Standards and pride

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
Stanley Travel is a regular at the UK Coach Rally in Blackpool. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch speaks to Stanley Travel’s Andrew and Gavin Scott about the company’s past, present and future

Having marked its 60th birthday in 2021, North East operator Stanley Travel continues to provide a wide range of transport services across the region, and is able to offer everything from a taxi for a single person up to double-deck buses for school transport and luxury team coaches. Currently headed by Directors Ian and Andrew Scott, the company is very much a family affair, with Andrew’s wife Susan in charge of accounts and son Gavin as Transport Manager, though Ian plans to retire from the business at the end of the year.

Gavin is also the person looking after the company’s latest venture in the form of its partnership with FlixBus. I spoke to both Andrew and son Gavin, who chose to join the family business around 13 years ago whilst deciding what to do next after a spell as a professional footballer, to find out more about what makes the company tick, why the diversification into express coaching, and what it has in store for the future.

Like many small family firms, Stanley Travel started small, with ‘two taxis in a wooden hut’ and under the Stanley Taxis name as the business was known when it was founded by Robert and Ann Scott in 1961. When he bought those first two taxis, Robert could probably never have imagined the size of fleet which the company would operate some six decades later or the sheer size of some of its vehicles. He would have been proud, though, to hear that the firm is a member of the Guild of British Coach Operators – which brings with it guarantees of service and standards as well as 24-hour back up should something ever go wrong – as well as holder of the Confederation of Passenger Transport’s CoachMarque accreditation.


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!

Company history

“My Mam and Dad established the business in 1961,” explained Andrew. “My dad had two jobs at the time. He was working as an engineer in one of the local collieries, and was doing taxiing when he wasn’t working down the pit. He worked for a company in Stanley, which he took over when the owners were looking to retire. He finished at the colliery, and bought himself a filling station and MOT garage at nearby Annfield Plain. The business grew from there. Taxis turned into minibuses, Ford Transits, then he had Bedford OBs.

“He started as a sole trader, and then it became a partnership between my Mam and my Dad, my brother Ian and myself. My Mam and Dad retired as directors around a decade ago, so now it’s a 50-50 with Ian and myself. I tend to look after the admin side, and Ian is the fleet engineer.

“We sold the bus service part of the business in 2005 to Go-Ahead. We had a commercial express bus service from Stanley bus station to the Metrocentre at Gateshead, which was running on a 15-minute frequency. We were approached by Go North East to buy the route, but decided we didn’t want to fragment the bus business, it was all the services or none. We sold the service division in its entirety and about 20 drivers, as well as buses, transferred across. After that, we stayed out of the bus market for a few years and invested to grow the coach side.

“We’ve never set out to reach a certain amount of vehicles, staff or turnover. It’s all been organic growth. Having previously operated a mostly Plaxton fleet, Ian decided more recently on Van Hool TXs and VDL Futuras. The Volvo Plaxton combination is a very use-able and sell-able coach, but after we lost the dedicated salesman in the North East, we found ourselves looking at other marques.

“Our older coaches are still Plaxton Volvos. The last Plaxton we bought was a 70-seat Leopard The last new Plaxton we took was a Cheetah; they can be a difficult vehicle for drivers to get in and out of, especially if they’re not slim,” added Gavin. “In that size range, we’ve just taken two more Yutong TC9s. We bought one of the first, and we were initially a bit sceptical. They were new on the market, and we didn’t know what back up and residual values would be like. Pelican Bus & Coach has been fantastic.”

Gavin and Andrew both highlighted the importance of good availability of parts from manufacturers across the board, adding that shortages or delays in the supply chain had caused problems with coaches being off the road for longer than is desirable awaiting parts.

The Plaxton Cheetah remains a relatively rare type. JONATHAN WELCH

Express work

Another recent development for the company, which has worked with National Express for many years, was the provision of a daily coach to FlixBus. Andrew explained more about the decision to start working with the company: “Going back a few years, FlixBus was a bit of an unknown,” he said. “When we were first asked, we looked at the business model and thought it wasn’t for us. We saw the likes of Belle Vue and McGill’s joining up, and started to think that it could be alright for us too. FlixBus had the daily Newcastle-Manchester-Newcastle route in mind for us, alongside Belle Vue which operates it from the Manchester end.

“We decided that the commitment was manageable for us. We’re now discussing other routes, but we want to make sure we’re comfortable with the Manchester line and the relationship with FlixBus before we make a decision. The team at Flixbus have been really good to work with, and they’re really nice people. The dynamic is different to working with other operators or private hire; with those, you get a fixed price before you start and that’s it. With FlixBus, there’s a revenue share model. You can’t look at it as a quick revenue win, it’s a medium-term patience project as patronage and brand awareness builds. I think some operators jumped at the chance during the pandemic when other work was slow, without really thinking it through.

“FlixBus took the time to look at what worked for us; for example they wanted us to stop at Middlesbrough, but that would have added in a lot of time onto the route and would have needed more than one driver. So we don’t serve Middlesbrough, but we do serve Sunderland, which Belle Vue’s trips don’t, so it balances out. They have taken on board other issues we’ve found too and worked with us to find a positive outcome. We’ve suggested looking at adding a Durham stop, which they’ve been looking at.

