One of the benefits of having an airport a couple of miles from my house is that I have good coach connections and get all round the country with relative ease. The downside is that they are coach connections, and so I rarely take advantage of this. Rather than taking the most direct route, coaches tend to meander across the country to pick up passengers, and stops are often in the town centre. It’s a slow and tedious business, with endless hours of queuing in traffic in-between short bursts along the motorway.
There are exceptions, such as the commuter services that come into London, but generally speaking coach travel is a cheap option for those with no choice. It serves students and migrant workers, and those that can afford it take the train or drive.
That’s unfortunate, because in comparative studies of transport methods, coach travel always comes out near the top. It is one of the most sustainable forms of transport that there is, and certainly the best for long distances.
Transport emissions must come down, and coach travel offers one of the best ways to do that. It’s also one of the most overlooked opportunities in sustainable transport. George Monbiot lamented the lack of investment in coach travel in his book Heat, back in 2006. A decade later and absolutely nothing has changed. The money all goes to rail and roads. This is hardly surprising, since few members of Parliament ever take the coach. Since nobody likes them, a politician has nothing to gain from championing them.
The thing is, it wouldn’t actually be difficult to improve Britain’s coach network dramatically, and turn it into a much faster and sleeker form of transport that people might seriously want to use. The key is to shift from a city centre model, to a network based around the motorways.
This has been comprehensively explained by economist Alan Storkey. Under his proposals, you would start your journey from the city as usual, but you wouldn’t get straight on the coach. Instead, a shuttle bus would take you out of the city to the nearest motorway service station, and that’s where you’d pick up the coach. Coaches wouldn’t need to trail into the downtown traffic. They’d just pull off the motorway, pick up and be on their way again. It would cut hours off the average long coach journey, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and benefit other road users too.
One of the big advantages of coach travel is that they cut congestion. A full bus can carry fifty people or more in a much smaller space than cars can. As Storkey says, each coach “hoovers up a mile of car lane traffic.” Think of the billions we spend widening motorways to try and ease congestion – despite all the decades of research that tells us this is ultimately futile, as wider roads encourage more cars. A fraction of that investment into coach travel would make it a viable and desirable transport option, and would be far more effective at reducing traffic.
Another big advantage is that coach travel uses existing road infrastructure. We would be getting more use out of what we already have. This is in stark contrast to the vast budgets and massive disruption of new bypasses or high speed rail. The savings are enormous by comparison. Storkey only offers rough costings, but with bus lanes on motorways, signage and traffic control systems, extra coaches and new bus stations at service stations, we might be looking at £2 billion. The first phase of HS2 will cost over 10 times that amount – and that only goes from London to Birmingham. Coach travel could provide an entire national network for a tenth of the cost of one high speed rail connection.
It’s hard to know what can be done to overcome the bad PR that coaches have, and build support for coach travel. I imagine it would need to come from the Department of Transport, and it doesn’t appear to be on their radar. I suspect we still have a long wait before we actually take this easy and quietly obvious step towards sustainable transport.