The gates at Optare's factory in Blackburn have closed to allow final clearance of the site, bringing 80 years of bus manufacturing in the town to an end. However, the move marks the start of a new era for the company, now reborn, re-energised and secure as part of global busmaker Ashok Leyland.
Formerly the home of East Lancashire Coachbuilders, which traces its history back to 1934, East Lancs expanded in to the current location on Lower Philips Road in 1994 and was soon building both single- and double-deck bodies, establishing itself as a supplier of high-quality buses to large and small operators throughout the UK.
Over the years East Lancs has built trolleybuses, trams, a small number of narrow gauge railway carriages, and also had a high degree of export success with double-deck and open top deliveries to Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Luxembourg.
The East Lancs business became part of the British Bus Group in the late 1980’s supplying not only to the parent group, but also to a large number of municipal operators and the growing number of independents.
On the sale of British Bus Group to Cowies, which later became Arriva Passenger Services, East Lancs once again had to reinvent itself and began to focus on the increasing number of independent operators in the tendered services of Transport for London. As a result, large numbers of double-deck vehicles were sold to Capital Citybus, Harris Bus and Metrobus. However, due to market difficulties and several other factors, the company went into administration in August 2007 but was saved by the Darwen Group a day after the announcement.
In 2008 Jamesstan Investments, an investment company controlled by the Darwen Group purchased Optare and later the same year, a reverse takeover was performed, with the Darwen name being dropped in favour of the much stronger Optare brand.
As part of a 3 year turnaround plan, restructuring of the Optare business started in August 2009 with closure of the Rotherham site followed by relocation of the Leeds factory in November 2011 and now finally the Blackburn closure in May 2012. With all of its bus assembly operations now consolidated into a state of the art facility in Sherburn in Elmet, Yorkshire, the benefits are already showing with production volumes ramping up, demonstrated by the latest UK bus registrations published by the SMMT, showing an increase of just over 50% year to date.
Jim Sumner, Optare CEO said “The task of progressively closing three factories and relocating to a single site has been an extremely challenging process. There were always going to be unpleasant elements which I don’t take lightly, and I sincerely wish former employees all the very best for the future. Could I also acknowledge the support and patience of our customers and suppliers during this difficult transition period. Clearly, in an extremely competitive market, the survival of the business has had to be my prime concern and this process has been a key element in turning the business around.
“Having everything on one site is undoubtedly the most efficient way for any business to operate and we have significantly reduced our overheads and operating costs as a result of this strategy. Under the new ownership of Ashok Leyland, we are now poised to realise the full benefit of this strategy along with the significant product investments made over the past 3 years”
Picture caption: Optare Sales Director, John Horn closes the Blackburn factory gates for the last time.