Promoting Coachway stations in a response to a Highways Agency consultation

In February the DfT announced a new consultation to ‘Cut red tape to support development near motorways and major ‘A’ roads.’ The press release seemed to focus on removing restrictions on construction near the strategic road network (with the risk of generating unsustainable levels of addition traffic). The consultation document itself was however to be more measured.

We therefore decided to use the opportunity to raise the subject of Coachways and the associated Coachway stations (we being Dr William Clayton and Dr Ben Clark of the Centre for Transport and Society at the University of the West of England, Dr Alan Storkey and myself, Peter Miller of ITO World Ltd).

Having edited the document in response to helpful comments from various parties we invited people to support our response and were very impressed with who did so. We have senior figures from the academic community and from some of the major transport operators. Do please read the response itself (26 meg download).

Subsequently we have also spoken to the Highways Agency today and they seem very open to these ideas, and indeed indicated that express coaches were definitely on their radar. They also told us that they were happy to accept updates to the document for the rest of this week.

As such, if you would like to add your name (and affiliation) as an additional ‘supporter’ on the response then please email me at ‘peter [dot] miller [at] itoworld [dot] com. It would be great to get additional support from all sectors, but especially from transport operators, local government, transport authorities, transport planners and academia.

Jam today, jam tomorrow

The Transport Parliamentary Select Committee recently published a report on road congestion titled “Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads” during which they took evidence from Mike Penning (roads minister) and Norman Baker (local transport) who seemed to present express coach as more of an irrelevant nuisance than as key tool in tackling congestion. They both implied that the fact that the M4 Bus Lane was used by express coaches rather than buses was an indication of it’s failure and was justification enough for its removal! Penning went on to explain that taxis should also not expect preferential treatment because they after all paid the same ‘road tax’ as private cars (road tax ended in 1937). They both claimed that the M4 bus lane wasn’t working even though their own research found that 21% of people coming into London made use it in a measly 7% of the vehicles. Penning ended by confirming that they had indeed been an unfair ‘war on the motorist’ and that motorists paid a lot of money for the privilege of driving and deserved better.

The tragedy of all this is that the approach they are proposing where low-occupancy vehicles have equal rights to inter-urban roads as high-occupancy vehicles is a certain recipe for jam tomorrow and for jam well into the future! What was encouraging however was that the committee didn’t seem to buy the argument. They questioned the ministers about coaches on a number of occasions and then recommended that “the Government publish early next year a detailed assessment of traffic flow on the M4 in the year since the bus lane was scrapped. If the evidence shows that the bus lane contributed to faster movement—taking account of all travellers—it should be reinstated.

Here are some key clips from their evidence.

Capacity on the London Birmingham corridor

In the evidence that Philip Hammond gave to the Select Committee enquiry into High Speed 2 he stated that the business case of HS2 depended on the need for additional capacity on the London-Birmingham corridor. He claimed that the only way to achieve that is to build a new railway line (which might as well be a high speed one). Express coach was not mentioned once.

Let’s explore the capacity argument a little. The current HS2 plans are based on a maximum of 4 trains per hour (see section 2.3.4), each of which can be up to 400 meters long with seating for 1,100 people (see section 3.2). The proposed capacity per hour is therefore 4,400. The number of trains will no doubt increase as the line extends further north in the future, but this provides a useful base-line for the additional capacity that is required.

Interestingly a single lane of the existing dual three-lane M40 motorway (or on the M6/M1 motorways) running directly from Birmingham into London could carry 63,000 people using today’s express coach technology which is fifteen times as many people as proposed by High Speed 2 above. The capacity requirement of HS2 could be achieved using a single 87 seater coach per minute.

In practice such a lane would be very under-utilised and it may be appropriate to also make this lane available to taxis, other coach services and any other vehicles with 3 or more occupants. Given that there is likely to still be available capacity then it may be desirable to allow vehicles with only one or two occupants to use the lane on payment of a dynamic fee which would vary with demand. Such an express toll lane system is being developed in Los Angeles as part of their Metro Expresslanes project on El Monte Busway and Harbor Transitway which is used by the Silver Line (a bus rapid-transit line). The fee income can be used to maintain the route and make public transport fares more attractive.

