A tilted playing field

Rail fares rise by an average of 6.2% but are still only covering half the cost of rail travel. The cost of an annual season ticket on the train from Oxford to London is £3880 (before the rise). By my calculaitons the government is providing a subsidy amounting to a further £3880 for this ticket.

Express coach is far cheaper and unlike trains gets very little subsidy. The cost of a season ticket on the same route is £1,200. Coach operators pay fuel tax (unlike buses) and receive no large subsidies (unlike trains) and indeed their taxes help support the rail system! The coach is slower – it is normally scheduled to take 2 hours as compared to 1 hour 10 minutes on the train due to having to compete with cars in congestion. They do however offer power sockets and free wifi increasing people’s options while traveling.

Congestion is a serious issue for express coach. This makes the removal of the M4 bus lane particularly troubling as the available official research documents show that the bus lane actually improved conditions for car drivers as well as for bus lane users. Unfortunately the FOI requests underpinning the removal of the bus lane have not been made available. The government is continuing to spend considerable sums building roads to create space for more vehicles even though it knows that this will fail to improve journey times without associated road user charging. Widening the M25 was compared to ‘digging a ditch in a bog’ by the project director of the Orbit report relating to the M25. He said: “Widening the M25 has been likened to digging a ditch in a bog – it fills up as fast as you dig” and that the widening should be accompanied by “area-wide road user charging in 2011”.

Motoring organisations  support general road user charging. The RAC Foundation says that road user charging is ‘inevitable’ as it “represents the only viable way of tackling congestion and curbing carbon emissions while also raising funds to maintain the road network”. It is therefore disappointing that the current government has pledged not to introduce any such charges in this parliament except for lorries.


Lewknor is a small village in Oxfordshire with a population of about 665; why then does it have an express coach service to London with a service frequency of 15 minutes for much of the day and an hourly service 24/7? The reason is that it  happened to have a pair of bus stops that could be used conveniently from the nearby M40 by the Oxford London Coach services. The coach initially stopped there initially for tax reasons. Stopping there allowed the operator to claim Bus Service Operators Grant which is only available for routes, or parts of routes with stops less than 15 miles apart. However, the coach then actually created significant demand which in turn created a parking problem near the bus stops they used.

Since then a shared-taxi service being established to ferry people to suitable parking places. This can either be seen as a problem, of parking mainly, or as a success in that fewer people driving to London. The images below show the junction layout, the road next and the stops using Google Streetview complete with yellow lines to stop people ‘fly-parking’. You can read more in ‘An investigation into the role express coaches could play in supporting a sustainable economic recovery‘ (Ben Staite, Transport Policy and Delivery, Swindon Borough Council)

Here is the map:

Lewknor map


Lewknor coach stop

Clearly one needs to think carefully about the local transport links. Personally I think it would be good to get the bus stop for the coaches away from the main road and it would also be more comfortable to people on the coach if the route off the motorway and back on again didn’t make two 90 degree bends. Both could be achieved by straighting out the slip roads and installing the coach stops on laybys on the sliproads rather than the main road as shown on this next map.

Lewknor map with adjusted slip road and coach stop


Reusing existing crossings

One of the interesting things about this project is looking at how to create neat interchanges that avoid diversions for coaches that are also convenient for people to use to access local transport using existing infrastructure. Given that one of the more expensive elements are bridges and tunnels it is worth looking at how to reuse existing ones. It has been an interesting realisation that the best locations may be between, rather than at junctions. Start by looking for road or pedestrian crossing that are close to a park and ride sites, stations and other good transport links.

Take the A14 to the east of Ipswich as an example. There is a foot tunnel under the A14 close to the current A12 which was built for the old A12 route (‘London Road’) before the current junction to the SE was built. At a later date a park and ride site was built on part of the old road. Here is the current layout.

Convenient foot tunnel close to a park and ride site

Here is the tunnel from ground level.

A view of the pedestrian tunnel

My suggestion is that one should build out coach laybys on either side of the A14 above this tunnel with steps and a ramp down to the pedestrian tunnel. This keeps the coach route as efficient as possible, avoids an additional expensive bridge. The park and ride site has frequent buses, cycle storage and car parking.

Location of coach laybys

There is an interesting bridge on the M25 over the B172 close to Theydon Bois underground station which is one of the outer-most stations on the Central Line. With the addition of slip-roads down to this road coaches could access the station very efficiently.

Slip roads to a minor road to access an Central Line station

Here is a view of the bridge from the local road.

A view from the local road

I am well aware that this doesn’t meet current motorway regulations and that some drivers could be tempted to use it but there don’t appear to be any overwhelming problem that couldn’t be overcome.

Finally, here is a very minor bridge across the M25 which could provide access to the West Coast Main Line as well as to Kings Langley and potentially also Watford.

