Preston's bus war... it won't be over for Christmas

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It was May this year when Preston's bus wars first came to the public's attention.

Buried within what looked like a standard document from the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency was the news that Stagecoach could begin running services on some of Preston Bus' traditional routes.

The rest is history.

Six months on, many regular city bus commuters will struggle to remember a time when Stagecoach and Preston Bus were not at each other's throats.

What started off as an alarming situation for people beseiged by vehicles on a handful of routes has descended into an increasingly bitter battle for supremacy – the national giants versus the established local firm amid an ugly backdrop of accusations, allegations of bullying, spying and egg throwing and calls for boycotts.

The question for Preston commuters now is not so much what can be done, but will the war ever end?

Over the past two months Preston Bus boss Peter Bell has voiced his concerns about what he sees as Stagecoach's flagrant attempts to force his firm out of business.

Councillors have weighed in with their opinions too – with former Preston Bus employee Frank De Molfetta calling for all Preston people to boycott Stagecoach.

The city's MP Mark Hendrick even brought up the issue in Parliament, accusing Stagecoach of trying to push Preston Bus off the road.

Throughout the entire episode though, Stagecoach spokesmen have rarely been outwardly critical in return.

But today, the bus giant came out fighting.

In a furious riposte, managing director Les Warneford has accused Preston Bus of conning residents and councillors into believing they have some interest in the company.

He claims the company has used underhand tactics and put out a "barrage of propaganda and disinformation".

And he lays into councillors who have called for a boycott, calling the idea "a disgraceful insult to our loyal and hardworking staff."

He says: "I am now prompted to respond after the disgraceful behaviour of some local councillors.

"Our local Preston company, Ribble Motor Services Ltd, has a long tradition of public service within Preston and Lancashire.

"It is run by local people for the benefit of local people and we contribute to the local economy."

He adds: "Peter Bell would have residents and councillors believe that they have some interest in his company. The truth is that it is privately owned by Peter and some of his colleagues.

"He neglects to mention that Preston Council sold the company in a private deal, paid for by the fares from his passengers. Stagecoach has been accused of underhand tactics in expanding its services. There has been no mention of Preston Bus's own tactics of operating numerous unregistered duplicate buses in front of ours, of its drivers blocking in our buses, of its supervisors watching our departures and directing extra buses to run in front of us or the personal haranguing of our drivers and supervisors.

"We expected all of this and have repeatedly advised our staff not to rise to the provocation, but unfortunately human nature sometimes takes over."

More seriously, he claims the company has submitted a dossier to Traffic Commissioner Beverley Bell of Preston Bus employees behaving badly.

But unsurprisingly, Mr Bell retains a slightly different view of events.

He says: "Preston Bus is owned by employees, we have made no secret of that. The majority of staff are shareholders in one way or another, so he is wrong on that.

"The idea we are operating extra buses against them is rubbish. We operate buses at a five to six minute frequency and that is our norm.

"Our staff have behaved excellently compared to the terrible approach of their bouncers against us.

"The Evening Post has picked up on how aggressive their bouncers are.

He (Mr Warneford) is writing a letter from up in Scotland and he doesn't know what is happening on the ground.

"Stagecoach make no attempt to keep to a timetable. We try very hard to keep to ours but they just put on buses galore.