This proposed M40 service would build on the success of the current Oxford-London coach services which operates along part of the corridor. Vehicles could optionally call at and new and existing intermediate coachway stations associated with the key settlements along the route, such as the Thornhil Park and Ride site serving Oxford, and the new High Wycombe coachway interchange which is in the planning stage. The M1 route would be able to call at recently completed Milton Keynes Coachway interchange and at other new coachway stations.

There would be no huge interchange at the end of these corridors as would be the case with HS2 – vehicles would start from a variety of places around and within Birmingham and elsewhere and mesh with local transport including the underground and bus services within London.

Here is Philip Hammond’s response to a question about the need for HS2. In fairness to the Secretary for State, I am including his response in it’s entirety.

New report into why people use coach and how to improve it

Passenger Focus published Coach passenger needs and experiences earlier this year which reported on why people used express coach, what they like about it had how it could be enhanced. Overall express coach was seen very favorable by users, many of whom were unsurprisingly motivated by cheaper fares compared to rail but many also mentioned that other benefits included that they were guaranteed a good quality seat in quiet and stress free environment compared to the train. Many users said that had previously used trains but moved over to coach at the recommendation of friends or by chance. The on-board wi-fi was a big plus for some. Users preferred coach stations to roadside stops saying that roadside stops lacked information, shelter and reassurance and they were worried that the coach might not actually stop for them.


  • Promote coach travel better
  • Improve journey times
  • Improve coach station
  • Better roadside stops with real-time information and shelters
  • More thought about concerns for luggage being lost/stolen
  • One place to compare and book tickets
  • More visible staff and police presence
  • Enhance the onboard experience
  • Improve the complaints process

Modern express coach with onboard wifi

Two litres of fuel

It is sometimes hard to imagine how much ‘stuff’ we are talking about when we are filling up a car. Let’s for a moment assume that we purchased fuel in 2 litres bottles as we do with fizzy drinks at a shop. Such a bottle would cost £2.42 at December 2010 prices, about the same as a pint of beer. ‘Mondeo man’ would need to buy 35 of these to fill up his car at a cost of about £85.

Lets first explore how far a single two litres bottles of fuel can take someone. Starting from South Mimms services on the M25/A1 junction a highly efficient VW Bluemotion car would go 39 miles and reach almost as far as St Neots (Cambridgeshire). An average car would only get 30 mph which would get to Biggleswade (Bedfordshire); a big thirsty Range Rover would conk out after only 10.5 miles outside Welwyn Garden City (Hertfordshire).

Now, lets consider what would happen if a group of people wishing to head north put their 2 litres of fuel into a single modern express coach at South Mimms services. With a full 49 people on board they would all travel as far as Leeds in South Yorkshire, which is 180 miles.

Cars are of course much more efficient per person when they carry multiple people. A Polo Bluemotion with four occupants would travel about as far as the express coach per passenger. The problem with the car is that for most journeys the occupancy is much lower. During commuting it is 1.2 and averages out at 1.6.

This seems to suggest that government policy and taxation should discourage commuting by car which both causes major congestion at the busiest time and also is the least efficient way of using fuel due to low occupancy levels. It should also encourage car clubs which can provide cars for the family holiday and other trips that are not practical by other means without the need to car with all the associated costs.

It is another reason why express coach should be at the top of the government’s agenda for inter-urban transport rather that at the bottom where it has been languishing for decades.


VW Polo Bluemotion has an extra-urban fuel consumption of 3.2 litres per 100km which works out at 39 miles for 2 litres of fuel. For average efficiency I used a Vauxhall Astra 1.7 diesel at 4.1 litres per 100km which does 30 miles for 2 litres. Finally, the 2009 Range Rover Sport 4.2 petrol weighs in at 11.9 litres per 100km goes only 10.5 miles.

