Rail strikes recently required me to search for a bus and coach alternative, but I was surprised by the paucity of available options

I’ve had nothing but positive experiences on long distance coach services

I’d never been before and had been looking forward to attending for over three years, with the pandemic having scuppered my previous chances. Yes, you guessed it right, the Warley Model Railway Exhibition last weekend at the NEC in Birmingham, the largest display of its kind in the UK. I’d even booked a hotel the night before in Derby and had my itinerary mapped out. Then the rail strike decimated my plans and I stayed at home!

I feel pretty bitter about my big trip out being kyboshed by striking rail workers, if I’m honest. But my annoyance was nothing compared to the gaunt, crestfallen faces of the senior rail industry professionals dealing with the fall-out of the strike who were at a meeting I chaired on Wednesday. I almost felt guilty for grumbling about missing out on the big model railway show as I walked into the meeting room and saw the despair and fatigue on the faces of those railway bigwigs. Like all of us, they all assumed that when the strikes were curtailed and peace talks broke out, there would be a resolution – there generally is in such circumstances. But then, industrial action was back on, with relentless frequency, intensity and so close to Christmas, that it was likely to wreck any chance of these tired industry leaders having a break after the travails of this year and Covid before that. Several in the room, expressed genuine worry that some individuals in their team, the few shining lights that they always rely on in adversity, were so ground down that they might not get through this period.

For all of the above, I remain incredulous that there is an unprecedented level of public support for striking rail workers. Various polls since the strikes began show fluctuations of support between 37% and as high as 58%, a far cry from previous eras when those taking part in industrial action were vilified and seen as luddites and dinosaurs. It’s difficult to comprehend the change in outlook. I suspect that there is such contempt, bordering on disgust, towards the government over the way it has conducted itself in the past 12-18 months, that in any debate or conflict, the public’s instincts are not to come down on the side of ‘officialdom’. I’m less convinced, though, that there is sympathy necessarily towards the cost of living impact faced by railway workers – their plight is no worse and indeed probably better than experienced in most households across the UK. I believe that opprobrium is lessened towards them by the public, though, because of the diminished influence of mainstream media and in particular the Tory newspapers, which traditionally fuelled the narrative around strikers being evil, lazy leeches. Folk get their media kicks from other outlets these days and alternative, previously unconventional viewpoints are seen to be more available and fashionable.

Another key reason for public support is, as I’ve mentioned regularly in recent times, we are less dependent on the railway than previous generations. Its own relevance has diminished, alongside newspapers. That might change when Christmas beckons and visits to relatives are postponed (albeit I suspect some, who dread such events, might see it as a Godsend, just as many are relieved when strikes ensue because there’s a legitimate reason to work at home). Certainly, in the Warner household, my wife very enthusiastically reminds me there’s a rail strike due and it will shatter my plans of travelling around the country and staying away for days on end.

Surprisingly, though, Mrs Warner was actually disappointed for me that my long awaited model railway exhibition trip wasn’t to happen – indeed, initially when I broke the news she casually said: “Oh you’ll be able to work round it, get the coach and I’ll pick you up from wherever it drops you on Saturday night.” She had a point, or so I thought, until I had spent probably around eight hours plotting alternatives (and remember, I don’t drive so the car isn’t an option). If only it were so easy…

You would have thought the Derby to Birmingham leg would have been a doddle. I’d chosen to stay the Friday night in Derby because I know a cheap and convenient hotel and I was going to meet an industry guru there for the evening. But, the only coaches that run direct from Derby to Birmingham take three hours 52 minutes and the first one wasn’t until mid-afternoon on Saturday, which was ridiculous. I could have shaved an hour off my journey by getting a Kinchbus to Leicester and changing there, but then the journey disappeared off the Traveline system, for reasons that escape me.

I wasn’t, at this stage, to be deterred and I worked out that I could get an Arriva or Trentbarton bus from Derby to Burton-on-Trent, Midland Classic to Lichfield, National Express West Midlands to Birmingham City Centre and then changing, but with the same operator, to Birmingham Airport. All this would, with a departure time of 08:00 get me to the exhibition around 11:15. Quite a trek for only 44 miles!

Returning home to Shepperton from the NEC looked, by comparison to the short trip from Derby to Birmingham relatively straightforward. There was one coach just after 16:00 which took a little under three hours to cover 103 miles to Heathrow Airport (the earlier coach took four hours 20 minutes!). Then it would be an hour on the bus home or the missus would pick me up – but not from the airport as you have to pay a £5 pick-up and drop-off charge now, so I’d get the Tube to Hatton Cross and wait for her there.