“And we know that we’re guaranteed a minimum income, so we’re covering costs. We were able to agree a small increase to the minimum guarantee as we were finding that drivers’ shifts were working out to be slightly longer than anticipated.

“FlixBus is very much a tech company, and is constantly monitoring the market. It’s all about analytics. Most of the marketing is online, they don’t do a lot of print advertising, but that works well. When we started, we doubled the amount of seats on the route, and there’s still been good passenger growth on the route. We are extremely happy to hear that our route has been nominated for the Best Express Service award at the UK Bus Awards.”

The work is covered by a small number of drivers on a dedicated rota which cover a couple of days on FlixBus work every week alongside a couple of days on private hire, to maintain variety. Stanley Travel has also adopted a policy of keeping the wheelchair space empty, rather than removing seats upon request or when needed, to ensure the best possible customer service and avoid unnecessary stress for drivers. “Express work is not for everyone, but some drivers like having the knowledge of what they’ll be doing on certain days,” Gavin commented. “We’ve had some drivers looking to do just FlixBus work. It can be quite demanding, it’s a lot to do three or four days in a row. We don’t want drivers to become bored or fed up of it, especially when there are delays on the motorways.”

“We still have a good relationship with National Express too; we don’t do any scheduled work for them but we are on the approved suppliers list and provide duplicate coaches when they are needed, so we did give it a lot of thought before committing to working with FlixBus,” Andrew added.

The company currently has one vehicle dedicated to FlixBus work, a VDL Futura 2 from its existing fleet. Whilst other vehicles are subject to a standard five-weekly inspection, the VDL is now inspected every three weeks due to the mileage it accumulates; a feature of the FlixBus technology allows passengers to be informed that a standard coach will be standing in.

“We didn’t go out and buy a new coach for the contract,” Gavin added, “so that helped to minimise the risk for us.”

Dedicated FlixBus coach OX21 STX crosses Newcastle’s famous Tyne Bridge on its way to Manchester. STANLEY TRAVEL

Mutual respect

The company is clearly satisfied with its decision to start working with Flixbus, and the admiration is mutual; speaking about the partnership, Managing Director of FlixBus UK Andreas Schorling commented: “Andrew and Gavin Scott, and the wider Stanley Travel team take pride in delivering a fantastic service, and their reputation as a high-quality operator is well deserved. We regularly see their routes receiving some of the best customer feedback on our network, and the Newcastle-Manchester route has been recognised in the shortlist for Top Express Service at this year’s UK Bus Awards. We take seriously our mission to democratise travel, and with the recent cancellation of the HS2 extension, it is more important than ever that we continue to build the largest coach network in the UK, providing the north with reliable, affordable and sustainable transport options.”

Gavin and Andrew have been impressed by the technology side of the FlixBus co-operation too, adding that the app available both to drivers and back office staff to monitor passenger bookings is working very well. Interestingly, given the tech-focused approach to booking, Gavin said that the demographic tends to be towards the younger end of the spectrum, under 40s mainly, though not so many students outside the beginning and end of university terms.

Even before joining the FlixBus network, green coaches were no strangers at the Stanley Travel depot, as, thanks to industry connections, Berry’s of Taunton had been using its parking, wash and toilet drop facilities at the northern end of its Taunton-Newcastle route. “We even sold them one of our small fleet cars so the drivers can get to and from their overnight hotel,” Andrew said, adding that Stanley Travel also has a close working relationship with Belle Vue at the opposite end of its Newcastle-Manchester route should either company ever need help or assistance.

“Before Covid, lots of operators were quite isolated, whereas now there seems to be far more collaboration,” he continued. “We’ve always worked with selected other operators; we have a big university contract on a Wednesday for example, and we can use some other trusted local operators to help us out if we need to. But I think more operators are willing to work together now for the good of the wider industry.

Time to reflect

Looking back to March 2020 and how operations have changed, Andrew said: “The tap was turned off. We laid up a lot of our private hire fleet. But then when things started moving, schools were the first to come back. And journeys which were normally a double-decker ran with a duplicate from the private hire fleet to meet social distancing needs. We were also doing duplicates for some of the local bus operators at that time, as their service buses carried a lot of children at school times.

“We didn’t know how things would pan out, but we’ve survived and we’re still here. Pre-pandemic, the company had around 45 vehicles, with up to 51 authorised. The pandemic gave us chance to analyse fleet use. We’ve now got 38, but we’re far more efficient. Turnover and profit has gone up, and we’re far leaner. Beforehand, you just didn’t get a chance to sit down and really drill down and scrutinise things.

“And not just vehicles. Even incidental things like the franking machine. We were tied into a 12-month contract, but we do most things through email now anyway, so we decided we didn’t need it any more. It allowed us to take a good look at the business and dispose of anything that wasn’t needed. That’s one good thing that has come from the pandemic.”

