Delaine: traditional values in a modern environment

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The 101 from Peterborough serves Delaine’s home town of Bourne with alternate journeys heading north from Bourne to Morton. Buses to Bourne and Peterborough pass outside the largely 15th-century church of St Guthlac, the only church in Market Deeping. STEVEN KNIGHT MEDIA

Steven Knight examines what makes Delaine Buses stand out from the crowd

Throughout the 20th century, local village or small town-based bus and coach operators were commonplace. Many had started by providing market day services and, in a pre-car ownership era, day trips. Most passengers were known by name and drivers were concerned if they were not waiting for the bus as they did every week.

These small operators took a traditional approach to their operations, which was also reflected in the liveries of the buses. Bus stop information, printed timetables and handbills, plus the vehicles and passengers’ word of mouth, were the only means available to promote services.

Fast forward 100 years and how things have changed. While the need for bus services has increased and then declined over time before deregulation, we have lost scores of local operators as they have either sold out to bigger companies, retired without any succession plan in place, or have found trading tough and ceased altogether.

In the Lincolnshire market town of Bourne is Delaine, which started passenger services not in the last century, but the one before. The origin of Delaine goes back as far as 1890, when the family business was engaged in carpentry and general contracting. The horse and cart used by that business was also used to carry people to local fairs and markets.


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Delaine is now one of the oldest independent bus operators in the country.

Another remarkable fact is that the current garage occupies the site that the business moved to in 1902, although it has been expanded over the years as adjacent properties have been acquired.

First motorbus

The first motor bus, a Ford Model T with a 14-seat Economy body, was bought in 1919 and used on market day services from Bourne to the larger towns of Spalding, Stamford, and Grantham.

Four years later, and 100 years ago this year, a daily service was introduced between Bourne and Peterborough, but the company did face a ‘David and Goliath’ battle with the Peterborough Electric Traction Company (PET) which resulted in a 1927 agreement that PET would not operate north of Market Deeping, situated almost half-way between Bourne and Peterborough. In return, Delaine charged an agreed minimum fare within the city of Peterborough.

Expansion through taking over a number of smaller operators, took place during the 1930s which saw Delaine gain licences to operate stage carriage and excursion services following the introduction of the Road Traffic Act in 1930.

Like all bus and coach operators the company had to reduce its services during the Second World War as part of the Government’s war Initiative to save fuel. Additional work was gained, however, as being located in ‘Bomber County’ saw a number of services introduced to local airfields and munitions factories.

Timekeeping can be impacted by delays at level crossings, such as the one over the East Coast Main Line at Tallington. STEVEN KNIGHT MEDIA


The threat to nationalise the bus industry in 1947 was probably the biggest challenge to face the business. Such was the concern that the bus and coach operations were split. Delaine Coaches Ltd, incorporated in 1941, adopted a reverse version of the traditional cream and blue livery. For a while bus services reverted to operating under the T A Smith Bourne name but retained the blue and cream livery. Once the ‘threat’ was over, both businesses were again brought together under the Delaine Coaches name.

The post war years brought increased demand for bus services across much of the UK and Delaine’s operation also had to adapt to meet the uplift in passenger numbers. This saw the company buy its first double-deck vehicle in 1948, a Willowbrook-bodied Crossley DD42/5.

The growth of Peterborough following its designation of a New Town in 1968 provided the catalyst for the company to introduce an hourly service between Bourne and Peterborough six days a week. A limited stop Peterborough-Market Deeping service followed in 1985.

In 1996 the frequency between Bourne and Peterborough was increased to half-hourly.


Delaine has remained family owned and is now run by the fifth and sixth generations of the Delaine-Smith family. Anthony Delaine-Smith is the company’s Managing Director, and the current President of the Omnibus Society, and runs the business with brothers Ian (Chairman), Mark and Kevin, along with Anthony’s daughters Jennifer and Victoria, whose husband Jack also works in the business.

With the cessation of coach operations in 1995, a change saw the company renamed Delaine Buses Ltd to better reflect what had always been its core operation.

So how has the business survived, when so many other family-owned independent bus and coach companies with a similar pedigree have fallen by the wayside? Anthony is clear that it is down to concentrating on the core commercial business and not being distracted by peripheral activities further afield. Perhaps this is best demonstrated by the fact that today’s operations are totally commercial. “That approach enables us to control our own destiny and plan ahead on a platform of stability,” he says.

