In his final month as Stagecoach chief executive, Sir Brian Souter unveiled a new ‘sleeper’ coach that could transform long distance coach travel

It isn’t often that the chief executive of a FTSE 250 company is interviewed wearing a onesie, but that is exactly what Sir Brian Souter did last week.

The Stagecoach co-founder will step aside on May 1, becoming the group’s chairman. But, as if to dispel any thoughts that this will see Stagecoach lose some of its verve, Souter was flanked by his successor Martin Griffiths – who was also wearing a onesie.

Souter has long had an eye for a photo opportunity when he has a new product to promote. This time he is keen to get publicity for the launch of a major network of overnight sleeper coach services, which will link Scotland and London from this summer.

Eyebrows were raised in September 2011 when he began testing a sleeper coach service between London and Glasgow using three refurbished Volvo articulated coaches. However, the service is sold out every night and breaks even with an average yield of £40 per passenger.

Having demonstrated that there was an appetite for the service, Stagecoach decided to invest in a purpose-built fleet of sleeper coaches. Belgian bus builder Van Hool is supplying a fleet of 10 14.7-metre double deck coaches, each worth £500,000.

Souter says that a minimum of 40 beds are needed to make the service viable – the new vehicles have 42. From this summer, they will be introduced on three new ‘Megabus Gold’ services linking London with 11 destinations in Scotland. There will be one overnight service on each of the three routes on each direction seven nights a week – requiring six of the 10 vehicles. Two of the remaining vehicles will be kept as spares and the other two will operate on a yet-to-be-announced overnight route.

The services will provide more than 1,764 beds between Scotland and London every week. If the average yield of £40 achieved by the London-Glasgow service is maintained, the London-Scotland sleeper services will generate annual revenue of over £3.6m.

But the vehicles also have another revenue-earning purpose. The articulated Volvo coaches used on the pilot sleeper service currently lie idle during the day, but the new fleet can be converted for operation on daytime services. They can be quickly converted to provide 53 e-leather seats in a spacious two-plus-one formation. Power sockets, free WiFi and a toilet are available.

Vehicles arriving in Scotland in the morning will be used on Citylink Gold services during the day, before returning to London at night. This will provide extra capacity on this premium service, which operates through a joint venture with Singapore-based ComfortDelGro.

Meanwhile, services which arrive at London’s Victoria Coach station will be used for new, yet-to-be-announced daytime Megabus Gold services in England.

“Essentially it is a First Class product during the day and a discount sleeper at night. That’s really what we’ve developed,” Souter explains.

Fare for the overnight services will range from £15 to £60, and Souter thinks that this will appeal to leisure travellers and self employed people.

“Market research on our existing project says that a lot of it is leisure travellers, and the idea is that you can save the price of a hotel bill overnight,” he says.

“I think we will get a lot of people trying it who at the moment are having to get up at half past three in the morning and drive to the airport … The alternative might be that you could get this.

“For example, it comes through Perth at 11 o’clock at night so you can wake up the next morning feeling that you’ve actually had some sleep and you can start your meetings earlier in London.”

Sleeper coach passengers will be offered the choice of a blanket or a onesie, a one-piece sleep-suit identical to the ones sported by Souter and Griffiths last week.

The seats, which are made up of modules of two or four, will be converted into beds by the service’s on-board steward while the coach is travelling.

“We know from our existing service that some people come on [board] and want to go straight to bed actually,” Souter explains. “Some of the modules will be made up early on and if you don’t want to go to bed straight away you can sit in the part of the coach downstairs where there is more seating and the steward can convert those modules later on.”

Strangers will be put next to each other, but Souter does not anticipate this being a problem. Security is provided by an alarm for each passenger, CCTV and the presence of the steward. He says that there has not been a single incident on the Glasgow service, and 98% of customers have said that they would recommend the service to a friend. “I would remind you that if you fly transatlantic on British Airways and you pay £4,000 for business class, you’ll have someone lying next to you,” he adds.

So do Souter and Griffiths see further potential to roll out this kind of service?

“The answer to that is yes,” says Souter. “We think there could be scope to go a lot further with this, and to look at other places where we could repeat it.”

He says the sleeper coach concept will be rolled out in the same way that Megabus was after its launch in 2003.

Griffiths thinks that Megabus is the most exciting thing that’s happened in the intercity bus market in the last 30 years. He estimates that the budget coach service, which now operates in six countries, will generate revenue of £250m in 2013. “The potential could be very significant,” he says, especially in the United States, where there are few competing high speed rail services.

Given the scepticism from some quarters about his sleeper coach idea, does Souter feel satisfied by the success of the pilot service?

“I feel fulfilled about it … because it’s something that I’ve wanted to do for 30 years,” he says.

Back in the early days of Stagecoach, Souter acquired an old Bristol Lodekka with 24 beds from Top Deck Travel, a tour operator which provided trips for passengers aged 18 to 30s throughout Europe and North Africa. The vehicle was very cramped and Stagecoach used it to take supplies out to orphans in Romania for many years.

“At that time I toyed with it. I thought ‘I wonder if I could get away with putting a sleeper product on Glasgow-London’, and of course the only product you could have used was the old diesel clunkers, which is just not good enough,” says Souter.

“But the idea has always been there in my mind and when we did the artic trial about proof of concept, clearly there was a good appetite for it.”

 

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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