National Success

News stories are free to read. Click here for full access to all the features, articles and archive from only £8.99.
Old and new – the latest Levante 3 dwarfs its earlier cousins. JONATHAN WELCH











Jonathan Welch reports from the recent National Express 50th anniversary event at Wembley stadium in London

Whether you are a regular coach passenger or not, there can be few people across the UK who haven’t heard of National Express, even those living far away from the company’s current route network. Famous for its white coaches which have been plying the motorways and A-roads of Great Britain for five decades, National Express recently held a special event at London’s Wembley Stadium to mark its half-centenary of keeping Britain moving.

Are you enjoying this feature? Why not subscribe to continue reading?

Subscribe for just £10 a month with our annual print and digital offer, Or login if you are already a subscriber

By subscribing you will benefit from:

  • Operator & Supplier Profiles
  • Face-to-Face Interviews
  • Lastest News
  • Test Drives and Reviews
  • Legal Updates
  • Route Focus
  • Industry Insider Opinions
  • Passenger Perspective
  • Vehicle Launches
  • and much more!

The national operator has a long-standing relationship with the sports and entertainment venue, and is its official coach supplier until at least 2023, providing direct services from destinations across the country to allow spectators easy access to the venue. The stadium is home to the England football team, as well as playing host to events such as the FA Cup semi-finals and final and major music acts.

For the special event, visitors were greeted with a line up of coaches representing different eras of National Express travel – and which served as a reminder of how good today’s coaches actually are. Interestingly, a quick look around before heading inside to meet the National Express team made me realise that although the technology has come on in leaps and bounds, as has the level of comfort, the expected high-back seating and tinted glazing did make the (much larger!) new Levante 3 feel slightly more claustrophobic than the low seats and clear glass of its earlier siblings.

With the ending of pandemic restrictions, and despite increasing competition from teams wearing blue and green, it seems National Express has good reason to celebrate its 50 years on the road, as it reports clocking up over 70% of its pre-pandemic mileage last month. It has been building back its inter-city network and is anticipating a busy summer season as demand for affordable and reliable travel grows, especially in the face of rising fuel costs.

In recent weeks, as well as ramping up services, the operator ran its first service from Nottingham’s new Broad Marsh Bus Station on 14 June, replacing the temporary stops which were in place while the new facility was developed. The first coach to use the new bus station, which has seating areas, a ticket and information office, electronic display information, customer toilets and 24/7 security services, was the 180 to Glasgow in the early hours of this morning, with more arriving and departing throughout the day. The firm will be operating around 400 services a week from the new location, with routes linking the city to London Victoria, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Glasgow, and airport services to Heathrow and Luton.

Speaking about the opening which provides a new, welcoming place to wait at a time when the operator is keen to attract new passengers, Service Delivery Director Ed Rickard commented: “We very much welcome the improved connectivity that the new Broadmarsh Bus Station will bring to Nottingham, providing state-of-the-art facilities for our passengers’ convenience and comfort. As demand for affordable and reliable travel grows we’re building back our network and it’s great to be able to serve our customers in Nottingham with frequent intercity services at great value fares.”

Three generations line up in front of Wembley Stadium. JONATHAN WELCH











History books

I spoke to current Managing Director Chris Hardy about the business today, and to Peter Robinson about the enthralling book he has co-authored with Harry Cameron looking back at the history of National Express.

I started by speaking to Peter, whose book takes us back to the early days of long-distance travel to give background to the operations of what became National Express. The National Express journey itself began in 1972, when the majority of long-distance coach services operated by the National Bus Company were brought together under one brand, ‘National.’ The plain white livery was controversial at the time, and decried by some as an outrage where it replaced more lavish local colour schemes. Nonetheless, it has stood the test of time, with various incarnations of logos and designs, but always retaining the familiar white, for the main coach network at least.

Peter explained that the commemorative book ‘National Express – The journey of an iconic brand’ had come about almost by accident as he had been writing a book about the history of coach and bus travel. A chance conversation led to the suggestion that he should write a book on National Express to mark its upcoming 50th anniversary. “I was looking for a specific picture to use on the back cover of my other book,” Peter said, “and got in touch with National Express. It was fortuitous timing. We started the conversation in September last year, and by November I was looking through their archive. I really like coach travel, and thought it was an excellent opportunity as there seem to be lots of books about buses, and lots of preserved buses, but there is much less interest in coaches.”

