The Other End of the Spectrum – And What I Learned on Megabus

Dear reader, you may have noticed me going on about first class recently, and I may have mentioned that this is rather unusual as far as my travel arrangements are concerned. Well, recently, the time had come to do something that, once upon a time, never imagined doing – taking a Megabus.

I should explain that I made every effort not to. Timetables were consulted, the internet scoured, multiple options considered, hotel rooms looked into. I even considered National Express, but the timings just wouldn’t fit. It did look as if I was going to have to rely on getting a lift in a private car, which, while the conventional thing to do, is hardly in the spirit of things. In short; where’s the fun in that?

But, after a short consultation of the Megabus website, it seemed that they might be the ones to rescue me from this predicament, however reluctant I might be to accept the rescue. I bit the bullet and booked a return trip.

This is the first thing that I learned, and I think the rail industry in particular can learn from – the Megabus website is a very useful one. Rather than endless options concerning railcards, passenger types, time of travel, there are simple, easy to understand buttons. Adverts are not allowed to get in the way of the booking section (helpfully situated at the top of the homepage), instead they are for your perusal at the bottom of the page (unusual considering that Megabus are a budget operator).

Now I will admit that this is largely because the railways have incredibly onerous fare regulations, resulting in literally millions of different fares. This is due to the fact that, despite the names of various fares changing, the regulations were locked in as of the mid 1990s, when British Rail was privatised. Another problem is that there must be a ticket between every pair of stations, however minor. (I must also mention that many fares are regulated by the Department for Transport, and that when fares increases are announced, the average increase in these is what is quoted).

The fares are, as one might expect from a budget coach operator, low. It must be mentioned that the best advance train tickets are better, but these tickets can be hard to find and you need a railcard to access great savings. The amount I spent (which, to add some suspense, shall remain undisclosed) was very low without any special discount – quite convenient indeed.

Of course, I am not going to pretend that waking up at half past 3 in the morning to catch a bus is a fun thing to do. Neither will I pretend that the bus stop in question was a particularly pleasant place to be, but I suppose that, given the small amount of money required to take a Megabus, one cannot complain.

The first thing that I noticed when the Megabus arrived was good old fashioned customer service. Despite the early morning and unpleasant surroundings, the driver was very friendly and helpful, something all transport undertakings can learn from. Luggage space was also cavernous, under the floor of the bus; quite the opposite of the railway situation where luggage space has been shrinking for years.

Actually stepping on board, the next thing one notices is that the seats are rather small, if not necessarily uncomfortable, though again one cannot complain since the prices are so small. Despite this cost saving, both plug sockets (actual 3 pin ones, not the smaller USB type that you get on some buses, if you’re lucky) and Wi-Fi (which appears to be rather good, if the amount of other passenger’s phones on display was anything to go by). These facilities are surprising given that Megabus are a budget coach operator, and even the newest trains sometimes have neither of these features (I’m looking at you Thameslink).

Actually getting on the move, the coach was remarkably smooth (almost as good as a train) given that a coach is a road bound vehicle. This might be because the particular coach I was on had 3 axles, and thus 6 rather large wheels, rather than the standard 4 wheels. That said, I’m not a mechanical engineer so I am not really qualified to say.

One disadvantage of the journey down, sitting as I was on the back row of the coach, was the lack of room for reading, with a book having to be held with arms very close together so as not to touch anyone else on the row. Needless to say this was uncomfortable, but:

a) I’m British. The idea of accidentally touching someone else on public transport is one of the scariest imaginable and

b)  This problem sometimes manifests itself on trains and

c) If I was driving, even attempting to read a book would be out of the question.

Alas, after 3 hours of smooth, mainly motorway driving, we arrived at Victoria Coach Station. The trouble here is that, unbeknown to first time travellers, Victoria is separated into Arrivals and Departures, with quite a distance between the two. The arrivals section appears rather dangerous since one must make one’s way around coaches to get to the exit, with apparently nothing to prevent said coaches from moving and running one over. It is a small miracle that one does not hear of such incidents very often, and perhaps here is an area in which the coach industry can learn from rail (there hasn’t been an accident fatality on UK railways for 11 years).