A very minor bridge over the M25 at Kings Langley

Here are the proposed slip roads and service road. I am not proposing this as the best solution for the area, only as a candidate to be considered and an example of the potential of re-using existing crossings of all sorts.

Kings Langley slip roads and access road

Save Leicester Forest East services!

Leicester Forest East Services would make a excellent Coachway interchange for the nearby city of Leicester. There is however a serious problem which I will come to below.

The service station is on the M1 just to the west of the city of Leicester and has rear entrances on both sides of the motorway which would allow access to the service station by buses from the nearby A47 road. It also has a foot-bridge over the M1 to allow both sides to access bus services on one side if that was preferred.

Leicester currently has 22 coach services all of which use the centre of Leicester and some of which have multiple services each day. Destinations include Blackpool, Glasgow, Cornwall, Newcastle, Manchester and London. Moving these to the edge of the city would reduce congestion on the local roads and greatly improve journey times for people not wishing to stop in Leicester. There are further coach services that currently pass Leicester without stopping which could be temped to stop if the was a low penalty to their timings.

This first map shows the location of the service station, the rear access roads to the A47 and the nearby park and ride. To make this work a suitable bus service would need to be provided to the city centre. Possibly this could make use the existing park and ride bus service. It would also be useful to allow people to be collected by car. Bike and ‘car club’ hire would be a bonus. The layout of the service station would need to be adjusted to allow coaches to pick up and set down very close to the main building entrance.

Leicester Forest East services map

The map below shows coach services calling at Leicester and also ones that pass on the M1 without stopping. Notice that the ones that pass without stopping are much faster, but do not of course benefit the city.

Coach services colour coded by speed. purple is fast, green and yellow slow

The big problem is that the service station is scheduled for demolition if/when the M1 gets widened at this point and the junction with the M69 gets ‘improved’. Of course, our plans are to move enough people onto coaches that there is no need to widen the motorway. Here is a view from the Highways Agency website showing what the area would look like with a widened road and no service station!

Leicester forest removed!

Coach services from Leicester:

SB    Norwood Green (London) – Bradford City Centre
1    Wolverhampton – Gravesend Town Centre
SK1    Leicester – East Midlands Airport
3    Leicester – Gravesend Town Centre
4    Gravesend Town Centre – Leicester
5    Wolverhampton – Leicester
6    Leicester – Wolverhampton
7    Leicester – Norwood Green (London)
8    Norwood Green (London) – Leicester
230    Gatwick Airport – Mansfield (Notts)
308    Digbeth – Great Yarmouth (Norfolk)
310    Bradford City Centre – Poole (Dorset)
326    Cambridge (Cambs) – Newcastle upon Tyne
332    Digbeth – Newcastle upon Tyne
335    Poole (Dorset) – Halifax Town Centre
339    Westward Ho! – Grimsby
350    Liverpool – Clacton (on-Sea)
397    Leicester – Blackpool (Blackpool)
440    Victoria (London) – Manchester City Centre
537    Corby – Glasgow
661    Digbeth – Ingoldmells
767    Nottingham – Stansted Airport

Reading coachway

Reading Coachway is an interesting example of how the UK coachway network is growing organically. Coach services were de-regulated by the 1980 (five years before local buses), since then coach services have developed as the operators wished. A curiosity of the approach has been the development of ‘Reading Coachway’.

A clue is in the official title of the bus stops in question. They are called ‘Calcot, Sainsburys’ because the coachway interchange is in reality a few bus stops in the car park of Calcot Sainsburys supermarket that happened to be close to a good junction on the M4 for Reading with good local transport links.

Here is the ground level view:

Reading Coachway streetview

And here is the overhead view:

Reading coachway aerial view

The list of coach services is impressive, covering England, Wales and Scotland.

M14    Cheltenham (Gloucs) – Victoria (London)
200    Gatwick Airport – Broadmead (Bristol)
201    Gatwick Airport – Swansea
202    Swansea – Heathrow Airport Terminal 4
303    Southsea (Portsmouth) – Birkenhead
310    Bradford City Centre – Poole (Dorset)
403    Victoria (London) – Street (Somerset)
404    Shortroods – Felton (N Somerset)
444    Hereford – Victoria (London)
501    Edinburgh – Victoria (London)
502    Victoria (London) – Ilfracombe
504    Victoria (London) – Penzance
505    Newquay (Cornwall) – Victoria (London)
508    Haverfordwest – Victoria (London)
890    Fishguard – Victoria (London)

