On the road again

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Now express coach services have restarted in England and Wales, Richard Sharman investigates whether the demand is still there and how these operations have restarted

As we are the midst of what has been coined ‘the new normal,’ the express coach and commuter network has been cautiously restarting operations to test the water for demand.

A lot has happened since March this year when the coronavirus first started to take hold in the UK. My penultimate work visit pre-coronavirus was to York at the start of March. Unbeknown to me at the time, this visit would pretty much set the trend for the next five months.

At the time of this visit there had already been some coronavirus cases broadcast on the news in York, and whilst things seemed to be pretty normal at this point – with tourists starting to return for the season and express coach services busy – you could not buy hand wash or hand gel for love nor money! Returning home I thought the trip was a strange experience but carried on as normal as, back home, there were no issues with any supplies.

Passengers await to board a megabus service in Bristol on 3 July, with the driver wearing full PPE. RICHARD SHARMAN

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The following week it was Cheltenham Festival week, and I was looking forward to covering it.

By this stage, coronavirus was dominating the news, and there were doubts over whether the government would allow Cheltenham races to be held.

Despite fears that a large public gathering would increase the risk of transmission of the coronavirus the event went ahead as planned, and I attended.

Festival week is extremely important, not only to the coach industry but to express coach service providers, which see an increase in patronage to Cheltenham during that week. National Express also operates special services to Cheltenham from all the UK.

The fear of coronavirus did not put racegoers off as 251,684 people attended over the four days, compared to 266,557 in 2019. The final day of the Cheltenham Festival attracted 68,559 compared to 71,593 in 2019.

Just three days after the Cheltenham Festival finished, Prime Minister Boris Johnson advised everyone in the UK against ‘non-essential’ travel and contact with others, as well as suggesting people should avoid pubs, clubs and theatres and work from home where possible. By 23 March, that message was changed to a ‘stay at home’ period which was enforceable by law, with some exceptions such as essential food shopping.

Stagecoach East substituted its normal X5 Plaxton Elite i coaches with MCV eVoRa and Wrightbus Eclipse single-decker buses for three months. 21364 is seen in Bicester with its busway guide wheels clearly visible on the offside front. RICHARD SHARMAN

Suspending services

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement led to the temporary winding down of express operations in England and Wales. Megabus Managing Director Mark Venables released the following statement at the time: “Following the government’s guidance to stay at home and stop all non-essential travel, we’ve taken the tough decision to temporarily suspend our megabus services in England and Wales with no services running after Sunday 5 April, but we’ll still be continuing to run our megabus services within Scotland.”

Express coach services within Scotland continued, because the network covers many rural areas that may not have any alternative transport if services were completely suspended. However, services between Scotland and England were suspended.

National Express followed suit and Chris Hardy, Managing Director of National Express UK Coach issued the following statement: “We kept a limited coach network running to be able to help those individuals with essential travel needs but it is no longer viable to continue to do this.

“Passenger numbers continue to fall as the public rightly follow government advice to avoid non-essential travel.

“The decision to temporarily suspend all services is the right one based on the current unprecedented circumstances and I hope our passengers understand this.”

The last coach arrived in Birmingham from London at 2355hrs on 5 April, before a three-month suspension of all National Express scheduled services.

Given the unprecedented situation, Stagecoach in Oxfordshire-operated Oxford Tube also suspended all services after the end of service on 5 April.

Whilst it was big news for both National Express and megabus to not operate, the news that the Oxford Tube would not operate was extremely significant in that the Oxford to London service had operated every single day since March 1987, including over the Christmas and New Year period when for many years coaches would also serve Heathrow Airport on Christmas Day.

Arriva Kent Thameside was due to commence new Green Line service 720 from Liverpool Street station to Stansted Airport on 1 April using 16 new Mercedes-Benz Tourismos in an updated livery, but this new venture was delayed and the coaches are being stored – although a few are now working on Arriva the Shires Green Line service 757.

The South West Falcon returned to its Plymouth to Bristol route on 1 June. 54322 is seen with a reminder to customers on its destination display about face coverings. RICHARD SHARMAN

Not all services were suspended

Whilst the main national coach networks were completely suspended, this was not the case across the board. Airport services are an important part of the UK coach network, providing transport for airport workers and those returning to the UK that need to get home.

As the coronavirus crisis continued to grow worldwide, many UK residents had been trying to get home since the beginning of March, although airlines started also started recording a slump in demand for air travel as no one was travelling for leisure. This lead to Gatwick Airport closing its north terminal from 1 April, while British Airways suspended all flights from the airport.

First Berkshire-operated RailAir’s two services from Reading and Guildford to Heathrow Airport continued operation for nearly a month after flights were reduced, but the company issued the following statement towards the end of April: “Due to the reduction in demand for air travel as a result of Covid-19, our RailAir services between Guildford, Reading and Heathrow Airport have been temporarily suspended after the last journey on Saturday 25 April 2020, with no services operating from Sunday 26 April 2020 until further notice.”