I genuinely hadn’t realised the paucity of inter-city coach services in the UK and also ‘inter-urban’ buses that connect cities or even small towns

My cancelled trip to the model railway exhibition was instructive to me on several counts. Firstly, I genuinely hadn’t realised the paucity of inter-city coach services in the UK and also ‘inter-urban’ buses that connect cities or even small towns. Naively I assumed there would be an hourly National Express coach from Derby to Birmingham city centre and maybe even Birmingham International Airport. I even assumed that a coach would run between the two airports, East Midlands and Birmingham. Not for one second did I then think that National Express wouldn’t be running a very frequent and quick (e.g. under two hours) service between Birmingham and Heathrow airports, or if that wasn’t available there would be a regular and rapid alternative into central London (the journey time instead was an eye-wateringly four and a half and five hours, including one change!).

As soon as I realised that the National Express service wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I thought I would have Megabus or Flixbus up my sleeve, but, alas, I’d over-estimated the scale of their networks. Then, as a final alternative, I genuinely thought that local bus would come to my rescue on the Derby to Birmingham leg. After all, there are so many decent operators in and around that region – Arriva, Trentbarton, Diamond, Midland Classic, CentreBus, National Express West Midlands, to name but a few.

This part of the world isn’t alone. Indeed, take a look at all regions across the UK and bus networks consist predominantly of lots of individual clusters, rather than connectivity between these. Obviously, there’s a key reason for this in that, rail provides the bridge between cities and towns and it’s been difficult for bus and coach companies to compete with them, but perhaps the time has now come for the sector to realise it must have a credible alternative plan to the railway.

I don’t believe this plan is just one as a ‘contingency’ for strike days on rail, but I genuinely see it as a viable, day-in, day-out alternative. With rail fares becoming increasingly unaffordable and the whole customer experience having become pruned back so greatly in the past decade and beyond, the tipping point is near for customers. Although, I’ve suggested a plan shouldn’t be just for continuity purposes in the event of strike action, the extent to which the current industry is so unsustainable from a cost perspective means that, frankly, government backing down on some of the principles of the current dispute, are genuinely unlikely because the railway cannot continue in its financially broken way and with a workplace model that is cost prohibitive. These strikes could go on for months, if not years potentially, and whilst public support for them remains, the unions will be emboldened to drag them out further.

Back to my trip that never was. A few eyebrow-raising moments emerged when I tried to plot my bus alternative. Firstly, there are so many of these ‘A to B’ type websites that now exist but none of them feel credible. You could pull to pieces all of them with their listing of various travel modes, many create options that genuinely don’t seem the quickest or most viable and they just list ridiculous journey times, whereby with a bit of creativity, bus sector nous and a distrust of technology, alternatives do, just about, exist. However, in the absence of a pan-operator, nationwide or even regional map (covering a wide area, such as the whole of the Midlands, for instance), it’s impossible to look at the art of the possible! You have to go onto each operator’s website and some of them won’t have a network map or they will just have maps for individual locations and with no indication as to how you connect between them. Or, they will think they are being clever by not having a map but just giving you the opportunity to tap in a route number (as if you know what it is)
or the place you wish to travel from and to.

It’s not just nerds like me that want to plan a more ambitious itinerary for a day-out based on travelling either exclusively by bus or wanting a combination of other modes, such as rail or coach!

All very good of course, if journeys were as simple as that, but it’s not just nerds like me that want to plan a more ambitious itinerary for a day-out based on travelling either exclusively by bus or wanting a combination of other modes, such as rail or coach!

All this brings me onto Traveline and an article for a future date. It is further off being an equivalent of National Rail Enquiries in terms of consumer awareness, depth, range and simplicity than Crystal Palace Football Club winning a trophy in my lifetime. Send BSIP (Bus Service Improvement Plan) funding in Traveline’s direction so it can be revamped and marketed properly. Oh and change the name too as it doesn’t resonate with the youngsters of today.

It’s incredible that the coach sector received no emergency government support during the pandemic. Now, though, is the time for its role in keeping the nation moving to be properly recognised and prioritised. Both the government, the operators and the public should not view it as a ‘distress purchase’ for the most price sensitive or for folk to seek to use only when there is industrial action across the rail network. I’d like there to be a time when I instinctively think of getting a coach for a trip such as that which I’d planned last weekend, rather than merely as a back up to rail. I’ve had nothing but positive experiences on long distance coach services in the UK, so technically there should be parity between coach and rail in my decision-making process.

I’d also like to see the bus industry work holistically, including with the Department for Transport and local authorities, to take a more nationwide lens towards planning services – potentially creating a UK inter-urban bus network that joins the dots across all major towns and cities in an integrated way, but not as a ‘back-up’ to rail but as a genuinely competitive force. The bus and coach operators must be bolder in their approach and prouder of their products. They need to take on rail, rather than just see themselves in its shadow.

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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