Monthly Talk 1st November 2018


SPEAKER: James Freeman

I have been thinking about Bath's traffic problems, on and off, all my life. I was born here and grew up in the city until my family moved away when I was fourteen. Since then I have always had friends and family living here and have been a regular visitor, including a seven year spell when I actually lived here again in the 1990s. Now I am back again − and responsible for providing quite a lot of Bath's current public transport, as Managing Director of local bus company First West of England.

Bath's geography, built as it is over seven hills, provides a challenge. The gradients are often steep and the river crossings are restricted. The city lies on a number of through routes, from the north to the south east and west amongst others and the ability to deal with the challenge of congestion and now pollution is very constrained due to the World Heritage Site status of the city and the desire to maintain its background landscape.

So public transport is bound to be part of the answer if people are to continue to be able to move around the city. It already plays a prominent role in some parts − less so in others, the northern slopes, for example. Buses remain an important element of that and First West of England still has a sizeable presence in the city − not a great deal smaller than the Bath bus fleet of the 1950s, although the patterns of use have changed quite a bit in the meantime.

In this talk I will discuss the challenge of how we are to keep the city alive and prevent it clogging up with cars, whether petrol, diesel or electric. What is the effect of the rise of autonomous vehicles? What are the future energy and power possibilities − super−capacitors, hydrogen fuel, or something else, perhaps? How does the switch to modern payment methods and smart information generally change the scene? Pedestrianisation or people-mover? Cable−car or tramway? What will people want?

There is so much to consider. I am not a soothsayer, so I have no idea of what will actually happen, but I can review some of the possibilities. So that's what I shall do! Come and see whether you agree!


James was born and brought up in Bath and has been passionate about public transport in general and especially buses, all his life. It was natural, therefore, that his early employment would be with the Bristol Omnibus Company, which he joined 41 years ago, In March 1975 as a junior clerk at their Lawrence Hill headquarters. After taking a history degree from Southampton University he joined the state-owned National Bus Company and served in gradually more significant appointments, in Swansea, Brighton, Bournemouth and Fareham, Hants. In 1990 he came back to Bath as Managing Director of Badgerline Rapid Transit, where he worked on the development of rapid transit in Bristol. He stayed in the area until 1997.

He then moved to Birmingham to join the educational charity Common Purpose as Programme Director for the city, later becoming Regional Director for the Midlands. During this time he was also a Special Constable for five years, a role he only gave up when he could no longer give the time to it.

In 1999 he re'joined the bus industry, taking senior roles successively in Birmingham, Oxford, Warwickshire and Northampton before moving to Reading as Chief Executive Officer of the local municipally'owned Reading Buses in 2007. Over seven years in Reading the Company won many awards for customer service, based on a programme that transformed the way the staff felt about themselves and their work.

He moved back to Bath in October 2014, when he became Managing Director of the local bus company, First West of England, which operates in Bath, Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire, as well as parts of the counties of Wiltshire and Somerset. He has 1800 staff who between them operate 600 buses across the area.

In this talk James is speaking in a personal capacity and not as a representative of First or BANES