FirstGroup was created when the buses were deregulated in 1989, and today is the UK's largest bus operator, carrying three million passengers a day in 40 towns and cities. Its rail operation carries more than 300 million rail passengers a year, on franchises including First Great Western, First Capital Connect and First ScotRail. The company's transport empire extends as far as Greyhound buses in America.
Britain's railway system was recently judged the worst in Europe for fares, efficiency and comfort, which makes it perhaps unfair to single out just one operator. But FirstGroup's franchises in the south west and south east have drawn particular scorn, rebranded by passengers as "Worst Late Western" and "First Crapital Connect". They often lurk at the bottom of performance tables.
In 2012, FirstGroup was awarded the contract to run the West Coast rail line – and then had the offer withdrawn when the government admitted serious flaws in the bid process. Virgin's Richard Branson called FirstGroup's bid “absolutely preposterous” and said it risks "almost certain bankruptcy”. Branson would say that – but in this case he had both city analysts and the RMT union on his side. The RMT pointed to projections showing FirstGroup's targets would require huge fare rises, and cuts to jobs and onboard catering.
Taxpayers will have to foot the bill of at least £40m to compensate the four shortlisted West Coast bidders, while the government decides what to do next.
FirstGroup is nominated for:
Operating some of the most overcrowded trains in Britain.
(Source: Guardian 12/8/11, ITV News 5/7/12)
Performing poorly in passenger surveys. The National Passenger Survey placed First Capital Connect second from bottom, while Which? placed it third; just 34% said it offers value for money.
(Source: Passenger Focus 28/6/12, ITV News 22/3/12)
Running a service so bad that commuters dressed as cattle and refused to pay for tickets.
(Source: Daily Mail 28/1/08, Guardian 28/1/08)
Inflation-busting bus fare rises on routes around the UK.
(Source: Bristol Post 9/3/12, Glasgow Extra 28/3/12, Manchester Wired 12/7/12)
Providing reduced and unreliable bus services despite a 45% increase in profit to £448m.
(Source: Bus and Coach 23/5/12, Manchester Evening News 7/2/12, STV 25/7/12)
Chief executive Tim O'Toole's £760,000 "retention" bonus – which triggered a shareholder revolt – on top of his £1m annual pay.
(Source: Telegraph 19/7/11, FirstGroup Annual Report 2012)