In his role as an academic, the relationship between the coaches, the travellers and the roads is something that Peter was keen to explore. “There’s an intrinsic relationship with motorway services,” he added, reminiscing about his own time travelling to and from school aboard a Plaxton Expressliner, a type once a mainstay of the National Express network.

Another part of the history which Peter found interesting was the focus on branding, and he devotes many pages to looking at the evolution of the National Express brand and its sub-brands, as well as the design manual which set out how the new look was to be achieved; very much against the grain in the early 1970s when each local area had a strong and fiercely-defended local identity. “It is interesting that the same brand is still used now,” he said, “having sustained through public sector ownership, a limited company and a PLC.
“When I wrote the book, I was keen to focus on the coach business,” he added, “But we’ve included a timeline to set the scene and show other things the business has done. I maybe underestimated how much National Express has done in terms of innovation and safety, and in developing coach travel, especially from the 1990s onwards. The Expressliner and then the collaboration with Caetano, for example.”

Very much of its era is Royal Blue ECW-bodied Bristol RELH6G, with what would have been an impressive interior for its time. JONATHAN WELCH




















The business today

Turning to Chris, we discussed how the business has fared recently, and what the future holds.

“The rising cost of living is hitting everyone’s pockets,” he noted. “We’re seeing more and more people look to us to help them be able to afford to get where they want to be – whether that’s to see friends and family, go on holiday, attend events, visit attractions or get to University. Fifity years ago, we represented great value. Fifity years on, we still do. In 1972 a ticket from London to Birmingham cost £1.20. In today’s money that would be £13.89 but the actual average 2022 price for the same journey is only £8.15. That shows what great value we have always offered.

“We’re incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved over those years. National Express is central to many people’s lives and transport needs. We’re just as relevant now as we always have been. There’s been a huge change in the level of quality punctuality and safety that we provide, and taking the coach is more environmentally friendly too.

“In the last two months, we’ve had an increase in frequency and new routes which seen given us 2,000 services per week added to the network with further growth planned.” Some recent developments include services from Plymouth and Great Yarmouth to London and a
new route from Canterbury to Stansted Airport.

“Coach travel has moved on immeasurably in the last fifty years. Today, journeys are quicker and more reliable and our coaches are safer and more comfortable than ever. We’ve set ourselves a target of a zero carbon fleet by 2035 whilst continuously investing to ensure we have the newest and greenest vehicles currently available on the road, so choosing to travel by coach is good for the environment as well as the pocket.”

The route network has changed as demand has waxed and waned over the years, with a shift in focus as travel patterns have moved on. The most popular National Express destinations were London, Bournemouth and Blackpool, but today the operator says that airports and big cities such as Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester have taken over as its more popular destinations. Its overnight London to Dublin service, operated in partnership with Bus Eireann, is also due to resume following its two-year pandemic-induced hiatus.

Nonetheless, the road ahead is far from clear. “The market is tight just now,” Chris said. “There is a driver shortage, and increasing costs to consider. We’ve done our best to support our partner operators during the pandemic. It was the right decision. We took the stance that we wanted to be as moral as we could be. It meant some hard decisions, but we favoured furlough and did our best to keep things going. The payback came when it was time to restart as operators were able to return quickly.

“I want to emphasise my thanks to the operators for their help and support. We were changing the timetables every week at one point. I hate to use the phrase ‘silver lining’ but it gave us the chance to look at what we were doing again from afresh. We’ve focused on Birmingham Interchange to make sure north and south connections work well and to increase the potential journey opportunities.

“We’ve focused on getting the timetables right too. We need to – and we do – demonstrate comparable levels of punctuality against rail. We need to make sure our timetables are realistic for here and now, and reflect the time of day. The ebbs and flows of traffic have changed. We’re lucky to have an excellent planning team.”

