A coach comeback

06 January 2023

With rail disruption high up the agenda, that steady reliable has come back into its own – the coach.  

Transport Focus has long been a supporter of this unsung hero of the motorways; back in 2019 we worked with Heathrow airport to look at how more people could be encouraged to get there by coach and leave the car at home.

We found then that the image of coach was outdated and stigmatised: 

  • a third thought they were uncomfortable, dirty or old  
  • more than half thought they were infrequent and often delayed by traffic or roadworks. 

The last time I got a coach was a Megabus in about 2005 so I know I’m way behind the times. So when some people I know – including our chief executive – decided to get the coach, I asked them to convince me to give it a try. 

Coming back with family from holiday this Christmas Eve, chief executive Anthony Smith decided to take the coach back from the airport. He arrived earlier than expected and wanted to get an earlier service. Although signage at Stansted wasn’t brilliant, he found his way to a National Express desk and then down to the departures area where the family was shepherded onto an earlier coach and zoomed off into the night. 

His overall review: lots of friendly, helpful and proactive staff including the driver. Some issues with luggage being found, almost inevitable when there are lots of stops. And signage was also poor at the Stratford end of the journey. But overall a really good experience, especially considering the value of the tickets.  

Passengers waiting at a coach station.

Our next reviewer was an artist who needed to get to Sunderland from Manchester, carrying a lot of luggage including some stuff that had to be handled with care as it was destined for sale. A Manchester – Newcastle train would have taken around two and a half hours and cost £30-40. The National Express coach was just under three hours, but only £14. 

The coach station was easy to get to, and around. Toilet facilities did not meet approval despite being 30p to use. The coach set off late as the driver was scheduled to take a break, which seems like slightly poor planning.  

It didn’t seem like much of a big deal until later in the journey when a passenger with a learning disability started to get quite stressed because she was worried she wouldn’t get the help she needed at Newcastle due to their late arrival. The driver was kind but unable to do much, so some fellow passengers attempted to help her.  

Overall the journey was reasonably comfortable if a little cramped – though to be fair the coach was not of the National Express fleet. Other passengers’ music competed with the driver’s radio but my friend had her earphones so it was fine. Difficult to see how you could emulate the train quiet coach – perhaps offer earplugs? 

I also spoke to a student making her way from Leeds to Reading using megabus. She normally goes by rail but because of all the uncertainty with strikes she gave the coach a go.  

Finding the megabus bay at Leeds bus station wasn’t all that easy, and the lack of live departure information (at the station and on the Megabus app which wasn’t working) meant that there were a few anxious moments until the bus finally showed up 10 minutes late.   

The coach itself was clean, there was no problem finding a seat, and there were plug sockets, though the WiFi didn’t seem to be working. The seat itself was reasonably comfortable – though after a six-hour journey anything gets a bit tiring.  The coach was about 30 minutes late overall – but she said she’d had worse delays on trains before.  

The cost was only a few pounds more than she’d have paid for the train – her young person’s railcard making the train fare competitive – but it was a lot slower than the train. She would consider using coach again, especially if she has more luggage, it being much easier to stash it on the coach rather than drag it across London while changing from train to tube. 

Picture of a coach station

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