Information for express coaches is harder to find. Coach drivers generally seem to achieve something over 10 mpg on longer runs. An article in the Transport Engineer (no longer available online) indicated that the Oxford London express coach manages to achieve 10.38 mpg including extensive urban running. I have used a figure of 27 litres per 100km.

Presentation to parliamentary group

Four people interested in the coachway concept presented to the All Party Parliamentary group on Climate Change and on Peak Oil on 07 December 2010. The presentation was made by Alan Storkey, John  Austin (Austin Analytics), Mike Lamden (National Express) and Peter Miller (ITO World Ltd).

Presentation 07 December 2010

Presentation 07 December 2010

The slides from the presentation, which was well received, is available online. A video of the presentation will be made available from the group’s website in due course.

Highways Agency publishes the M4 bus lane research

Some time ago I commented that various Freedom of Information requested that had been made relating to the M4 bus lane had not been responded to within the allotted time. I am pleased to be able to report that the Highways Agency has finally responded to their two requests.

The first request was for the earlier reports produced by the Transport Research Laboratory in 2000 and 2002, including the one year report, a three year report and an 8 page summary of the three year report. These very detailed and clear reports show in considerable detail the benefits to both bus lane users and also surprisingly for non-bus lane users. This graph from the 3 year report showing the huge benefit in reliability for bus lane users following the introduction of the lane. Reliability of journeys for public transport is very important. Where there is unreliability the operator and users of the services need to added more time added to the journey ‘just in case’. Remember that 21% of people traveling into London use the bus lane in only 7% of the vehicles so this is a big group of disadvantaged people.

M4 bus lane reliablity

In addition to reducing the variability, it did of course also reduced the journey times themselves which followed the green line before the lane opened and then dropped to a consistent and much lower level afterwards.

M4 bus lane journey times

The second request was for the research underpinning the decision to remove the lane. These have now been published on the Highways Agency website and consist of:

Do notice that the business case and various other relevant reports were published subsequent to the announcement on the 2 October of its removal. In one respect this appears an odd way round,  however it is not really so odd when one considers that this was a political decision rather than a technical one. In the same speech Philip Hammond pledged to ‘end the war on the motorist and it seems to me that this decision was a symbolic one. As a symbol it is not a promising one for this vision of a huge switch to express coach supported by new coachway interchanges.

A noticeable absence from these recent reports is any estimate as to the impact on the bus lane users which a cynic might think was because the information was not helpful to the decision that had been taken. I am, however, pleased to see that the ‘before and after monitor’ specification says: “Average journey times and the variability of journey times are key indicators in examining the impact of the removal of the M4 Bus Lane….  Additional pressure has recently been brought to bear on the TechMAC contractor to ensure that the MIDAS loops on the M4 eastbound corridor are functioning and providing data”.

This same government has of course also made very clear commitments to open up data and make government more accountable which is a huge step forward which is going to ensure that the the very near future politicians will be able to base their decisions on far more information.

And it is also trying to make huge saving in public expenditure. Personally I see a very interest debate taking place over the next year or so. In particular I look forward to seeing more recent versions of figures 10 and 14 for the periods immediately prior to and subsequent to the removal of the bus lane in due course.

Capacity per traffic lane using express coach

The maximum throughput of a single motorway lane is currently about 1,800 vehicles per traffic lane per hour (based on the Highway Code 2 second rule) with a throughput of people of about 2,880 (based on average occupancy of 1.6 people per vehicle). Let’s compare this a system based on express coaches with an average occupancy of 30 people (current average occupancy of a coach on the National Express network) and a more cautious 4 second spacing between vehicles which allows for a throughput of 27,000 people per traffic lane per hour. Using larger 87-seater double-decker coaches (as used on the Oxford-London route) and yield-management fares (which would increase occupancy to more like 80%) the throughput would be increased to 63,000 people per single traffic lane per hour. Using these available technologies a single lane of a motorway would be able to carry three times more people than on 20 lanes of traffic using private cars at low occupancy.