Arriva-owned Green Line suspended service 757 from 23 April due to a temporary halt to passenger flights to and from London Luton Airport. It carried on operating service 755 between Luton Town Centre and London, with connections to the airport still being possible for airport workers using service A.

Oxford Bus Company’s airline service from Oxford to Heathrow and Gatwick Airports managed to keep running daily throughout the lockdown period on a reduced timetable from 19 April for key workers and passengers, although it was curtailed to Heathrow due to the lack of flights from Gatwick. The service operated to a two-hourly frequency from 0430hrs to 2030hrs from Oxford. Additionally, Oxford Bus Company added High Wycombe Coachway as a stop during this period, which has continued to be part of the current timetable.

A National Express passenger undergoes a temperature check prior to boarding at Victoria coach station in August. RICHARD SHARMAN

Planning to return to the road

There are many complexities to returning express services to the road – it is certainly not something that can be done overnight. Many considerations need to be made before providing the public with a return date. The first consideration was how to protect driving staff, as express coach services are operated, in the main, without driver protection screens specified. This means that all companies had to act quickly to either design in-house or find a supplier of driver protection screens for its fleets.

The South West Falcon, operated by Stagecoach South West, returned to the road on 1 June, a lot earlier than many other services. It was paused from 5 April and during that period the engineering team had fitted perspex driver protection screens in-house to its fleet of eight Plaxton Elite coaches, dating from early 2016.

Stagecoach East’s X5 service, which operates between Cambridge and Oxford every hour, is currently having its 18 Plaxton Elite coaches dating from 2014 retrofitted with driver protection screens by Hants and Dorset Trim at Eastleigh. This situation meant that Stagecoach East had to make some vehicle movements within its fleet to allow vehicles to be loaned to Bedford depot to operate the X5 whilst its coaches were modified.

14 single-decker buses from The Busway are currently on loan from Fenstanton depot. These are made up of two Wrightbus Eclipse 2s, six Wright Eclipse 3s and six new MCV eVoRas.

Stagecoach East told CBW: “The protective screen forms part of the cab door which has been installed to provide protection against infection. The screen is manufactured using polycarbonate and the cab door is manufactured using an aluminium frame clad in an aluminium composite panel. The cab door assembly has been designed by David Clack from Hants and Dorset Trim.”

The Oxford Tube had an even bigger task on its hands, with 32 Van Hool Astromega coaches to be retrofitted with driver protection screens.

Stagecoach in Oxfordshire told CBW: “The screens were designed in house by one of our body fitters. He led the whole process from prototype to final product, including training other people to fit the perspex. The service will be operating with a fleet of 20 coaches to start with.

Some of the 16 Mercedes-Benz Tourismos that were initially for the new 720 service are now operating on the 755 and 757 service. They are the first to wear the new Green Line livery. FACEBOOK/COACH DRIVER ROB

“Each driver has undergone training to introduce them to the new measures in place and any processes that may have changed to comply with these new regulations. This includes how they can continue to interact with passengers and provide the same level of customer service whilst maintaining a safe distance.”

Stagecoach-owned megabus has also had a large number of Plaxton Elite is to retrofit driver screens to. Megabus told CBW: “We’re fitting protective screens to all of our drivers’ cabs to provide a physical barrier between the driver and customer, so we will continue with front boarding for customers with seat reservations (reserved seating is at the front of the coach) and rear boarding for all other seats. Where customers haven’t made a seat reservation, we will be allocating them a seat.

“We will be operating just over a third of the normal locations we serve, but we hope to build this up over the coming weeks. Through CPT, we are also looking at seating layouts for coaches and social distancing rules to determine whether we can increase capacity further.

“We are also carrying out an extensive briefing of our drivers, as there are many new processes in place.”

Caetano sourced and supplied National Express with driver protection screens for the Levantes that operate on its network. These were fitted by National Express’ partner and owned operators.

National Express also told CBW: “We developed a dedicated Covid-19 operations manual covering what is new and how we will return to service safely.

The manual included safe working practices for drivers, changes to vehicle configuration, guidance on new processes such as customer temperature screening and wearing face coverings, access to conflict management materials and links to a useful customer FAQ document.

“All relevant information was added to the Driver Handbook giving drivers direct access to the information they will need.

“Additionally, we also delivered a series of specific Covid-19 training sessions to Driver Training Officers at each partner operator so they can then train their drivers. In our owned operations, we held a number of specific Covid-19 training days for drivers returning from furlough.”

Driver protection screens have now been fitted to megabus Plaxton Elite is. RICHARD SHARMAN

Services recommence

National Express resumed limited services and timetables from Wednesday 1 July, following an 86-day suspension. Chris Hardy, Managing Director of National Express UK Coach, explained: “It’s great to have around 500 drivers back behind the wheel. All of our teams have been working hard to get us ready to safely welcome customers back onboard, implementing significant changes to protect everyone’s health and wellbeing.