The three core services, which serve four south Lincolnshire market towns and the city of Peterborough, provide frequent services for commuters, students, retail, medical and leisure traffic.

Anthony commented: “We are also fortunate that on our core network lay 10 schools/colleges, with the most prominent being Bourne Grammar School. This is a selective school and is very popular as a school of choice with parents from the Peterborough and Stamford areas. Up to 15 vehicles are deployed serving the school with some peak-time journeys requiring five double deckers.”

Students also benefit from being able to use off-peak and later journeys. The core services are also supplemented by a network of school day services which serve most villages within the surrounding area.

Growth and opportunity

The company is not risk averse though. Anthony is acutely aware that it needs to look at opportunities that can add value to its operation. In April 1988 it took over the Stamford-Barnack-Peterborough route when Barton Transport decided to close its Stamford depot and inter-worked it with the existing Bourne-Essendine-Stamford service. In 2016 the two routes were formally merged as one service which created a Stamford Crosstown service.

In 2011 Stagecoach decided to withdraw from Market Deeping and Delaine increased its frequency from two to three buses an hour between Market Deeping and Peterborough.

In 2019 Delaine took over the Market Deeping-Spalding route from Kimes as it saw the potential to grow the route by linking it into its Market Deeping-Stamford route, which for the first time offered a direct link between these three Lincolnshire market towns.

In August last year the service to Spalding was re-routed within the town and extended to the Springfields shopping outlet in what has proved to be another astute decision with timings designed to connect with the Bourne-Peterborough service in Market Deeping.

A pair of Volvo B7TLs with East Lancs Olympus bodies, the favoured chassis/body manufacturers of Delaine for 14 years. Bus 141 is named Hugh Delaine-Smith MBE after Anthony’s father and bus 142 Thomas Arthur Smith after his grandfather. STEVEN KNIGHT MEDIA


Vehicle presentation is a key part of the Delaine offering and, while new vehicles are the preferred option, there has also been a requirement from time to time for pre-owned buses.

Historically the company has looked towards the economies of scale that can be achieved through standardisation. As an independent it is perhaps little surprise that for more than half a century Bedford and Leyland were the preferred suppliers. When Bedford and Leyland vehicles were no longer available the company turned to Volvo for chassis, a relationship which it had for 25 years. Initially bodywork was from East Lancashire and then Wrightbus.

With the collapse of Wrightbus, the company turned to ADL for the first time in 2020 and since then has added six ADL Enviro200MMCs to the fleet and has recently taken delivery of its first Enviro400 City. It also bought three pre-owned ADL Enviro400s through Ensign Bus last year to supplement its home to school fleet.

Explains Anthony: “Regular investment in new vehicles is an important part of maintaining a good fleet age profile. As new vehicles enter the fleet, they allow the oldest vehicles to be cascaded down to the school day fleet.” The replacement of the fleet also ensures that the company fulfils its social responsibility through the introduction of lower emission allowing the displacement of older more polluting vehicles. The Lincolnshire BSIP revealed that Delaine operated almost one third of the Euro VI buses in the county. New vehicles also see maintenance costs reduced and the Enviro200MMCs have also delivered better fuel economy, returning 11.7mpg.

Marketing and technology

Delaine recognises its biggest marketing tool is its buses, with the traditional blue and cream livery having been a feature on local roads beyond living memory. The Delaine-Smith family view their livery as the most significant factor of its brand.

Similarly, the warm red interior, complemented with wood veneer design on all vehicles bought new, is highly recognisable. The current red tartan moquette has been applied to all new vehicles for over 40 years and is now specially woven by supplier Camira.

Delaine is very good at marketing and publicising its brand, which is undertaken in house. Vehicles carry route branding and the interior cove panels are used to promote services and the range of tickets available. Linear route maps are also carried. Branded roadside timetables and ticket information with QR codes are displayed at bus stops and printed timetables remain available.

The company has taken a pro-active but cautious approach to the use of technology in recent years. It has allowed new technology to become proven before adopting it. But that means when it has been introduced it is reliable. A website was launched at the start of the new Millennium and to promote it the address replaced the traditional aluminium ‘Delaine’ fleet names on the side of vehicles. The scroll ‘The Delaine’ logo remains a constant on the rear of buses.

