The slow coach to Birmingham

If I need to travel to Birmingham for morning meeting from my home in Ipswich then this would be my preferred option (forget the Oxford-London banner). It would be faster than the train, cost only 20% of the rail fare and avoid any changes. It has wifi, power sockets and air-conditioning allowing me to work or relax. It does not exist yet hence the photo from the Oxford-London route which does exist and is popular with a bus every 8 minutes during the day. The service is also very profitable for the Go-Ahead Group and Stagecoach who operate the services.

Van Hool Astromega

This article discusses the current options available for the route and the potential for a Express coachway service. The direct ‘crows-flight’ distance from Ipswich to Birmingham is 135 miles (270 mile for the round trip).

By car it is 151 miles (302 round trip) using the A14 and the M6. The return journey time is 5h 30m. Based on the crow’s flight distance the car achieves an average of 50mph.

The rail route has either two changes in London, or one in Ely or one in Peterborough. Most of the trains go via London and use the busy East Coast and West Coast Main lines with a short connecting link using the Circle Line between Liverpool Street Station and Euston Station. The less frequent cross-country services have changes in Ely or Peterborough. Return journey time is between 7h and 8h. The best journey times average 38mph based on crow’s flight distance.

There are three coach routes. One changes in Cambridge then uses the old A45 Cambridge-Birmingham route. Another has a change at Stansted Airport and goes to Brimingham via Luton Airport. Then there is the service that changes at Victoria Coach Station. Return journey time is 12-13h. The best journey time averages only 19mph based on crow’s flight distance.

How do the costs compare? Driving would cost £120 (at 40p per mile).  It one ignores everything except fuel then the cost would be £45. This would remain the same for two people. By train fares per person range from £41 well in advance, £77 cheapest for turn-up-and-go with £209 being the price for most morning journeys. The coach is cheaper ranging from £22 – £32.

Given the above then if I have a car then will almost certainly use it. It there are two people the decision is even easier. If I am rich and wanted to work then I may take the train but given the hassle on this route would probably still drive on this route. If I am not able to drive for whatever reason then I will either book ages in advance for the train or use the ‘slow coach’.

Could a direct coach service exist? Yes, and with some modest adjustments to some junctions it could service virtually all the places in-between. Modern coaches have speed limiters set at 65mph. If it achieved an average of 45mph including stops on the road then it would get there as fast as the train with a 6-7 hours return journey time. Give it priority on the motorway in congestion and run it as an ‘express limited stop’ service and it could do even better.

The vehicle shown above would be ideal, which is a Van Hool Astromega double decker coach used by Stagecoach on their Oxford London route. These vehicles have 87 seats, free Wi-Fi internet, 240V mains power points, GPS tracking and air conditioning.

Would it make money? With operational costs of about £60 per hour for a coach service the return trip would come out at about £450. I don’t know that figure for sure, but I know that an Eddie Stobart Lorry cost £42 per hour to run. At that cost and an average fare of £20 it would break even with at 26% loading (23 passengers). At 80% loading and with a fare of £20 it would make nearly  £1,000 profit per round trip and could make 100% profit at an average fare as low as £9. The yield management fares used by Megabus and the low cost airlines are designed to optimise loading in this way and would allow the operator to sell more high-cost fares when there is high demand and fill the vehicles at £9 at other times.

Would it save carbon emissions? Yes. By driving it will be 84kg using my current car which is pretty ordinary. By train it might be half, but it is a much longer route so lets say 50kg. For a coach at average occupancy and 30gm/km comes out at 14kg. The Oxford-London coaches twice that performance when full so that would make it 7kg. So… run vehicles frequently but only when they are full and this service would save 90% on emissions.

Would it reduce congestion? Definitely. It would meant that I, and others would not be driving along the A14 or using trains on the West Coach Main Line both of which are heavily congested. A £1.3b road scheme near Cambridge to increase vehicle capacity has just been turned down on cost grounds. A coach service was not considered. One of the justifications for High Speed 2 was to reduce congestion on the line. The role of coaches does not appear to have been considered.

Would it be improve ‘productive’? Yes – by driving I have to spend nearly 6 hours doing little else that pointing a box in a straight line. On public transport I can do many more productive things.

Would it fit with government policy? Yes, it would be promoting an industry sector that requires no subsidy in operation and indeed pays tax into the government given that the operator is paying full market rates for fuel, Vehicle Excise Duty and wages. It would reduce the need for subsidy of roads and rail given that it takes pressure of both the A14 and the West Coast Main Line. It would also be supporting a major UK business sector which operates coach services around the world. All it needs is some help getting the interchanges built.

So why doesn’t this exist? Inertia for one thing. A lack of suitable interchanges which means that they would loose time into every intermediate town leading to loss of patronage and increased costs etc etc. Congestion on the A14 doesn’t help, but this is from people who could be attracted to the route so the service could help cure the congestion. Of course there is also the memory and prejudice that people carry that coaches are for poor people or for school kids or old people on a day out. The boys who grew up to be transport planners probably had train sets not coach sets as kids. Personally I think the prejudice plays a huge part in this situation.

Result.. more cars on the A14 and more people in crowded trains with ever increasing fares and huge subsidies for both. And then of course massive outrage that the government isn’t funding a free road between Cambridge and the A1.

I want to see those fine coaches on the route. I want to be able to go directly along the route I drive without driving. I certainly don’t want to see anyone spending £1.3b digging up the countryside between Cambridge and the A1 to accommodate more cars. I want to the attracted out of my car not forced into it.

About PeterEastern
Amongst other things I am interested in the overlap between information technology and personal travel and how we can remain mobile whilst also greatly reducing the negative effects of our travel.

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