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First London and London General AEC Routemasters on The Strand

The privatisation of London bus services was the process of the transfer of operation of buses 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. The London Regional Transport Act 1984 resulted in London Regional Transport taking control of London's bus routes, with the operation divested in stand alone companies that were privatised in 1994/95.

Since then, direct provision of bus services in London has been run by private companies, although Transport for London did operate its own company, East Thames Buses between 1999 and 2009.

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 ceased following a 1997 edict that London buses be 80% red.

Formation of London Buses

London Buses MCW Metrobus at Piccadilly Circus in October 1987

On 29 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 to London Regional Transport under the London Regional Transport Act 1984. This Act required arm's-length subsidiaries to be established to oversee operation of bus services, and on 29 March 1985 London Buses Limited[1] was incorporated.[2]

The implementation of the Transport Act 1985 that deregulated bus services in England, Scotland and Wales did not apply to London Buses.[3]

Initially, bus livery continued to be all-over red with a simple solid white roundel, 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.[4]

Introduction of competition

Grey-Green Alexander bodied Volvo Citybus as used on route 24

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 Boro'line Maidstone, Grey-Green and Metrobus were also operating numerous London routes.[5]

Controversially, these operators were allowed to operate buses in liveries other than standard red, 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 an edict in 1997 specifying 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 eight different operators and 10 different bus types in a short space of time, before the route finally gained a stable arrangement.[6]

The collapse of Harris Bus in December 1999, led to London Transport forming East Thames Buses as an arm's-length company to provide temporary operation of the routes. It was retained by the new Transport for London authority, to tender for routes itself until sold in October 2009 to the Go-Ahead Group.[7][8]

Break-up of London Buses

London Forest AEC Routemaster in 1991
London Northern Leyland Titan in 1992
CentreWest Challenger Alexander bodied Mercedes-Benz

On 1 April 1989 London Buses was divided into 12 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. Some of the names chosen were drawn from the pre London Transport era, namely London General Omnibus Company and London United Tramways.[9]

The separate business units created were:

Business unit Area Logo Legal entity
CentreWest West Arrow † CentreWest London Buses Limited[10]
East London East Barge East London Bus & Coach Company Limited[11]
Leaside River Lea Swan Leaside Bus Company Limited[12]
London Central South central Ship London Central Bus Company Limited[13]
London Forest Waltham Forest Oak tree London Forest Travel Limited[14]
London General Southwest Omnibus London General Transport Services Limited[15]
London Northern North Parliament London Northern Bus Company Limited[16]
London United Southwest Crest London United Busways Limited[17]
Metroline Northwest Stripes Metroline Travel Limited[18]
Selkent Southeast Hops South East London & Kent Bus Company Limited[19]
South London South Tower Bridge South London Transport Limited[20]
Westlink Kingston n/a Stanwell Buses Limited[21]
London Coaches Central London n/a London Coaches Limited[22]

† 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. The group brands were: Challenger, Ealing Buses, Gold Arrow, Uxbridge Buses, Hillingdon local service and Orpington Buses.

Intermediate operation

Preserved Bexleybus Leyland Titan

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 Camden Link, Kingston Hoppa or Southall Shuttle.

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 and Bexleybus, tendering for routes in the Harrow and Bexleyheath areas respectively.[23]

These units were not overly successful, due to unreliable service, and industrial disputes due to lower pay rates than for the main London units.[24][25] Their routes were quickly surrendered to other units or private operators.[26][27]

Proposed deregulation of routes

The implementation of the Transport Act 1985 that deregulated bus services in England, Scotland and Wales did not apply to London Buses.[3] Despite this, the Government desired to deregulate bus routes in London, to allow for full competition on individual bus routes.[28] The Conservative Party manifesto at the 1992 general election proposed "Deregulating buses in London and privatising the London Buses subsidiaries".[29]

In March 1991, the Government published "A Bus Strategy for London", outlining its proposals for deregulation of bus routes in London. A "London Bus Executive" was also proposed, to provide socially essential but uneconomic bus routes, and to provide bus stops, shelters and stations. This would be separate from London Regional Transport, as it was felt that an independent body would not be "distracted by the major challenges which London Transport faces".[30]

