I first wrote about John Bruce around 30 years ago when Bruce’s of Airdrie was in its early years. In July of last year John invited me to visit him in Scotland to talk about the company. It specialises in high mileage contract work and had just invested £400,000 in a new Van Hool TX17 Astron to serve as the Rangers team coach and assess the scope for a top-end corporate work in the area. I spent a day in Salsburgh, returned south and was sitting down to write up the story a few days later when I got a call saying that the garage, the new coach and three others had been completely destroyed in a fire. Nobody has ever been charged in relation to the blaze, but holes cut in the fence and rear of the building are evidence that it wasn’t accidental.
Last month I returned to Salsburgh where a new garage has been built on the site of the old one and another team coach has replaced the lost super executive. A new fleet of tri-axle Scania Caetano Levantes has superseded the coaches used previously on National Express work, as planned before the conflagration.
It has been a very tough 18 months for John who also finalised his second divorce on the day we met up. Such challenges would have laid many a man low but apart from being a bit more reflective than usual he seemed no different to the previous times I have seen him. He is a larger than life character, full of energy, hard working (though seldom early rising) and charming with a wicked sense of humour. He loves practical jokes and winding people up, but when he’s not about people will tell you quietly how kind he is. Friend and fellow operator Margaret Jackson of Marbill Coaches, with whom he plotted a new wheeze while we spoke, said of him, ‘He’s a total nightmare. He’s also the best guy in the world.’
He began in coach operation in his own right in August 1982 but already had a lot of experience having served his time as a coachbuilder with Walter Alexander at Falkirk and had operational experience with Eastern Scottish and Park of Hamilton. ‘Parks was an amazing grounding in the industry for starting up my own company,’ he recalls. He had also briefly tried truck operation in 1980, but ‘it didn’t work out.’ His next venture was to start his own coachbuilding operation and it was this that led to the move into running coaches. When he repaired a Ford R1114 insurance right off for Irvines of Law they gave him a 53-seat Bedford VAL Plaxton Elite in payment. Scott MacPhail gave him a school run to use it on and Bruce’s of Airdrie was in business, growing to take on other schools as well as competing for private hire work.
The first steps in the direction of the express work in which he was to become a specialist came in 1988. The Scottish Bus Group had started Scottish Citylink with vehicles supplied by its constituent companies. When they went on strike it turned to independents and for around a month Bruce’s coaches crossed the picket lines to help them, only to be dropped as soon as the strike ended. With coaches coming back of tour and drivers available to drive them John decided to start his own express service, LondonLiner, using two Volvo B10M Van Hools that ran day and night covering 500,000km a year.
‘Our service had an impact on the London market,’ said John. ‘For the first four months we charged £12 return and then £18 when I think Citylink were charging £32. We gave a concession for OAPs, UB40 holders and nurses. Then in 1989 he came to an agreement with Scottish Citylink and started running for them using the LondonLiner name. Then in 1991, for what he describes as ‘family reasons’ he sold the yard at Glenmavis along with 18 of his 21 coaches to Citylink, only keeping three that were contracted to David Urquhart. By December 1993 he was running LondonLiner again on Citylink’s behalf, an arrangement that lasted until 1997 when Citylink had to dispose of its cross border services having taken on the Scotrail contract.
A new tie-up with National Express began with half of the Bournemouth to Edinburgh 539 service taken on, with Excelsior covering the other half until Bruce’s took it over completely. At this stage, considerable duplication work was being undertaken for both Citylink and National Express. Bova Futura FHDs with 12.9-litre DAF engines were used, which were relatively unusual though not unique on the work. Further Futuras were bought in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004. With the growth of National Express responsibilities and ongoing duplication work for Scottish Citylink the business gradually cam to concentrate its focus on express operation, although private hire was still undertaken.
Another home grown venture was the 1999 launch of ‘Motivator’ an express service between Glasgow and Edinburgh run in conjunction with Longs Coaches. The company’s ambitions for the service were frustrated by the inability to get permission to operate from the front stands at Glasgow’s Buchanan Street Bus Station, despite determined efforts to do so, yet within a month of selling out to Stagecoach, they had managed to obtain them.
The National Express routes Bruce’s operate today are the five longest on the network, indeed the highest distance services within the UK of any operator, covering vast annual mileages. Loadings on all of them are such that tri-axle coaches are required. The 336 links Edinburgh and Plymouth which involves Bruce’s covering 624 miles (the actual route is 585 miles), John told me. When Bruce’s started running it in 2009 it used to go all the way to Penzance which was officially 678 miles (excluding positioning) but it was cut back in 2010. ‘It used to seem weird seeing a coach going through Salsburgh with Penzance on the destination,’ said John. The 336 sets off from Edinburgh at 21.30 and arrives in Plymouth the following day at 12.40. The 532 Plymouth-Edinburgh takes a slightly different route in the other direction leaving Plymouth at 05.30 and arriving in Edinburgh at 19.30. The UK’s second longest route is the 588 between London and Inverness which is 593 miles. Bruce’s also operate the 539 between Edinburgh and Bournemouth on which their coaches clock up 567 miles and the 590 between Aberdeen and London representing a 557 mile trip.