The company’s current workload is made up of around three quarters coach work and a quarter bus, or around 50% coach and 25% bus when the taxi side of the business is taken into consideration, which accounts for the rest, Gavin explained. “The taxi operation serves all of the North East, and we have some good long-term contracts,” he said. “We have around 80 taxis, with about 10 belonging to us with our own drivers, and the are rest self-employed drivers with their own vehicles or who rent vehicles from us and work our circuit. It’s an important part of the business for us. We work for a large number of coach holiday companies which offer feeders, so we can provide those ourselves. For private hire work too, it gives people a single point of contact for whatever they need.”

Each division has to be self-supporting, added Andrew, with cross-subsidy between coach, bus and taxi avoided.

The Yutong TC9 has proved a popular mid-sized coach for the operator. JONATHAN WELCH

Contracts and recognition

“Private hire is pretty steady and growing,” explained Gavin. “But bus can be up and down depending on school contracts. Nexus will only offer one year contracts, which can be quite hard to gear up for as we don’t have spare service buses on our fleet. We’d have to acquire vehicles, whereas an operator such as Go North East has plenty already on its fleet; it can be hard for us to compete.”

Although private hire rates have risen since the pandemic, contract prices have returned to a similar rate, Andrew said, as a result of the plethora of small local operators willing to put in low bids. “It’s a shame as rates were heading in the right direction immediately after Covid,” he added, pointing out that although some operators win work at a lower baseline cost, local authorities ought to consider more than just price when accepting a bid.

“We’re also an Earned Recognition operator, so we put a lot of time into compliance,” Andrew continued, “though there doesn’t seem to be a benefit when it comes to bidding for new contracts. It does mean that when we pull into a school and checks are taking place, though, our drivers don’t need to worry about being checked. But it would be in everyone’s interest if quality was considered. There’s nothing on tender forms to ask for an OCRS score, MOT percentage pass rate, or any other fundamental things like that.

“We were a founding member of Earned Recognition, but I don’t think there’s enough weight behind it when it comes to local authorities. I think, particularly with schools, for an extra £20 or £30 they could have a squeaky-clean operator with an audit trail. It can be frustrating sometimes, especially when people want a lower price. All we can do is explain what we can offer over and above some other operators.”

“It tells people we do things right,” added Gavin. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it, but it gives peace of mind if things do go wrong. As Transport Manager, I’m very hot on compliance. We’re also a member of the Guild of British Coach Operators, which is good for making connections with other operators with high standards.”

Turning to other industry issues, something else which the operator has been keeping a close eye on is the local clean air zone in Newcastle, which, says Andrew, could have been better implemented, leaving operators in a position of limbo awaiting clarity as to when applications for grants to upgrade to Euro VI fleets might be approved.

Gavin also noted that, in line with growing industry sentiment, he believes that the current CPC system is in need of overhaul to make it fit for the future and more suited to purpose.

The company’s depot has workshop facilities to carry out heavy maintenance work, including a set of column lifts from Stertil Koni. JONATHAN WELCH

Future fleet

Considering the variety of work undertaken and the issues around Newcastle’s clean air zone, I wondered whether electric coaches might be on the horizon. “It’s going be something we have to look at,” Gavin said, “probably within the next five years. Our friends Coatham Coaches in Teeside recently took delivery of a Yutong TCe12 electric coach for a specific contract. If you have a client which is willing to pay extra for an electric coach, that can help offset the additional cost, but for general use it’s still a bit of a risk at the minute. Unfortunately coach doesn’t benefit from funding in the same way as bus”

Like a lot of operators, Stanley Travel prefers to purchase new and cascade older coaches down on to secondary or tertiary work to get best value out of its purchases. “Demand is moving towards high capacity vehicles now. Whereas traditionally people wanted 49 seats, now they’re looking for 55 or 57, so that’s what we’ve invested in in recent years,” he continued. “We have a very diverse fleet, from minibuses to double-deckers, so we have to consider carefully where we want to invest.”

Keeping things on the road, a small team, consisting of the family plus Operations Managers Michael Stephenson and Andrew Goodchild, is based at the former depot site, housed in an end-of-terrace modern office, behind which is the previous workshop. Coaches and buses are now based a short drive away at a yard which has washing and fuelling facilities as well as undercover maintenance space, and is a lot easier to access for large modern vehicles.

“It’s a very small but efficient team. We have six engineers, plus operations staff for the taxis as well, and a number of passenger assistants for special needs children who need care whilst travelling,” Gavin explained.

Concluding our chat, Gavin added: “It’s a great industry. It’s non-stop and all hours and requires a lot of time and effort, it’s certainly worth it. I really enjoy it, although if it hadn’t been the family business, I don’t think it’s what I would have chosen. We’re doing better now than ever before; we’re in a good position now, and comfortable at the size we’re at. We provide a great service and because of that, we have, I believe, a good reputation.”

Having weathered the pandemic storm, Stanley Travel has continued to develop a diverse portfolio of work which has seen it bounce back leaner and stronger than ever, and with the enthusiasm shown by the family for everything they do, there’s no reason to think that the firm won’t complete another 60 years of serving the North East, even if the landscape it operates in has changed significantly and the collieries are now long gone.

Neoplan Starliner T1 STX carries a special silver-grey livery and is used for VIP and corporate work. JONATHAN WELCH