There are also a wide range of local services:
1 Reading Town Centre – Newbury (W Berks)
18 Reading Town Centre – Calcot (W Berks)
N26 Reading Town Centre – Theale (W Berks)
26 Reading Town Centre – Calcot (W Berks)
74 Reading Town Centre – West Ilsley
S85 Little Heath (W Berks) – Southcote
S86 Little Heath (W Berks) – Southcote
S87 Little Heath (W Berks) – Southcote
S88 Reading West (Oxford Road) – Theale (W Berks)
S90 Purley on Thames – Theale (W Berks)
S92 Theale (W Berks) – Reading Town Centre
S93 Theale (W Berks) – Castle Hill – Bath Road
S94 Castle Hill – Bath Road – Theale (W Berks)
S96 Tilehurst – Theale (W Berks)
101 Newbury (W Berks) – Reading Town Centre
104 Tilehurst – Newbury (W Berks)
105 Newbury (W Berks) – Reading Town Centre

The store is open from 7am to midnight and according to its website has: Disabled Toilets, Toilets, Baby Change, Parking, Restaurant, a Starbucks coffee shop and a Pharmacy. And yes, there is also a big supemarket!

We are pressing for more interchanges of this sort. Sometimes however, some infrastructure work will be needed to create all the right conditions for such services to develop.

Roads to prosperity?

In 1989 a White paper titled ‘Road for Prosperity‘ (frequently referred to incorrectly as ‘Road to prosperity’) discussed the problems of increasing transport demand and in particular increased demand from ‘road users’. It famously went on to outline the ‘biggest road building program since the Romans’ to alleviate the predicted congestion on our roads. This got both middle England and environmentalists up in arms by the mid 1990s with major road protests at Twyford Down and elsewhere with most of the remaining schemes being quietly canceled soon after.

This post is not about that period however, but there is a nugget of truth tucked away on page 2 of the introduction of the 1989 report which is worth discussing. It points out that: “The different scales of road and rail activity is also important. Road transport is responsible for twelve times more passenger travel and ten times more freight movement than rail. A 50 per cent increase in rail traffic would reduce road traffic by less than 5 per cent. Rail has an important contribution to make but it is not a panacea for congestion on inter-urban roads“. It turns out that by 2000 the situation had become even more skewed. By then distance traveled by road was now fourteen times more than passenger mileage by rail.

It is therefore a fact that to accommodate a 7% increase in passenger traffic though increased use of rail would need an expansion of rail capacity by a factor of two.

During the election all three political parties were pushing for rail expansion. In the spending review huge investment in rail was protected, including Crossrail and High Speed 2 with at £13.1 billion per year. How far is this going to get us?  High Speed rail is not attractive from a carbon perspective, it is hugely expensive, will take an age to get planned and built and there are signs that middle England is rising again. We even have the bizarre situation where those enemies, the Campaign for Better Transport and the Association of British Drivers seem to actually agree on something, ie that High Speed Rail is not a sensible project in a cost-constrained world.

The 1989 report was right that rail couldn’t deliver, its conclusion that we need a massive road’s program is of course not. We are recommending moving from cars on roads to coaches on roads. Every coach creates its own space on the road by taking cars off it. This means that we can almost use exactly the same infrastructure as that designed for use by private cars.

This will deliver big environmental, reduce congestion and increase productivity very quickly. It will benefit huge numbers of people travelling intermediate inter-urban distances all across the country, rather than focusing all the benefit on two or three major cities (London, Birmingham and possibly a few more). In this blog we will be both promoting the vision and also the infrastructure work required to deliver it. This infrastructure work is mainly about the creation of Coachway Interchanges which in some cases can be simple bus stops close to junctions, in other cases may be as fancy as the Milton Keynes Coachway.

Where is the M4 bus lane research?

Today saw the removal of the first section of the M4 bus lane between Heathrow Airport and central London as promised by the new government at the recent Conservative party conference. A ‘Whitehall Source’ said at the time that “The business case shows time savings for all current non-bus lane users during the morning peak period, with more savings during the evening peak. There is no significant change in journey times for existing bus lane users.” Sounds great.

M4 bus lane

However.. after the lane was created in 1999 the Transport Research Laboratory wrote two reports for the government (in 2000 and in 2003) which evidently found that the scheme had reduced rush hour journey times by 3.5 minutes for buses and even reduced times for cars. It also estimated that 21% of the people were able to benefit from the lane even though they were only using 7% of the vehicles.

Motorists loathed it! Jeremy Clarkson called it a ‘stupid pinko bus lane’. The Sun described it as ‘insane’. The AA described it as a ‘White Elephant’. When announcing its removal Philip Hammond, the Secretary of Sate for Transport said that ‘Nothing is more symbolic of Labour’s war on the motorist’ and  that motorists ‘sit sweltering in traffic queues watching an empty lane by the side of them with just the occasional vehicle going down it’.

Heavy stuff, so what is the truth? You may have noticed that I was careful in my description of the TRL report, I said that it ‘written for’ not ‘published by’ because it has never been published.