With short turn round times between runs, the nine Scanias used on the routes rack up immense mileages. ‘The PVR requirement is 8.4 of the nine Scanias’, John claimed. They cover around 14,000km between fortnightly full services. Before every departure from the depot each coach gets a pre-departure check which includes everything on a mechanical checklist. In addition there is a 12 point interior checklist and a 17 point exterior check list that is gone through.
With such demanding work, absolutely nothing is left to chance. Additional things have been added to the check list based on experience, such as hydraulic fan couplings which have had problems in the past. John explained that some things are changed on a regular basis to be on the safe side, such as power steering hoses and fan belt tensioner belts and pulleys. Spares such as belts, pulleys and hoses are carried on the coach. ‘We’d rather spend £500 replacing something than get to Birmingham, find we need it, and end up spending £4,000. If you break down on a job you have to pay whatever it costs to move the passengers on on their journeys.’
John is pleased with the back up from both Scania and Caetano and mentioned the local Scania dealership in Bellshill, ‘Whose excellent bus and coach knowledge swung us to take the Scania product.’
John explained that National Express has its rules and regulations as well as ‘a lot of systems in place which need to be adhered to rigidly.’ He continued, ‘We get a maintenance audit and a driver audit every year. We have an outside agency that comes in on a monthly basis to audit our system and make sure everything is done properly. Their control about minimising costs is very good.’
John then added, ‘National Express is an excellent company to work for and we’re glad to be associated with them. I wouldn’t be investing the money I am if I didn’t genuinely believe that.’
Other express work
National Express work currently represents around 85% of the company’s workload but Bruce’s also maintains healthy relationship with Scottish Citylink and megabus.com. Three coaches were involved on Citylink diagrams throughout the summer period and John was awaiting news on work that would keep them occupied on an ongoing basis.
Were he unable to obtain work for the other members of the fleet there is always the option of starting a new service in the company’s own right, something that would hold no fears given the vast experience in the field and the depot location. However, he stresses that this is not his preferred option.
Megabus.com work tends to be more sporadic though it can come in large chunks. The Bova Magiq once did London services on 42 consecutive days.
Looking after the operation John has a strong team. In charge of the workshops and taking an ever increasing role in the running of the business is his eldest son, John. Working alongside him in the workshops are Rab Deacons and Andy Watterson. In the office, the Operations Manager is Guy Gray, Audrey Watson is the Office Manager and Esther Beuken is the Transport PA. Ensuring the coaches get properly cleaned inside is a team of four ladies.
In total there are 42 drivers, with 16 required for the Plymouth runs alone. There are a further six for the 539, eight for the 588 and eight for the 590 with four employed on a spare basis to cover holidays. Each coach runs with two drivers at all times, night and day. Driver turnover is very low though John does admit, ‘We’ve not many young ones.’
John told me that including the driving, maintenance and office teams, there were in excess of 50 staff adding, amid much coughing from the office team, ‘but I work the hardest.’
On my latest visit we talked about the fire, which began around 2am on the morning of Sunday 21 July. Martin MacPhail of MacPhail’s Coaches, based next door, came in off a hire at 12.10 and all was well. Later his brother spotted there was a fire and Martin rang Guy who rang John Junior while Martin rang John. Guy arrived first with the two Johns just behind him and initially already the flames were coming through the roof. ‘You couldn’t get near it,’ John said. They had some difficulty convincing the fire brigade to allow them to move the coaches remaining in the yard, but with the prospect of them catching alight and the fire spreading to MacPhails and beyond to an old folk’s home they relented and two Levantes and a Vito van were rescued.
The garage building was entirely burned out. Nothing within it survived and John points to a buckled wheel as the only thing that is even recognisable. The losses included the Van Hool executive, then only three weeks old, a super executive Bova Magiq used to support it, two 57-plate tri-axle Scania Caetano Levantes used on National Express work, all of the garage equipment and tools and two motorcycles.
The offices, a portable building, were separate from the main garage and though parts of the exterior melted, the paperwork all survived.
John continued, ‘It was 6.30 at night before we were allowed in – it was a horrible time.’ The keys for the driver’s cars were all in the offices and those returning after driving to Plymouth weren’t allowed in to get them until that time.
