I have always believed that coaches are a hugely under-rated part of the transport mix. Could a wave of rail strikes change that?

I’ve been celebrating coaches since I launched Greyhound UK in 2009

Back in 2009, I dreamt up and launched Greyhound UK with a vision of creating a nationwide, high quality, customer-centric, point-to-point express coach proposition. I genuinely believed the time had come for coach travel to be viewed as mainstream – not just a viable alternative to rail but one capable of claiming supremacy.

I often tell you about the sheer indifference that my three tin lids (ages 20, 17 and 15) have towards bus travel – this being all the more shocking given that their father’s livelihood has, to a large extent, been provided by the sector. Ask them about coaches and they will be even more apathetic. Their only awareness or experience of travelling by coach will be very occasionally as part of a transfer from a foreign airport to a resort we might have booked for a holiday or school trip. I told them last week that there is a national coach network that offers an alternative to rail travel to a multitude of destinations and they looked completely bemused and uninterested.

With the imminent and likely to be prolonged rail strike, could this finally be the chance for bus and coaches to shine and fill a gap so well that their legacy is to genuinely be viewed with parity in terms of rail on many journeys where they are currently considered to be second string? Can the coach sector, in particular, make a breakthrough in public consciousness and challenge the idea that it is the poor relation of long distance travel?

National Express indicated last week that demand for coach travel was returning towards pre-pandemic levels but its strategy of low fares to increase volume during the cost of living crisis would depress margin recovery. This targeted approach of stimulating the market again, as rail has done with the recent ‘Great British Rail Sale’, seems prudent. With high levels of inflation, the opportunity for coach is great. Its hugely attractive prices, particularly the many dynamic fares and a cost and network model that is less burdensome and more flexible than rail, gives it a strong advantage. So too, the flexibility it has in pricing and timetabling.

To an extent, though, sometimes I worry that National Express – as it was when we launched Greyhound UK – is so concerned about losing its market leading position that perhaps it will be reluctant to collaborate with other coach operators to provide a compelling proposition for the sector as a whole. There will also be a reluctance to do so due to a fear that the competition authorities will suggest collusion.

During any rail strike, the coach and bus sector needs to embark on a concerted marketing campaign to raise awareness of the presence and availability as an alternative to keep the country running and also to highlight that their proposition is very much on a par, if not better, than rail

During any rail strike, the coach and bus sector needs to embark on a concerted marketing campaign to raise awareness of the presence and availability as an alternative to keep the country running and also to highlight that their proposition is very much on a par, if not better, than rail. Indeed, a ‘coach or bus is for life not just for Christmas/rail strikes’ should be very much the mantra of any messaging.

I don’t feel I’m being disloyal to rail here, nor am I suggesting cannibalisation of its existing market. My number one love is the railway, followed by Crystal Palace FC, so there’s no breaking rank here. I just think that the sector and indeed its militant employees, need a bit of a wake up call to realise that it doesn’t have a stranglehold on travel. It cannot and should not set exorbitant fares that the market cannot bear, nor high wages and unbridled job security or complacent customer service. My aspiration is for the coach and bus sector to up its game and be within the consciousness of the populace such that we’re growing the overall market for public transport, rather than creating mass migration between modes.

National Express, the predominant operator, has a track record of slick, well-run marketing. However, it would be interesting to see the results of a campaign that might more explicitly seek to dispel preconceived ideas of coach travel, as slow, untrendy and antiquated, of people feeling sick on-board and of noisy and smelly customers and grumpy drivers. It’s also always surprised me that it hasn’t been on the front foot more in extolling the benefits of coach versus rail. Whenever I’ve persuaded customers to try out a coach instead of a train, they’ve always been pleasantly surprised. Maybe they are just being polite because they never then convert to coach. This is where digital marketing needs to be more powerful, so it’s not just me that’s encouraging them to try the coach again. The message should also focus as much on the overall customer experience benefits, as it does on the pricing differentiators.

Coach marketing tends to mostly concentrate on its primary competitive edge, which is fares. Whilst this is important, particularly during the ‘cost of living crisis’, the on-board journey can be quieter, more secure, less stressful and more comfortable, and on some flows, more convenient than rail. Campaigns should also focus on the widest possible market, not merely price sensitive students, but all demographics – and not forget that even those folk with a high discretionary spend still like a bargain!

In addition to a high profile and thought-provoking marketing campaign, the coach and bus sector should reconsider, temporarily during the strike, at least, its network proposition. There will be plenty of routes that do not offer an attractive alternative to rail because they’ve never been set up to do so and instead target other markets – connecting with rail stations but making prolonged deviations en route to pick up customers that have no intention of travelling between the two. I’m not suggesting scrapping these routes, more seeing whether they can be alternated with point-to-point services where extra vehicles and drivers can be drawn upon (easier said than done, I know!), to enable both products to be provided during the cessation of rail services.