The Government claimed that deregulation would lead to more and varied bus services, leading to increased bus ridership, less congestion and better choice of services for passengers. Criticism of those against deregulation included the potential of traffic congestion caused by multiple operators competing on popular bus routes (especially in Central London), the potential that bus operators would not use the popular Travelcard scheme, as well as the loss of strategic transport planning from an overarching body like London Transport.[30] In July 1991, Minister of State for Public Transport Roger Freeman stated in the House of Commons that 60% of respondents to the consultation were against the proposal.[31]

In November 1993, the Government deferred the proposed deregulation of buses in London, noting that the sell-off of London Buses business units would continue.[32] It remained an aspiration of the Conservative Government to deregulate London bus services in future.[33] Following the election of Tony Blair and the Labour Party following the 1997 general election, deregulation of London bus services was no longer pursued.[3] Bus routes therefore continued to be tendered by London Transport and post 2000, its successor, Transport for London.[3]

Business unit sell-off

Between September 1994 and January 1995, the separate London Buses business units were sold off. Competition rules restricted the number 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 Passenger Transport Executive bus company.

Following sell-off, the new operators introduced new liveries, logos and trading names to many of the business units. Initially some buses appeared in liveries other than red, but an edict that all buses be 80% red saw this reversed from 1997. Some companies having been renamed, have since resumed their original identities.

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 Buses, although 11 of its routes in the Walthamstow area passed to private operators Capital Citybus, Thamesway Buses and County Bus.[34]

The sell-off of the units proceeded as follows:

Division Buyer Subsequent fate
CentreWest Management[35] sold to FirstGroup in March 1997 and rebranded as First CentreWest and later as First London, sold to Metroline & Tower Transit in June 2013
East London Stagecoach[36] rebranded as Stagecoach London in November 2000, sold to Macquarie Bank in August 2006, re-acquired by Stagecoach in October 2010
Leaside Cowie Group[37] rebranded as Arriva London North in April 1998
London Central Go-Ahead Group[38] no change
London General Management[39] sold to Go-Ahead Group in May 1996[40]
London Northern MTL[41] sold to Metroline in July 1998 which in turn was sold to ComfortDelGro in March 2000
London United Management[39] sold to Transdev in July 1997 and later rebranded as Transdev London, sold to RATP Group in March 2011 and resumed London United identity
Metroline Management[42] sold to ComfortDelGro in March 2000
Selkent Stagecoach[36] rebranded as Stagecoach London in November 2000, sold to Macquarie Bank in August 2006, re-acquired by Stagecoach in October 2010
South London Cowie Group[43] rebranded as Arriva London South in April 1998
Westlink Employees sold to West Midlands Travel in 1994,[44] then London United in September 1995[45]
London Coaches Management sold to Arriva in 1997, rebranded as The Original Tour[46]

List of independent operators

Capital Citybus Northern Counties bodied Leyland Olympian at Chingford station in June 1999
Centra Alexander Royale bodied Volvo Olympian
Kentish Bus AEC Routemaster in July 1993
London & Country Leyland Lynx in Purley in May 1993
London Traveller East Lancs Spryte bodied Volvo B6BLE in August 1999
Preserved Metrobus Leyland Olympian

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.