“We’re happy to be back on the road and playing our part in getting the country safely moving again by providing a safe option for those who have no alternative to public transport.”

The first service departed from Poole at 0505hrs on Wednesday 1 July to arrive at London’s Victoria Coach Station at 0850hrs. The new timetable focuses on major towns and cities, connecting over 180 locations across the UK and equivalent to around a quarter of the mileage of the pre-Covid national intercity network. The network scope and frequency will be increased in response to demand.

megabus restarted part of its network from 3 July. The revised network restarted serving key towns and cities across England including London, Bristol, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham and Norwich, with connections to many other places. This network has gradually grown as the weeks have gone on.

Mark Venables, Managing Director of megabus, said: “We’re delighted to be getting our coaches back on the road, helping to connect people with friends and family, as well as taking people across the country for staycations and day trips.

“We’ve been carrying out research with our customers and from the overwhelming response we received, we know that people are very keen to get back onboard our megabus services as quickly as possible. With the extra safety measures we have to make sure that our services are Covid-19 secure, and with customers following all the government guidance in place, people can have confidence in travelling with us.

The new driver protection screens that have been designed and installed by Hants & Dorset Trim on Stagecoach East’s X5 Plaxton Elite coaches. RICHARD SHARMAN

“Our team of drivers are eager to get back behind the wheel and out on the road and I would like to thank all of our staff and customers for their continued patience, support and resilience.

“The timetable we are putting in place will provide access to key cities and towns right across the country. Due to social distancing, there will be reduced capacity on coaches, so we’d urge people to plan ahead and book their journey with us early.

“Public transport will continue to play a crucial role in the country’s recovery ahead. As well as helping to restart our economy, it is vital in bringing normality back to many areas of our daily lives, keeping families and communities connected and contributing towards a safer, cleaner and healthier nation.”

The Oxford Tube recommenced operations on Monday 6 July and increased frequency to a 10-minute AM peak service from 31 August.

Green Line reintroduced the 757 service from 5 July, along with additional commuter trips on services 748/ 755/ 758 and 759.

London Commuter services have slowly started to return as some office workers leave the comfort of their home offices to get behind the desk in the city’s office blocks.

National Express-owned The Kings Ferry was the first to reintroduce commuter services, with demand based on a customer survey. Services 719-22, 750/1, 765 and 774 from Medway, Swale and Maidstone recommenced on 13 July.

Redwing Coaches of London recommenced reduced and limited service on the Gravesend area 735/6 routes from 17 August.

Marshalls Coaches’ 771 from Linslade and 772 from Houghton Regis returned from 1 September, having been suspended from 30 March.

Brookline Coaches recommenced service 734 from Ryarsh to the City and the West End from 7 September, having given its customers the option to freeze their annual passes whilst the service was suspended.

Stagecoach East’s X5 service returned with an hourly frequency using single-decker service buses on 14 June. A full service was reintroduced from 30 August, but the service was truncated to only operate between Bedford and Oxford. Passengers wishing to travel to and from Cambridge are now required to use a new double-decker route 905, which has been introduced in partnership with the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to provide a direct and frequent connection from the Bedford/St Neots/Cambourne corridor to the north of Cambridge.

8. Temsa Safari HD YJ16 EKE is seen departing Victoria for Manchester on the 023 FlixBus service. RICHARD SHARMAN

A new contender

Despite the unstable nature of the express coach market, and with passengers only just getting the confidence to travel again, FlixBus went ahead with its planned UK launch on 2 July.

Initial destinations included London, Portsmouth, Birmingham and Bristol although the Portsmouth service was only operated for a short period.

Since the launch, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester have been added to the network.

FlixBus plans to take several million passengers across the country within the first 12 months. The UK will be part of a network that has 400,000 daily connections to 2,500 destinations across 32 countries.

Andreas Schorling, Managing Director of FlixBus UK, said he is confident the company would be the cheapest way for people to travel between the cities they are serving – and expects to quickly add to their destinations: “With the lockdown restrictions easing, people will want to start travelling to see family and friends, go back to university or college or travel for work and we will offer a safe, comfortable and affordable way to do this. On top of that, travelling by coach is the greenest way of travelling in Britain. As we are partnering with local firms, we will also be giving a boost to businesses that have been hit hard by Covid-19.”

Initially, the company will use six coaches from different local firms but will quickly add to this as demand picks up. Andreas added: “This is just the beginning – we have great plans for Britain and aim to grow to market leader by 2025.”

FlixBus does not own coaches or employ drivers but the business model is based on a collaboration with local small and mid-sized companies. These companies, often family-run, have decades of experience in the industry and take care of the day-to-day operations. Kevyn Jones, from Flixbus contractor Turner’s Coachways, Bristol, added: “The travel industry has been badly hit by the coronavirus, so this is a very welcome launch for people who will want to see distant family and friends or conduct business in a safe way as the lockdown ends.”