Independent success on the South Coast

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.

Renowned for its beaches and dramatic coastline, Dorset is good bus operating territory but what is it like to start a brand new coach and bus company there? Richard Sharman visited Tomorrows Travel to find out

We all know that if you have worked in the industry for a good length of time, coaches and buses get in your blood. Well, for directors Jay Thornton and Jason Cousins at Tomorrows Travel that was certainly the case – but it goes further than that. They had developed a wealth of experience running and operating passenger-carrying vehicles in the county of Dorset and beyond before starting up their own operation.

The days of the Yellows

Prior to starting Tomorrows Travel, Jay and Jason both worked at Bournemouth Transport, which traded as Yellow Buses and Yellow Coaches. It was an operation that had its ups and downs and changed hands a few times, but there is no doubting that those yellow-liveried buses were iconic in the city, just as London’s red ones are.

Tomorrow’s Travel’s story starts here, as Jay explained: “For the last eight months of Bournemouth Transport’s operation, Jason and I were running a recently restructured Yellow Coaches business. The idea of the change to the structure was to bring the whole operation under the control of one office and one management team. We were responsible for running the Yellow Coaches private hire and contracts operations, along with Golden Tours Bournemouth franchise and a megabus contract between Poole, Bournemouth, Heathrow Airport and London.

“At the time of the takeover the division was very fragmented, as the commercial department would do the private hire quotes, the traffic department would do the driver and vehicle allocation, and so on. The move to bring it under one team made a huge improvement to how the division was run, for the better.”


Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for 6 issues/weeks from only £6Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!

Jason added: “It was a totally different experience for me too, as I had moved from the Yellow Buses division, so it was an interesting time and gave me a different view of the situation, which actually turned into a positive. Together we made the changes that we thought needed making and very quickly turned the division around. Things on our side were going very well. It ended up being the most profitable part of the business.

Jay agreed, but noted that: “It was really a baptism of fire for both of us as although I had been in coaching commercially prior to this role, I had never been privy to the operational side of things, and our first job was to cover a large rail replacement job for the upcoming Brighton station blockade. What we found was that no provision had been made to cover this so we very quickly had to find a solution.”

“Some months into working together, and at a time when we were up against it, I said I thought we could do this for ourselves, rather than do it for someone else,” Jason said. That flippant remark stayed with Jay and would turn out to be the seed that would prove more useful than they could ever imagine further down the line.

Fast-forward to 4 August 2022 and it was a pivotal moment in the careers of Jay and Jason. It was the day that Bournemouth Transport ceased trading after 120 years of operation in the seaside town.

Directors Jay Thornton and Jason Cousins. RICHARD SHARMAN

Moving on

By the time Bournemouth Transport had ceased, Jay was now part time at Yellow Coaches and along with many other employees was TUPE’d over to National Express, along with Jason; the Mobico-owned company took over Yellow Buses’ Yeoman’s Way depot to base its coaches and some of its South Coast operations there. Meanwhile nearby operator Xelagroup purchased Yellow Coaches and also took on the megabus contract, whilst the Golden Tours Bournemouth operation ended and the vehicles were returned to the company’s base in the Capital.

“After being TUPE’d over to National Express, I very quickly left and went to work for Xelagroup,” explained Jay. “Initially this was under the taken-over Yellow Coaches operation, but later led to me shaping operations in Southampton and the Isle of Wight to move away from stage carriage work and concentrate on coaching, where the revenue is.”

Jason explained that: “I had also been TUPE’d over to National Express, to the Luckett’s Coaches division, and soon after found myself sat in a boardroom discussing how they were going to restructure and so on. At that point I thought to myself that I needed a break from this, as I had spent the last eight months working hard alongside Jay to get Yellow Coaches into a very good place. It felt like that time and effort was then wasted. I just needed to recharge, so I agreed to voluntary redundancy and went and took a job in a warehouse packing customer orders whilst I thought about the future.

“I still believed I had a future in the coach and bus industry, but this time I wanted it to be different. I thought back to my flippant remark to Jay that we could do this ourselves a number of months back, and wanted to start afresh, leveraging mine and Jay’s previous experience. So I called him and told him my plan and asked if he was in.”

Jay said: “At the time of the call I was working at Xelagroup, but I thought this idea was not one to dismiss, and I was in a similar position to Jason. I was going through the mill and recovering both mentally and physically from what had happened at Bournemouth Transport. I gave it some thought over the next few weeks and thought ‘you know what, let’s go for it.’ As I was working for Xelacoach at the time, I approached Director Gareth Blair and told him the plan and that I would be going part time until everything was sorted – whilst also assuring him that I wasn’t looking to poach any work from him. And to be fair he really helped to push me to do it, which I am grateful for.”