The effectiveness of coach lanes is demonstrated by the M4 bus lane, which used to carry 21% of the people entering London on the route but which was  which was suspended because it was ‘virtually empty’ even though taxis and motorcycles were also allowed to use the lane.

It is unfortunately that this opportunity to  ‘sweat the assets’ of our motorway network has being ignored to date. One of the key arguments in favour of High Speed 2 is that there is not sufficient capacity on the roads. High Speed 2 will initially offer four trains an hour with 1,100 seats per train and will therefore only provide 4,400 additional movement per hour. Plans to realign the A14 and to build the ‘Lower Thames Crossing‘ are also based on the assumption that the current roads are operating at capacity. It is of concern that a key recommendation relating to the recent widening of the M25  was that a strategic express coach system should be developed to avoid this additional traffic capacity being absorbed by greater private car use. This strategic coach system has not been developed and the government is now discussing addressing other ‘pinch points’ on the M25.

The government is supporting ‘vehicle platooning’ that allows cars follow each other more closely. No one seems to be predicting exact what increase in traffic flow rates will be achieved other than to say that “the utilisation of existing road capacity will also be increased with a potential consequential reduction in journey times”. The EU is currently funding a project called ‘Safe Road Trains for the Environment‘ which is January 2011 allowed a single vehicle to follow feet behind a truck. Let’s be generous and assume that it will double throughput to one vehicle per second resulting in 5,760 people per traffic lane per hour which is still way below what can be achieved with today’s express coach technology. The researchers claim that this convoying system will allow drivers to ‘read, rest, eat, make phone calls, and so on’ but this is of course exactly what people are already doing in express coaches!

Coach systems of this sort also achieves huge energy saving compared to the car and fares would be much lower that the cost of rail and the private car. It allows people to work and rest while traveling which benefits ‘productivity’ which is one of the reasons the government gave for increasing motorway speed limits.

The M25 and the role of express coach

The ‘Orbit’ mutimodal study that underpinned the recent decisions to add capacity to the M25 was published in 2002. The report was very clear that without measures to control demand that it would provide no long-term benefit. To quote: “Widening the M25 has been likened to digging a ditch in a bog – it fills up as fast as you dig”.

‘Newsletter 2’, published in June 2002, said that “the best opportunity for providing improved public transport in the M25 corridor would be a considerably enhanced, high quality, orbital coach system which could provide a real alternative for some existing trips on the M25″ (my highlight). The main features would be:

  • New services providing orbital journeys in two rings around London.
  • High quality vehicles with spacious facilities for on-board working
  • Coach priority (or high occupancy) lanes and traffic measures
  • Transport interchanges with good connections to other services with comfortable and secure waiting areas.

The executive summary went on to say that “The consultants do not believe that the development of such a coach system can be left to the private sector. They believe that it should be very actively promoted by Government and that for this purpose a Strategic Coach Authority should be established” which would define services, frequencies, interchanges which would then be franchised. The authority would also “secure road space from local authorities and the Highways Agency” to provide priority measures necessary to ensure the reliability of the service (my highlights).

So, what has happened with these recommendations… Err, nothing to my knowledge. In November 2010 the National Audit Office criticised the Highways Agency for being too committed to widening the M25 and failing to properly consider the potentially cheaper option of ‘managed motorways‘ with hard shoulder running’ and estimated that between £400m and £1.1b could have been saved.

Managed motorways would have been better for express coach given that it could be configured to provide priority for high occupancy vehicles. If the agency didn’t consider hard shoulder running properly then it is unlikely that it considered coaches properly either.

Obama’s big switch to coach!

On a lighter note, here is a piece from the ‘Onion News Network‘ on Obama’s plans for a big switch from high speed rail to high speed coach! Almost what we are advocating although I fear the proposed speeds and manoeuvers are somewhat ahead of what we are going to be able to achieve.

US high speed bus program!

Obama Replaces Costly High-Speed Rail Plan With High-Speed Bus Plan