In more recent years the company has used social media, specifically X, formerly known as Twitter, for instant communications and has embraced the benefits of the Ticketer ticketing system, m-tickets through the myTrip app, and a few months ago launched a Delaine Buses app. Since 2020 all new vehicles delivered have been fitted with next stop displays.

When deciding to innovate, Delaine likes to take a VHS/BetaMax view. Could something else come along that is better? Opting to steer clear of the smartcard option, the company believed that something better would come along and contactless became the better long-term solution to cashless transactions.

The facilities at the Spalding Road depot have also evolved from the days of total manual engineering to the electronic engineering requirements of modern vehicles.

Delaine also worked closely with the Department for Transport as an early participant in the development of Bus Open Data Service, which drives real time information systems.

“Our ability to inspire confidence through our traditional brand whilst embracing technology has seen the company navigate its way through a world war, the post-war threat of nationalisation, deregulation and a pandemic,” says Anthony.

The bus tracker on the website and also available through the app is a boon for passengers, especially as two routes cross the East Coast Main Line on level crossings (Helpston and Tallington), where the barriers can be down for approaching 40 minutes every hour. It is not unknown for buses to be waiting at the crossings for up to ten minutes. In a double blow the Stamford-Spalding service not only has to cross Tallington level crossing it also crosses the increasingly busy Peterborough-Spalding line at Deeping St Nicholas.

Delaine’s most recent pre-owned purchases were three ADL Enviro400s. Sourced through Ensignbus, they were new to Abellio London and joined the Delaine fleet in 2022. Normally restricted to schools duplicates, one of them, 172, has been used on Peterborough services on just two occasions. STEVEN KNIGHT MEDIA

Heritage and history

Whilst quite rightly the focus of the business is firmly on its current operations, with a fleet of 24 double-deck and eight single-deck vehicles now in the fleet, Anthony says that it is important to recognise the past and how it has shaped the present.

Uniquely, over the years the Delaine-Smith family has retained a considerable number of ledgers, documents, and artefacts – as well as examples of buses – from the business and has created a dedicated museum, which was opened in 2019.

“As one of the few surviving pre-deregulation independent bus operators which is still family owned, we are proud of the history and heritage of the company and wanted to preserve in perpetuity,” says Anthony.

The museum, heritage vehicles and contents are ring-fenced from the bus company through the registered charity, the Delaine Heritage Trust.

The museum is open on the second Saturday of each month between March and October and bigger event days are held twice a year. Visitors are able to browse the archive material on display which also contains wall mounted photos of almost all Delaine vehicles from the extensive photographic archive but can also take a ride back in time on the heritage vehicles. Says Anthony: “Part of the ethos of the Trust is for the heritage buses not to be confined to the museum and a key part of the visitor experience, young or old is they can experience or re-live what it was like to travel on buses from a bygone age on sections of route where they spent their working lives”.

Rising to the challenges

There can be no denying that the Covid-19 pandemic that hit in March 2020 changed the face of bus travel. Like all operators Delaine was hit by a massive reduction in passenger numbers and had to frequently adapt its services following the Government’s ‘Stay at Home’ and ‘Essential Travel Only’ messages. Working from home became not only a ‘lockdown’ phenomenon but also to some extent continued post-pandemic.

However, Delaine was well placed to bounce back given the nature of its routes providing links with Lincolnshire market towns and the city of Peterborough. Yes, it was assisted with Government support – which was available to all bus companies – and now sees ridership levels exceeding pre-Covid numbers.

Delaine was also shielded from the issues of driver shortages that beset much of the industry post-Covid. The company has 33 drivers on its books and there is a loyalty towards the company with recruitment not being an issue. That is perhaps best explained by the fact that it is easier for staff to manage their ‘work/life balance’ with minimal unsocial hours working. The last bus of the day from Peterborough is timed to depart at 2015 to cater for the last retail outlets closing at 2000 and early evening arrivals by rail. Despite its size there is also an extremely good relationship between the Delaine-Smith family and the workforce with the majority attaining double digit years of service with two currently having over 30 years and one 40 years of service.