For coaches to genuinely prosper as an alternative, a radical re-think needs to be given to the whole network and service profile

For coaches to genuinely prosper as an alternative, a radical re-think needs to be given to the whole network and service profile. There are very few point-to-point, non-stop coach services, or those that call only at key locations. As we all know, the more the stops, the longer the journey time becomes by comparison to rail, because dropping into a town or city on a coach tends to mean a lengthy detour off the nearest motorway, much to the chagrin of customers. For coaches to make the breakthrough, they need to sacrifice some of these longer, all consuming trips which try and cram in as many locations as possible on a typical trip between London and an end destination. We also need to find a genuine, attractive hub location on the outskirts of the capital to avoid the rabbit warren journey by coach to and from Victoria. For those who want to go into the heart of Zone 1, there should be an all-inclusive Tube or bus ticket or even an Uber option.

Some kind of compliant but more customer focused operational solution to ensure that the safety legislation that understandably constrains the hours at which a driver is working, may be needed. Currently, the rules are somewhat the nemesis of coach travel from a product perspective, rendering it attractive only to the price sensitive and those with lots of time on their hands.

Additionally, when coaches do have to make a stop, better advance communication should be made so that customers understand what’s happening and why. It never ceases to amaze me how coach drivers and their employers seem to assume that customers are aware why they’ve just got to stop the coach for 45 minutes and they have to boot them off the vehicle. Indeed, when disruption has occurred to coach services, there’s nothing more infuriating than when the delay is further prolonged and the driver unsympathetically just tells customers ‘I’m out of hours’ as if they understand what he or she is saying.

Over the years, there has been investment in the experience at railway stations. That hasn’t been mirrored at coach stations and a gap has emerged

There also needs to be investment in coach stations. National Express have worked wonders with redevelopment of several key locations, though many of the smaller stations that it serves – stops and waiting areas shared with other operators or run by local authorities – are still ‘municipal’ in appearance and information provision and customer service is variable. Over the years, there has been investment in the experience at railway stations. That hasn’t been mirrored at coach stations and a gap has emerged.

Coach drivers are an interesting bunch too, oft-described as a species of their own. At worst they are seen, like long distance lorry drivers, as introverted, enjoying lengthy forays in solitude on non-descript motorways staring ahead and not having to stop much to interact with customers. At best, though – and when you get to know them – they have, more patience and customer-centricity than their equivalents on a bus. Like an airline pilot, they tend to have a sense of accountability for all customers on-board, and this extends beyond safety stewardship into pastoral and customer care. It’s also their vehicle and they have a sense of pride and fastidiousness towards the way it is presented and cared for – a bit like a steam train driver, back in the day.

I have also found them particularly receptive to new ideas. They aren’t often engaged with by managers or those accountable for shaping the brand and developing revenue, partly because much of the time they are just working as outsourced contractors. When coach drivers are asked for their thoughts and encouraged to try a new, maybe more time-consuming approach to improving customer service, they tend to rise to the challenge. In some respects, they feel under-appreciated and the novelty value of being placed at the centre of decision-making provides variety to the repetitive rigours of the ‘day job’. There’s also less customer service training provided for coach drivers. Again, they are seen as the forgotten part of the branded customer proposition.

I vaguely remember the prolonged national rail strikes of 1982 and 1994 and recall commuter coach services being run to substitute for rail. Back then, the motorway network was more constrained and still developing whilst coaches themselves were very basic. The ability to buy tickets in advance was almost unheard of and we didn’t have the internet to tell us what services were running and when. The dependency on the daily commute to keep lives and economies running was far greater – none of the working from home of today and the impact of a strike will have felt more debilitating. There wasn’t any real interest in the environmental merits of travelling by coach as opposed to in individual cars. Coach travel had a lot less going for it then than it does now and the opportunity to leave a lasting legacy once the rail strikes were over, was much harder.

There’s a lot of activity going on in the background in terms of the bus and coach consolidators to prepare substitute services in the event of strike action, frenetically pulling as many vehicles and drivers together as is possible – the latter being a particular challenge in view of the well documented driver shortage. In terms of scheduled coach services, this really is a once in a generation opportunity to demonstrate that there is a modal choice.
In improving the customer proposition, making it more compelling and marketing it more intensively, I’m confident that growth can be achieved that benefits all. The first planned strike day is just round the corner, though and there’s much to be done.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 29 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector

This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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