Top 5 UK Bus operators

For anyone interested in bus operators and bus companies in the UK, this article gives you a little information about the major ones operating today.

The Big 5

Most local bus services in the UK are run by 5 large companies – the Big 5. These emerged throughout the 1990s following the privatisation that occurred during the 1980s. Some of the ‘Big 5’ also have coach services, rail services or overseas transport too.

Arriva UK Bus

This company, officially Arriva UK Bus is a major operator in the UK and is based in Sunderland. Arriva UK Bus is an Arriva subsidiary, who run transport services throughout Europe.

There are almost 6,000 buses in operation and 16,000 employees of Arriva UK Bus. The buses operate in Wales, the Midlands, Yorkshire, South East England, Nort West England, North East England and London.

The network of buses originates from the acquisition of British Bus in the summer of 1996 and Grey-Green in the 1980s.


In terms of branding, Arriva London buses and Transport of London buses are red as is typical for the capital. Some Arriva buses are blue (those that are Tiger Blue), some are orange (Yorkshire Tiger buses) and New Enterprise Coaches are red and white. There is also different branding in some regions with premium services having Sapphire branding and interurban services have Max branding.


This Public Limited Company is a British-owned multi-national group that is based in the city of Aberdeen in Scotland. FirstGroup operates in the UK, Ireland, The USA and Canada and is listed on the London Stock Exchange, being an FTSE 250 Index constituent.

This company came about after the bus services deregulation in 1986 when private companies bought out municipal and nationalised bus operators.

This is the largest bus operator in Britain and runs more than 1/5th of all local bus services in the country. There are almost 9000 buses belonging the FirstGroup and the companies operate in over 40 major cities and towns with an average of 2.9 million passengers using the services each day.

FirstGroup also runs rail services too including franchises of TransPennine Express, South Western Railway, Great Western Railway and Avanti West Coast. The company also runs Hull Trains but this is not a franchise. London Tramlink is also run by FirstGroup and transports 24 million people each year for Transport for London.


Go-Ahead Group is based in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England and runs operations in the UK, Ireland, Germany, Norway and Singapore. It is part of the FTSE 250 Index and is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

This company began its services as Go-Ahead Northern Ltd when the National Bus Company privatisation occurred in February 1987.

The Go-Ahead group operate in the following places in the UK:

  • Brighton and Hove
  • London (Blue Triangle, Docklands Buses, London Central, London General, Metrobus)
  • The North East of England (Go North East – this was the founding company of the Go-Ahead Group, East Yorkshire Motor Services)
  • The North West (Go North West)
  • The South Coast (Bluestar, Damory, Excelsior coaches, More, Salisbury Reds, Southern Vectis – Isle of Wight, Swindon’s Bus Company, Tourist Coaches, Unilink – Southampton)
  • East Anglia (Go East Anglia, Chambers, Hedingham, Konectbus)
  • Oxfordshire (Oxford Bus Company, Thames Travel, Carousel Buses)
  • Plymouth (Plymouth Citybus)
  • Cornwall (Go Cornwall)

The company also operates buses in Singapore (Go-Ahead Singapore) and Ireland (Go-Ahead Ireland, which operates buses in Dublin).

The Go-Ahead Group also has some rail franchises. These are operated via Govia jointly with Keolis. These include:

  • Govia Thameslink Railway – this franchise is due to be renewed in 2021 and operates under the brands Southern, Great Northern, Thameslink and Gatwick Express.
  • Southeaster – this franchise was due for renewal in 2020 but has been extended for two years.

National Express

This group is a multinational transport company with its headquarters in Birmingham. The National Express Group operates coach, bus, tram and train services in the UK, Canada, the USA, Spain, Malta, Portugal, Germany, Morocco and Bahrain. It also operates coach services that are long-distance across Europe. The company is listed in the FTSE 250 Index and is on the London Stock Exchange.

In terms of its history, the National Bus Company in the UK was state-owned and decided to bring its schedules coach services together as one brand. The new business model was overseen by Sir Frederick Wood who was an industrialist and prominent businessman. He was chairman between 1972 and 1978. The bran was initially called National but then it was changed to National Express in 1974.

During the 1980s, The National Bus Company was privatised and thus, the National Express Group had a management buyout in 1988. Then in 1991, the company hired a new management team who then went on to buy Speedlink. Speedlink operates services between Heathrow and Gatwick airports. National Express first floated on the stock exchange at the end of 1992.

Stagecoach Group

The last of the ‘Big 5’ bus operates is Stagecoach Group. This transport company has its headquarters in Perth in Scotland. Stagecoach runs buses and express coaches throughout the UK and is listed on the London Stock Exchange. In the past, Stagecoach had operations across Europe, North America, Oceania, Asia and Africa too.

Like others in the ‘Big 5’, Stagecoach came about when the markets we deregulated during the 1980s. Stagecoach’s routes do trace back to a couple (Ann and Robin Cloag) who set up a small minibus hire service in 1976 using the business name Gloagtrotter in Perth, Scotland. Ann Gloag, along with Stagecoach Group’s founder Brian Souter (her brother) have the largest portion of shares with 26% combined shareholding.

One division of its services that is unique to the Stagecoach Group is the Sheffield Supertram. This has been operating since 1997 and is operated by Stagecoach with a concession by South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive. There are around 34, 000 passengers using the Supertram each day, which equates to over 12 million people a year. The tram services were not expected to be as popular as it is. Three lines are currently in operation: a blue route, a yellow route and a purple route. Recently, the lines have expanded and there is now a Tram Train service going from Sheffield to Rotherham. The trams switch to travelling on train tracks at the edge of the city.