Despite the blow and the loss of the coaches, John proudly told me that there were no interruptions to any of the company’s services. ‘It was down to the help and efforts of National Express, Ace Travel, MacPhails, and Moseley Distributors,’ said John, who reserved a special thank you for Margaret Jackson from Marbill Coaches. ‘Words can’t describe how I feel about Margaret – she’s a true star. She upgraded one of her Bovas to team coach specification and covered the Rangers contract for me until the December when a TD921 Van Hool Altano we bought from Eavesway was ready. It had been the Manchester United team coach and we had it totally refurbished by Eastgate at Pickering to a standard as high as the factory could have produced.’
‘We were grossly underinsured on the buildings by £100,000 or so. You don’t realise. We’d bought equipment including a set of lifts. The problem going forward is getting insurance having had a fire. The premium has increased by around 70%,’ he said.
‘We thought we were out of business. It was a serious concern that we wouldn’t get insurance. We’re still with the same company; QBE. We’re glad we were with QBE because they dealt with the claim quickly and efficiently and with their help we’ve managed to continue trading. They were first class.’
John has never been one to sit still and within a week the site was cleared. Fortunately the concrete base on which the depot was based remained intact and the operation was able to run off it. A metal Premier Pit remained usable, though somewhat exposed.
By December, the business was operational in a new garage building complete with a 16m long Premier Pit, rolling road and beam setter, representing a £350,000 investment. ‘We changed the layout so that instead of the gable pointing down the yard we turned it about. It is slightly longer than the previous building and we can get seven coaches in, side by side. There’s a small separate building with a 40,000 gallon diesel tank and a store. We’ve also got a Karcher walk round bus wash,’ said John.
There was an official opening with a ribbon cutting ceremony performed by Tom Stables, MD of National Express Coaches who was accompanied by Head of Contracts, Alastair Coxon. Tom commented, ‘Bruce’s have been running our services out of Scotland for 14 years, carrying passengers on some of our longest routes in the UK, and in them we have one of the industry’s most distinguished and respected operators. We depend on first-class operators to provide our passengers with the high-quality service they deserve and it’s fantastic to know we can always depend on getting that from Bruce’s.’
With the new garage operational John went to see a new mobile office to provide driver’s rest room accommodation. Instead he found a rather smarter portable building that he acquired and turned into the offices, converting the existing offices for the drivers to use.
‘Maybe other operators could learn and check that their insurance is up to date and they’re adequately covered. It’s not the vehicles that were the problem, our broker does that every year, it’s the premises. Make sure you don’t get into the same position that we unfortunately were,’ said John.
If coping with the new building wasn’t enough, in mid-November the first of nine new tri-axle 14.2m Scania Caetano Levantes John had told me about on my first visit arrived. John had been running 58-plate Scania Caetanos but these were due for replacement. Scania had loaned him a demonstrator for six months with a 430hp Euro5 engine rather than the original 340hp unit, the 12-speed, two-pedal Opticruise automated manual transmission and a lower ratio rear differential specification that runs at only 1,100rpm (rather than 1,750rpm) at 62mph/100kph on the limiter. The result is a quieter coach and better fuel consumption. Testing the demonstrator convinced him to go for this option and it has proved a good decision as they are returning what he considers excellent figures, averaging 10.1mpg. Although the bodies are ostensibly the same, they have 57 recliners and a rear saloon toilet rather than the 61 seats of their predecessors.
The current National Express rules on vehicle acquisitions are that their contractors have to use Caetano Levante coachwork that can be mounted on Volvo, Scania or Mercedes-Benz chassis, though this was not the case when John placed his order. ‘We could have ordered anything we wanted, but we wanted the Caetano. I think they are as good as a Van Hool. We don’t have any issues with them. The Scania Caetano Levante combination is perfect one for our operation,’ he said.
One aspect of express operations is having to comply with DDA requirements. John doesn’t see it as a big issue. ‘There is only the odd hydraulic pipe problem with the lifts,’ he said. ‘The new style PLS lifts are much better. They are more mechanical, quieter and lighter. He finds that now that the whole network is accessible, using coaches has become more popular with wheelchair passengers because they can turn up and know that they will be able to make a connection.
Of the nine Scania Levantes the new coaches were purchased to replace, two were lost in the fire, one was sold to Scania, another went to Ace Travel, and three have been refurbished and were used during the summer on Citylink on services between Edinburgh and Oban and Edinburgh and Fort William with the third operating duplicates. The other two have been refurbished by Eastgate as 59/61 seaters and are currently up for sale along with a 2004 49-seat Bova that has also been refurbished.