But in Anthony’s words: “There is a cold wind blowing and we cannot ignore the spectre of franchising hanging over the industry. Franchising poses a significant threat to the existence of SMEs in the local bus sector.” He also has the view that: “Franchising in London was privatisation, whilst provincially it is the nationalisation of commercial operations by stealth. Those who see it as some form of utopia should look back and question why deregulation was needed in the first place.”

Often outspoken, Anthony is clear that successive governments have failed in what should be a key objective: to create the business environment in which traders can flourish. He adds: “Deregulation in 1986 arrested the decline in bus use… but in recent years politicians who can generally see no further than the M25 when determining policy find it very easy to blame the operators for the decline in bus use. It is online shopping, out of town retail outlets and the post-pandemic working from home that has caused much of the decline. Until Government has a national policy for bus priority measures to ‘make buses quicker’ it will be very difficult to reverse the decline.”

It is also noted that Delaine opted not to take part in the Government’s £2 single fare initiative. So, what was the rationale behind that, some would say brave, decision? “It was an easy decision to make after seeing how the press attacked the Government when it tried to withdraw ’temporary measures’ introduced during Covid, as we could see there was not going to be a simple exit strategy. Furthermore, we don’t have a high fare network, and in addition to our range of point-to-point fares we offer a £5.70p Day Rover and Off-Peak Duo Rover for £9.50 or £13 for a group of four,” says Anthony.

Instantly recognisable as a Delaine bus. Traditional Delaine seat design in one of the Enviro 200MMCs.STEVEN KNIGHT MEDIA

Where next?

“The other cloud on the horizon,” says Anthony, “is zero-emission buses. While electric does provide an answer for urban operations where there is the capacity for charging infrastructure, it won’t work for everyone. We are fortunate to own our premises, but the power supply to the surrounding area would need a significant and costly upgrade. But what for those operators who rent or lease premises? I can’t see either the landlord or tenant being willing to fund upgrading the power supply.”

Anthony put the situation into context. “The last time we had electric passenger vehicles in numbers they were trams and trolleybuses. They operated in big towns and cities. They were never the solution for inter-urban or rural operations.

“Nothing has changed. I am confident electric vehicles will thrive in these towns and cities. But for inter-urban and rural operators such as Delaine, electric is currently not a realistic option.”

Once again, Anthony is critical of an agenda that is being pushed by London centric politicians forcing the industry to respond before the technology and infrastructure is ready. He adds: “Hydrogen or synthetic fuel power, rather than electric, may be an option but will either be a better option? Is either of these suitable for Delaine? Much more work has to be done and what will it cost?

“I have no doubt that the options will become clearer, but for now our policy remains based on low emission diesel vehicles. The industry has another major problem looming, a diminishing second-hand market for diesel buses which gives cause for concern for the future availability of suitable pre-owned vehicles for the home to school market?”

…and finally

For those old enough to remember the pre and post war years of bus operation, right through until the 1970s, the carriage of packages and small parcels by bus was a good income stream. They were handed over to the conductor, or driver and either collected on arrival at the destination or deposited in the travel centres of larger companies.

Delaine also handled parcels and did so well into the current millennium, issuing a special parcel ticket at a fixed fare – and still does today.

Anthony explains: “We do still offer a ‘Parcel by Bus’ ticket for £1.60p flat fare per unaccompanied parcel. This was quite popular once, especially with publishers who are prevalent in the area, with one company even having a season ticket, but sadly with the advancement of electronic technology in the last couple of decades this method of transfer of documents has naturally ceased. However, the option is still available should anyone wish to use it.

“We also carried the off-peak Royal Mail between Bourne and Peterborough from the war years until 1992.”

Despite the future concerns for the industry, Delaine is on the pulse meeting the needs of its customers and certainly delivers traditional values in a modern environment.

Delaine ADL E400City 176

During October 2023 Delaine Buses took delivery of its first Enviro400City double-decker. Built by ADL at its Scarborough site the vehicle joins six ADL Enviro200MMCs in the fleet and has been given fleet number 176 and registered AD73 DBL. The AD part of the registration is a former Peterborough licensing office mark and DBL is for Delaine Buses Limited. Following use at the Omnibus Society’s Presidential Weekend on 7 and 8 October it entered service on Monday 9 October. The vehicle caries special graphics to mark 100 years of the company providing passenger services between Bourne and Peterborough.

Graphics show buses which represent 100 years of Bourne-Peterborough operation. STEVEN KNIGHT MEDIA