Two Wrightbus Gemini 2-bodied DAF DB300s are operated. RICHARD SHARMAN


“In February 2023 I was granted my first operator’s licence as a sole trader,” explained Jason, “At this time Jay was part time and was soon to join me. However, the licence came just a little bit too late to gain any of the contract work that the new incarnation of Yellow Coaches had dropped when new owners Xelagroup decided not to pursue operating in the Bournemouth area.

“By this point I had already started trading, but when Jay joined the whole application had to be done again as you cannot transfer a sole trader application to a partnership. This took around six to eight weeks to go through and we then traded as a partnership.

“As the operation continued to grow

and we had to purchase more vehicles, our solicitors advised us that we needed to de-risk financially and become a limited company, so we had to go through the whole process again to finally become Tomorrows Travel.”

The frustrations of some of the slow processes carried out by the Driver & Vehicles Standard Agency (DVSA) were apparent, so I asked Jay and Jason if they thought anything could be improved to help brand new operators’ journeys become easier. Jay summarised: “There needs to be a bit of realisation that provided you can justify that you can maintain the number of vehicles you plan to operate sufficiently, especially when you have volunteered to have an independent audit carried out, I think they need to look at things as they are, and not just from the financial standing perspective. I don’t think that proves anything about someone’s business.

“Hypothetically, we could have absolutely no financial standing in a separate account and still continue trading and maintain our vehicles; it is an archaic system – it doesn’t actually fit with the modern business. Yes transport and safety is rightly governed and regulated, but it is a business nonetheless and there needs to be a realisation that its not about putting commercial before compliance. You don’t need to do that, and we don’t. There needs to be a good balance.

“We adhere to our maintenance regime correctly and no expense is spared on vehicles. If a coach or bus needs a part it is ordered, and we pay our suppliers on time. That is key, as they could go to the Traffic Commissioner if you are not paying your invoices; this is what I mean by financial standing needing updating – there will be operators out there which have plenty of money in the bank, but don’t maintain their fleet correctly, so I don’t see what the purpose of it is any more.

“Years ago it worked, but there is now a lot of shift in our industry and the ideal scenario would be for the DVSA to look at whether an operator is making a profit or are you losing money, and if so, can you continue to maintain your fleet? Probably not.”

“Their has to be an acceptance that a business has to pay bills and staff wages,” explained Jason, “That money used to show financial standing is not going to just sit in an account; as you expand you have vehicles to buy, fuel to pay for and so on. The issue is that they expect that money just to sit there and if you have to dip into it they want to know every detail of why; in their eyes that money is in the account for the running of the business and maintenance, yet they just want to see it sat there.

“I did have a conversation with an account worker at the DVSA in regards to this and they can look at an average balance, and there are other ways of doing it, but that is for businesses that have been established much longer. You can submit audited accounts, but you are not going to get those when you are half way through your first year of trading. So we would like to see a modernisation of the practices around financial standing. That would really help new operators.”

One of the Wrightbus-bodied DAF DB300s is branded for the private Twynham contract. RICHARD SHARMAN

Forming a fleet

“We currently have authorisation to operate five vehicles from our depot near Wimbourne, but starting out on our journey we had to find our first vehicle and we built from that. Our first vehicle was a rental in the form of Wrightbus Gemini-bodied Volvo B7L LX53 BJO. We had approached William Blowfield from Universal Asset Finance looking for a few vehicles to potentially rent. He has probably come across many dreamers who approach him wanting finance to buy their first vehicles, but we laid out to him what we wanted to achieve and he has stood by us all the way. He gave us a realistic view on everything we have looked to do and has supported us, so we are very happy giving him our business. The same goes for the other business which supported us from the outset and delivered on their promises in our set-up stage,” said Jay.

“The first vehicle we actually purchased was an Optare Tempo, YJ07 VSV, for a small contract we had won. Then the plan was to park it up over the six-week school holidays, but that didn’t happen as we had plenty of work coming in to keep it busy, in fact its first revenue earning job was on Glastonbury Festival shuttles,” explained Jason.

“The first double-decker arrivals were Wrightbus Gemini 2 DAF DB300s purchased from William, with the first example being loaned LJ59 LWH as a rental. The first fleet member to arrive in our livery painted by Commercial Coachworks in Oxford was LJ59 LXA. This had been up-seated to 76 seats and converted to single-door. We liked these buses so much we purchased another, with LJ59 LWM arriving shortly after. These buses also have Euro VI emissions due to an Eminox exhaust system being fitted, so that was another bonus for us.