  1. ^ Companies House extract company no 1900906 London Buses Limited
  2. ^ Wharmby, Matthew, The London Titan (Ian Allan Publishing, 2008). ISBN 978-0-7110-3299-6
  3. ^ a b c d Butcher, Louise (18 June 2010). "Buses: deregulation in the 1980s" (PDF). House of Commons Library. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  4. ^ "London Transport Museum LB roundel". Retrieved 13 June 2011.
  5. ^ King, Nicholas, London Bus Handbook Part 2: Independents (Capital Transport, 1990). ISBN 1-85414-127-9
  6. ^ "Route 60: the highs and lows of a London fiasco". Buses (530). Ian Allan Publishing: 32–33. May 1999.
  7. ^ Go-Ahead Acquires East Thames Buses Archived 22 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine Go-Ahead Group 30 July 2009
  8. ^ Go-Ahead buys East Thames Buses Archived 24 May 2014 at the Wayback Machine Bus & Coach Professional 3 August 2009
  9. ^ "LRT launches 11 fleets for dereg". Commercial Motor. Temple Press. 6 April 1989. p. 20. Retrieved 10 June 2023.
  10. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328596 CentreWest London Buses Limited
  11. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328402 East London Bus & Coach Company Limited
  12. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328559 Arriva London North Limited ex Leaside Bus Company Limited
  13. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328565 London Central Bus Company Limited
  14. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328491 London Forest Travel Limited
  15. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328489 London General Transport Services Limited
  16. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328608 Metroline London Northern Limited ex MTL London Northern Limited ex London Northern Bus Company Limited
  17. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328561 London United Busways Limited
  18. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328401 Metroline Travel Limited
  19. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328595 South East London & Kent Bus Company Limited
  20. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328467 Arriva London South Limited ex South London Transport Limited
  21. ^ Companies House extract company no 1983867 Stanwell Buses Limited
  22. ^ Companies House extract company no 2328599 The Original London Sightseeing Tour Limited ex London Coaches Limited
  23. ^ "Bexleybus leads London race". Commercial Motor. Temple Press. 14 January 1988. p. 15. Retrieved 14 December 2022.
  24. ^ "In brief". Commercial Motor. Temple Press. 7 January 1988. p. 17. Retrieved 14 December 2022.
  25. ^ "Bexleybus falls flat?". Commercial Motor. Temple Press. 3 March 1988. p. 6. Retrieved 14 December 2022.
  26. ^ "Harrow Buses hit". Commercial Motor. Temple Press. 13 September 1990. p. 20. Retrieved 14 December 2022.
  27. ^ "Subsidiaries restructured". Commercial Motor. Temple Press. 18 October 1990. p. 18. Retrieved 14 December 2022.
  28. ^ Rifkind, Malcolm (22 July 1991). ""A Bus Strategy for London" (Hansard, 22 July 1991)". Retrieved 10 August 2021. The Government's policy remains, as it has been since the Transport Act 1985 was introduced into Parliament, that the London bus market should be deregulated and privatised as soon as possible.
  29. ^ "The Best Future For Britain - 1992 Conservative Manifesto". Conservative Party. 1992. Archived from the original on 19 June 2013. Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  30. ^ a b Rifkind, Malcolm (22 July 1991). ""A Bus Strategy for London" (Hansard, 22 July 1991)". Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  31. ^ Freeman, Roger (25 July 1991). ""A Bus Strategy for London" (Hansard, 25 July 1991)". Retrieved 10 August 2021. Approximately 60 per cent. of respondents, including the hon. Lady, commented unfavourably on the Government's plans to deregulate bus services in London.
  32. ^ "Delivering the best bus services for London". Department for Transport. 8 November 1993.
  33. ^ "Buses (London) (Hansard, 22 April 1996)". Retrieved 10 August 2021.
  34. ^ "London Forest closure details". Bus & Coach Buyer. No. 124. Spalding. 27 September 1991. p. 4.
  35. ^ Young, Ian (10 September 1994). "CentreWest first red-bus operation to be sold off". Coach & Bus Week. No. 133. Peterborough: Emap.
  36. ^ a b "Selkent and East London go to Souter". Coach & Bus Week. No. 133. Peterborough: Emap. 10 September 1994.
  37. ^ Simpson, Richard (8 October 1994). "Leaside Buses goes to Cowie". Coach & Bus Week. No. 137. Peterborough: Emap. p. 5.
  38. ^ "GAG buys London Central". Coach & Bus Week. No. 136. Peterborough: Emap. 1 October 1994.
  39. ^ a b "LBL companies sold". Coach & Bus Week. No. 142. Peterborough: Emap. 12 November 1994. p. 6.
  40. ^ "London General sell to Go-Ahead". Bus & Coach Buyer. No. 360. Spalding: Glen-Holland Limited. 31 May 1996. p. 2. Retrieved 10 April 2024.
  41. ^ "MTL moves into capital". Coach & Bus Week. No. 141. Peterborough: Emap. 5 November 1994.
  42. ^ "Metroline sold to MEBO for £20m". Bus & Coach Buyer. No. 277. Spalding. 14 October 1994. p. 5. Retrieved 10 April 2024.
  43. ^ Simpson, Richard (17 December 1994). "Cowie buys South London for £17m...". Coach & Bus Week. No. 147. Peterborough: Emap. p. 5.
  44. ^ "WMT buys Westlink". Bus & Coach Buyer. No. 251. Spalding. 15 April 1994. p. 5. Retrieved 10 April 2024.
  45. ^ "WMT sells Westlink to London United". Bus & Coach Buyer. No. 325. Spalding: Glen-Holland Limited. 22 September 1995. p. 2.
  46. ^ "Arriva to acquire London Coaches for open topped tours". Bus & Coach Buyer. No. 440. Spalding: Glen-Holland Limited. 12 December 1997. p. 2.