Much later, my business in London complete, I returned to Victoria (just the coach station, though I am quite fond of the railway station too), and I must say I was much more impressed with the departures section. Right from the start (this might sound obvious but I’ll explain why I’m mentioning it later) the station is geared to get passengers on the right coach. Large screens showing all coach departures, by time, destination and operator, adorn the entrance hall, and easy to read, well placed signs direct the passenger to the correct gate. The gates themselves are marked by large numbers in a kind of stylised circle, a decorative touch that does not detract from the overall usefulness of the sign.

This is all the more surprising given the recent trend on the railways. One might imagine the purpose of a railway station would be to get passengers (who, let’s not forget, fund the vast majority of rail operations, and cover most of the costs of day to day running) on the correct trains. This fits quite neatly into my personal definition for the purpose of the railway – to get people where they want to be, when they want to be there (yes there is freight too, but this is increasingly niche). Sadly, Network Rail (who actually own the vast majority of the stations, even those operated by Train Operators) have taken it upon themselves to turn stations into miniature (and in some cases not so miniature) shopping centres, leading to some confusion as to where the actual platforms are, and where people ought to be going.

Let me illustrate this point with an example; the recently renovated Birmingham New Street. New Street has always had something of a reputation as it was rebuilt in the 1960s under a shopping centre, not the wisest move when many of the trains belch diesel fumes (though new ventilation has done much to improve matters). While the shopping centre in question, the Palisades, was an ever present feature above the station, it was never allowed to intrude upon the passenger areas which were simple and easy to navigate. I am not going to argue the old New Street was a pleasant place to be, but it was at least an easy to use station, and the British Rail signage was clear and well positioned.

Now, the station is confused. On the one hand, the platforms themselves are still marked New Street, and the station still listed on National Rail Enquiries as Birmingham New Street (BHM). On the other, the new shopping centre is known as Grand Central, with this name emblazoned in large letters on top of the station come shopping centre, and on the adjacent tram stop. Going inside reveals even more confusion, as there is no definite dividing line between the two, and even a partition of platforms at one end into two “Lounges” to allow shoppers not to have to go through any ticket barriers (apparently with no regard to passengers who have to either go through two sets of barriers or the other end of the station). The newer signage hardly helps, with small, fiddly white letters on a blue background, sometimes with utterly useless phrases like “metro”, which actually refers to the trams, but sounds as if it could be for trains or even buses.

Meanwhile, at Victoria Coach Station, what shops there are are to the side, to allow a free flow of passengers to the gates (getting people where they want to be, when they want to be there). Domestic passengers are not interrupted by the European check in, which is only by those gates from which international departures, erm, depart. Furthermore, in complete contrast to the arrival arrangements, one will only be allowed to leave the departure building when the coach is ready and staff open the gate, a much safer system. The fact that coaches are cleaned between the arrival and departure sections is very welcome, and again a contrast to rail practice where trains frequently receive no attention whatsoever from the cleaners when being turned around in London, even after long journeys.

The coach home was a good 40 minutes late, but this is to be expected given that coaches are at the mercy of traffic, road accidents, and so on and so forth. This is another advantage of trains – in most cases, trains are either on time or within a few minutes of time (an impression you certainly don’t get from most media coverage) and incidents are relatively rare. While I mention it, Train Operators are legally obligated to get you home if the last train is cancelled (this means, for example, paying for a taxi) whereas, as far as I am aware, Coach Operators are under no such obligations. Advantage train, this paragraph, it would seem.

Mind you, it is nice that the lights were dimmed on the coach at night, something I have yet to encounter on a train. Near-perfect reading lights, that cover a sufficient area with enough illumination to read comfortably, yet not enough to wake your neighbour, are provided. Stepping off the coach in the early hours of a new day, I made finally for home.

To conclude, what have we learned? Well, quite a lot, but the main thing to take away is that Megabus really aren’t that bad. If you’re looking at this from the perspective of the railways, you really can’t be complacent – the competition isn’t crap anymore.

In any case, it only remains for me to thank you for reading, and ask you politely to share this with others, if you feel those others might enjoy the article.




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