“Further investment has been made in another double-decker, this time a Wrightbus Gemini 2-bodied Volvo B9TL that was up-seated and belted by Ensignbus. Completing the fleet is a Caetano Levante 2-bodied Volvo B9R which has proved to be a really versatile vehicle for us as it can be used on anything,” concluded Jason.

An ideal area

A recent depot move has seen Tomorrows Travel occupy a depot site that has proved to be ideally suited for all of its contracts, and to allow the company to provide rail replacement services throughout the South Coast area with ease. In addition, its maintenance contractor is only five minutes up the road.

“Finding somewhere to base our vehicles has been one of the biggest challenges that we had faced as a business,” said Jason. “Originally I had found somewhere that was very tight for parking and far from ideal for just the one original vehicle. Then we shared some yard space with Transpora in Poole before managing to find this yard, which has been great for us, and such is the demand for spaces like this in the area I arrived hours early before the viewings and said we will take it.

“The landlord did have to make some adjustments for our vehicles though, and this included cutting some branches from a large tree for the double-deckers, and making changes to the entry of the yard by changing the gate. The other thing with this yard is any vehicle that we purchase must be fitted with a ferry lift due to the entrance to it – although we have found this handy with the vast majority of the work we carry out and stops any issues with grounding out.”

One Caetano Levante-bodied Volvo B9R coach is operated by the company. RICHARD SHARMAN

Business is good

It is always humbling when a new business attracts old and new customers, as Jason explains: “Our business has grown massively in a short amount of time, and that is probably testament to the previous relationships we had built and our reputation, but there is a big demand for the services we provide in the area. A huge hole has been left in the area as a 150-vehicle operation disappeared overnight. Morebus filled most of the gaps when it comes to services buses, but that left all the stuff that went alongside those operations; school services, sports trips, private hires and so on.”

“Time keeping and great communication are both keys to success, especially when dealing with schools, and we think we have delivered on our promises, to the point where we are now gaining brand new customers through recommendations, which is really nice to see,” enthused Jay.

“Another tool that we have found useful for both us and the customer is the use of a dedicated app for our customers to track our buses. The system cost around £5,000 to build, and for most new operators this would be a cost they don’t need, but we have found it to be money well spent.

“It has turned out to be a great selling point for our business. We can offer everything the large groups could offer, but don’t. We have been able to make the tracking system bespoke to each customer, so for example a school contract we operate for Wiltshire Council uses the system and the students, parents and school can see exactly where the buses are. This reduces the number of complaints and phone calls, as everyone involved knows the location of the bus.

“We chose Bushub Mobility Platform as our tracking provider as they really get an independent operator’s point of view as they have people working there part time that are also working in the industry. Our relationship first came about because my other company, BH24 Consulting (trading as Festival Buses) had won the contract to provide the shuttle buses for the Bournemouth 7s Festival held on the late bank holiday weekend in May.

“So at that point we thought ‘let’s just get our own mobile app built and then we have it.’ The funny thing is we couldn’t find anyone who would do it for us as we were still a new business, until we found the Bushub Mobility Platform, part of Rise Digital Media.

“We believe it is only a matter of time before Bus Open Data will also be required on school services, so we are already ahead with having that. Our mobile app means we have bus tracking and the timetables included. As these are school services you cannot buy tickets on there, but we have a separate section on the mobile app for our Festival Buses division and customers can buy their tickets for the Bournemouth 7s Festival services on there then track the bus on the day. Its effectively two limited companies sharing the same mobile app.”

Other smart technology used by Tomorrows Travel on two Kura contracts is a mobile tablet mounted facing the students as they board that allows them to scan a QR code when they step on the bus, so that schools can see who is travelling and when via the Kura app.

“We currently have two school contracts through Kura, one to a private school in Christchurch which has a branded vehicle on it, and one for Wiltshire Council right on the edge of the border between Dorset and Wiltshire,” said Jason.

Independent focus

Jason and Jay have a clear vision on what the future holds for Tomorrows Travel but are also realistic, as Jason explained: “We know we are never going to compete with the big bus groups that surround us in terms of money and resources, but we are just focussing on doing what we are doing, and doing it well.

“We originally thought that it would just be Jay and I and a casual driver, but the business has just snowballed. We have had to keep expanding with extra drivers and vehicles to keep up as we grow so just over a year in we have five operator’s licences, five permanent drivers and one casual, and six vehicles with more things in the pipeline.

“If someone had of said to us a year ago that we would be where we are now I would have laughed, but we have done it and we are both proud of this achievement.”

The future looks bright for Tomorrows Travel and it is great to see the independent spirit still being kept alive and well by a new company in an industry that is increasingly dominated by large bus groups.