A total of 7 Freedom of Information requests wer made to various organisations on the same day as the announcement. They asked for the 2000 and 2003 research by TRL to be made available and also the more recent research underpinning the claims made about it’s removal. After 20 days the Highways Agency has asked for more time to respond due to ‘the complexity of the request’. The Department for Transport has not acknowledged receipt of the FOI request or responded. Transport for London responded saying that they had not been consulted on the recent decision and therefore couldn’t help.

I believe that the humble coach has a lot to offer the UK. It believe that the coach can build an intercity public transport service that rail can never deliver. It resolves congestion very effectively, it is energy efficient and it allows people to relax and work which traveling in a way that they can’t while driving.

However, we won’t get there without basing our transport decisions being based on what the data is telling us rather than what Mr Clarkson is telling us. The prime minister has spoken frequently about the importance of transparency and ‘open source planning‘. A great start would be getting the M4 bus lane research from 2000, 2003 and 2010 published as requested through FOI.

There are other sources of information. Taxi companies have of course be logging data GPS data from the route for years so that will be another route to truth. No doubt there are also many logs for coaches, motorbikes and normal cars. The bus lane is going to be out of action now for 18 month and will then be reinstated for the Olympics which will given us another opportunity to collect a load of data at which point we should be able to make an informed decision about the future of this very political bit of tarmac!


I am pleased to report that the Highways Agency published the requested information on 10 December 2010 which I have done a separate post about.

Why are statistics no longer collected for coach travel?

Wouldn’t it be useful to see what has happened to receipts from coach travel over the past few years. Unfortunately we can’t because the statistics are no longer collected.

This table is from the most recent set of data that I could find (in .xls format). but notice that there is no data for the last two entries for receipts in the ‘Other (non-local) services’ row (by which they mean coach). The associated note reads “Passenger receipts for non-local services are no longer collected”.

Why are they no longer collected? Is it because there is not enough official interest in coaches to make it worth collecting the data any more?

6.11 Bus and coach services: passenger receipts (Including concessionary fare reimbursement): 1998/99-2008/09

However… lets see what has been happening to coach receipts in the 9 year period for which receipts are available. Personally I am interested in the 36% growth in the period 1996-2001. Is the subsequent dip to do with the recession of the early 2000s or a long term trend. My senses tell me that it was a dip and that it has been going up since then. Megabus started in the UK in 2003 and Greyhound in 2009. National express announced a 2% growth in passenger numbers in 2008 so they don’t appear to be loosing out.

Coach receipts 1996-2004

Personally I think that a transport sector worth nearly £1.7billion per year, which operated 1.5 billion km vehicle miles in 2007/2008 and which pays its way, pays taxes and has grown by 24% in 6 years is worth keeping tabs on!

Read more about the recent growth in coach travel in the Wikipedia article ‘Coach transport in the United Kingdom‘ (which is well referenced and pretty accurate).

Bristol to London 040 coach service – a success!

A number of my friends have recommended the 040 Coach service from Bristol to London which is operated by National Express. I have been checking times, frequencies and fares to see why.

By car it is 119 miles with a predicted one-way journey time of 2h14m. By train there trains every 30 mins of so and the journey time in 1h 40m. By coach the journey time varies from 2h20m off-peak to 3h peak. There are 28 Bristol-London coach departures per day, the number was increased in 2008 to meet additional demand.

Cost wise the coach is cheapest at with return fares between £17 off-peak and £22 peak. The train varies from £59 return off-peak to £159 peak. The car comes out at £94 return (based on 40p per mile without congestion charge or parking fees) or £24 in fuel at 10p per mile.

So.. traveling in peak times one can save £139 on the return trip by taking an extra 2h40m journey time (round trip). Off-peak one can save £42 on the round trip at a time ‘cost’ of an additional 2 hours. One has to have a ‘time value’ of £52 per hour to justify traveling by train during peak and £21 to justify it off-peak.

In general the train appears to be a ‘luxury purchase’ for most people unless they value their time very highly and can’t be ‘productive’ on the coach. Equally, the car is the least productive option is the car assuming that the driver is not able to do much else in the time other than drive.

Carbon emissions: the coach wins at 10kg, the train comes next at 22kg and the car weighs in at 85kg.source data.

If one considers congestion then the coach is a bonus whether it takes cars of the M4 or passengers from the Great Western, both of which are often running at capacity.

Conclusion. The train is faster and also cheaper and more carbon efficient than the car or the coach. The coach is cheaper than both the train and the car when travelling alone even if one only count the fuel cost and has the best carbon performance. The car is cheapest with more than one person and does not achieve the carbon performance of the train.

It is therefore unfortunate that the current transport minister plans to remove the M4 bus lane which saved 3.5 minutes on the coach time in peak without significant time cost to other road users (according to research by TRL produced in 2002).

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.