus managing director Giles Fearnley said James had been an inspirational leader who had made a tremendous impact across the business – from its stakeholders, customers and colleagues. 

“We have been very fortunate to have had James on the First Bus team for over six years.

“Through his time not only has patronage risen at record levels but the role of the bus and the contribution it is making to the economic, social and environmental agendas, has never been better understood across the West of England,” he added.

Last year James won the Institute of Directors’ South West Director of the Year award, pictured, for what the judges called “a comprehensive, engaging and convincing” three-year business transformation.


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