The Van Hool TX17 Astron lost in the fire was a lavishly equipped coach built exactly to John’s requirements. It had 41 white leather trimmed seats, a centre kitchen, a glass roof centre section and a twinkling effect to the remaining ceiling sections, a rear lounge area, Sky television, wi-fi, chargers, four fridges, 12 televisions, a driver’s bunk, a centre toilet, a table that converted to a bed and a Webasto pre-heater. Seat trim was all in white leather with names embroidered in blue and the carpets were a special blue tartan design for Rangers FC.
John had hoped to work with Rangers to develop a mutually beneficial role for the coach for the future. He admitted at the time of its purchase that he didn’t know whether the money was there to be made to justify the purchase but said, ‘I’m going to find out.’ His comment, ‘If I don’t buy it now when am I going to?’, suggests the acquisition was as much something he wanted to try as something he was sure would pay off, though he also said, ‘some people are besotted with money. I’m not, though obviously things have got to stack up’.
The Van Hool was supplied by Moseley Distributors, whose Glenmavis premises are located on a site from which Bruce’s once operated.
Its replacement is the previously mentioned TD921 Altano which is ideal for the role, even though it lacks some of the arguably less essential features such as the glazed roof.
As well as the replacement Rangers team coach, there is a second coach to super executive team coach specification which replaced the Bova Magiq used as back up coach before it too was lost in the fire. This is one of the Scania Levantes which has been converted to accommodate 48 seats, eight tables, charging points at all tables, wi-fi, a servery with ovens, fridges, microwave and hot water and Sky television. It also carries the blue livery.
Despite the very major investment made, John is finding that scope for really high specification coaches beyond the football world is somewhat restricted, though there are exceptions, such as the Ryder Cup which kept by the Van Hool and the Levante very busy. ‘We’ve not yet seen evidence that there is a big corporate market,’ he said. ‘It is very limited by virtue of the very small population compared with south of the border. Of 64m people in Britain, only five million live in Scotland.’
As in other things, Bruce’s won’t give up on the corporate market easily and will continue to seek high calibre work where it can be generated. One area he did rule out was running the company’s own tour programme, saying, ‘We don’t see ourselves doing our own tours.’
Working hard and coping with adversity is second nature to the Bruce family who take a pragmatic approach and get on with things, generally with a smile. The attitude was typified by John’s comment that, ‘People go on about the recession. One of the good things about being Scottish is that we’re always in a recession, so we’re used to it. London is just something different. There wasn’t any knock-on from the Commonwealth Games; all that happened was that the big groups brought their new deliveries forward and sent them to the Games before allocating them to depots in the UK.’
‘For the future, the plan is for me to take less and less part in the daily running of the business and for my son to be more and more involved in day to day running, building on the excellent relationships we have with National Express and Scottish Citylink. He’s already involved in everything and he needs to drive it to the next stage’, said John.
As John senior intends to reduce his role, I spoke to John junior about his background and plans for the future. He explained that he had started work with his father when he was 16, left after two years to join Agreco Engineering and then at 21 bought a pub, The Railway Tavern at Caldercruix, and though it did all right it was not a massive return for a lot of hard work.
Putting the 14 months spent there down to experience, he went back to working for his father and got his PSV. ‘I was always going to do buses anyway’ he said.
His vision of the future is to continue the concentration on express work. ‘We see ourselves continuing to work for National Express,’ he said. ‘I hope we still are in 30 years time. We know what we are doing every day. Our vehicles are worked hard, but they’re good vehicles so they’re able to do it. We’re also doing Rangers so hopefully that will bring in other work. Probably 15-20 motors would be ideal.’
He continued, ‘For me, you are better if you can consistently have the same work, the bills paid and everyone employed; that’s good. We like doing long distance service, we’re used to it. What we do is big miles. We’re not interested in doing schools, not here in North Lanarkshire, it’s too cut-throat. We’re definitely not interested.’
‘We’ve worked through a recession and if you do that you deserve to be here. There are larger companies than us that have gone.’
Talking about learning the business he said, ‘It is definitely good to have Dad to teach me. Things like relationships with banks; he’s got the experience. You hope you are clever enough and hard working enough to be here in 30 years. If father can do it for 30 years there’s no reason that I can’t. I hope so because I’ve got two sons, Lucas and John junior who likes the buses. The name john goes back six generations in our family. Hopefully you can provide for them. Maybe one day they’ll step up, but maybe they’ll want to do something different.’
Scott, another of John’s sons, who is now in his early thirties, bought Coatbridge based United Coaches a couple of years ago and runs six coaches.
For the last word I turned to John Bruce senior. What was he proudest of? ‘Probably that I still enjoy what I’m doing. I’ve still got my health, still enjoy getting up every morning and going to work and looking to the future of Bruce’s Coaches.’