Something that may be even closer to the forefront of people’s minds in a week when mass rail strikes are being planned is comfort. “There’s lots to be positive about,” Chris continued. “it’s not just a good way to help the environment. You’ll always get a seat on board too.” Luggage is often much easier on the coach too, he said, although airport routes often come close to capacity. “There’s no need to struggle on the Tube to get to a London airport,” he said. “People who don’t normally use the coach are always pleasantly surprised how easy it is. Our levels of recommendation and satisfaction are high.”

Double-deckers such as this Neoplan Skyliner were once familiar sights across the network. NATIONAL EXPRESS ARCHIVE











This Leyland Leopard with Plaxton Supreme bodywork was new in 1980. The interior appears functional and basic compared to today’s offering. JONATHAN WELCH






















Turning to the growing competition, I asked Chris his thoughts. “The competition is all fine and fair,” he said. “The more people are advertising, it is increasing the size of the market for everyone. I think eventually the market will end up bigger than it was in 2019. We’ve already got routes which are at over 100% of 2019 levels. We carried 21m people in 2019. We have an aspiration to reach 30m.

“Our ‘core’ intercity routes have come back faster than our airport and cross-country services. It’s a little hard to unpick the data, as the network is very different now. Things were really strong at Easter and for the Jubilee, and we’re seeing a lot more leisure travel. One of the joys of coaches is that it’s relatively easy for us to put on extra coaches to meet demand.

“I think there’s a real opportunity for inter-city coaching to play a role in the ‘levelling up’ agenda. Coaches can link places with no other transport links. It would be quite quick to install a coach network. We need to be brave, and we need to work with the Government and stakeholders.”

For the future

Across its business, National Express has already pledged to move to a zero-emission fleet. “We have committed to cease buying new diesel buses in the West Midlands,” Chris said, “and we’ll do the same for coaches by 2035. We’re working closely with chassis and body manufacturers and we expect to start to see trials of new vehicles in the next few years.”

Chris noted that he thinks shorter routes might move over to electric operation, whilst longer ones will probably require hydrogen-powered solutions. “It won’t be easy, but it’s a legal requirement from the Government, and a moral requirement on us too. We want to lead the way when it comes to zero emissions, and we believe it is something that larger players like National Express can help with. If all the big groups and hauliers push hard, we will get there.”

Safety is another hot topic for the company, and it has been at the forefront of installations of systems such as Alcolock and fatigue monitoring. “It’s not about catching people out or making the job harder. We’ve found undiagnosed illnesses and health issues and been able to help. Fatigue is an awful indicator for accidents.

“We’re immensely proud of our safety record. We also installed speed tracking and g-force activated cameras that record the last 30 seconds in the event of an incident, which lets us see what has happened. They’ve been very useful for investigations. Vehicle design is becoming a bigger part of it now too, with technology such as lane guard. We’re seeing a big push on driver oversight.”

National Express Managing DIrector Chris Hardy and book co-author Peter Robinson. JONATHAN WELCH












The coaching division has expanded its wings considerably in recent years, almost bringing the story full circle. From being born out of private coaching operations, the company has taken over a number of well-known brands across the country, including The Kings Ferry and Lucketts, to enable it to grow in fields outside express coaching and offer private hire and business-to-business services.

On the issue of the potential Stagecoach take-over, Chris said that although he believed it would have worked well, ultimately it was for Stagecoach shareholders to decide. “We have ambitious plans,” he said, “and that doesn’t throw them off course.”

With a constant eye on its fleet profile – the front-line coaches are worked hard! – the company maintains a constant investment to keep the average age low. Around 50% of coaches on the main network are now Levante 3s, one of which was available for a ride and drive around the concourse at Wembley as part of the media event. In the last five decades, the company’s iconic white coaches have clocked up around 3.8 billion miles travelling the length and breadth of the UK, playing a part in the lives of millions.

“We’ve have been a part of people’s lives for half a century and it’s been great hearing stories from our customers and staff, past and present – from couples who met on the coach and are now married, recollections from our long-serving drivers and coach station staff, to tales from our former jolly hostesses. I’m incredibly proud of our achievements and look forward to continuing our journey as the nation’s number one coach operator,” Chris concluded.