12 May 2010

Megabus expansion

At the same time as we brought you an exclusive blog entry concerning Stagecoach's investment in some of the first-ever Plaxton Elite-bodied Volvo B9Rs for its National Express (NX) coach requirements, Brian Souter's transport giant also announced that its competing coach operation, Megabus, would expand, taking in further destinations and increasing frequencies of existing routes.

Selkirk, Hawick, Galashiels, Birmingham International Airport, Carlisle, Torquay and Paignton are the seven new additions, some of which are to be added to existing services, so the press release's allusion to all-brand new cross-country services is a little misleading. In fact, cross-country coach services are notoriously problematic, compared to their radial London counterparts, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the these east-west routes omit London - the location with one of the biggest pull factors in the world; secondly, while London has traffic problems, a typical east-west service encounters more settlements, each with its own bottlenecks and traffic chaos; thirdly, journey times are hampered by the need to constantly change roads (if only it were possible to travel Land's End-John o' Groats on the same road); and finally, when compared to the private car or train, equivalent cross-country coach journeys - while usually cheaper - are less-well supported due to their journey times, so higher fares are charged. There are precious few Funfares available at all (let alone for £1) on NX's services that do not serve London.

So it is very interesting to see £1 single fares available on a whole host of the new journey possibilities that are to commence from 24 May. On 30 May, for example, a £1 single between Exeter and Birmingham International is possible. NX, by comparison, does not offer its bargain Funfare tickets to/from airports, choosing to leave journeys calling here offering premium fares. But with only Brum's airport added to Megabus' portfolio, those flying with easyJet et al from Luton and Stansted ought not to get excited too soon.

It is likely that the headline £1 fare being so prevalent from the new localities is deliberate and will be short-lived, as was the case when Megabusplus launched from Yorkshire to London via East Midlands Parkway and the Midland Main Line. There is folklore already enshrined in NX and Megabus operation where drivers believe there's some kind of legal obligation to offer the headline fare on all journeys. Complete fallacy. Obviously if an operator adorns its vehicles in 10-feet tall '£1' vinyls yet never offers a fare at this level, action may be taken; but how do you prove such a thing?

Stagecoach has understood the need to reduce journey times on its cross-country services though, with its Portsmouth-Leeds service re-timed to complete an end-to-end journey in under 7 hours. As soon as it uploads its new timetables from 24 May, we'll see at what cost. Shaving 2 hours from a journey and not removing a location or two (and all at which Megabus call have substantial populations or are integral for connections/park-and-rides) will see reduced potential.

There will be a number of Volvo B12Ms released from the end of July, ousted by the new NX intake, though we understand these coaches are leased, not owned, so may not seamlessly drop into play with Megabus during the autumn, as their S-reg Jonckheere counterparts did from 2006.

Similar with Greyhound, virtually all Megabus operation is not registered as a local bus service and accordingly operates without receipt of Bus Service Operators Grant. While this puts the operation at a financial disadvantage when compared to the market leader, it does afford the company the ability to be more reactive to demand on, potentially, a week-by-week basis - something NX has only recently cottoned onto and done something similar with its competing south coast services.

The relationship between Stagecoach and NX was volatile for a number of years, when the Megabus operation commenced. A reasonably senior figure within NX told LEYTR a number of years ago that, back in 2004, Stagecoach could have been relieved of all their NX contracts. Today, things seem more settled - despite the backdrop of increased Megabus activity. While there is a very large proportion of NX travellers who prefer to visit a booking office or to deal with a human being via the phone (not at £1-per minute), Megabus and Greyhound will always be at a disadvantage.

We've seen first-hand here in the LEYTR area that NX carries hundreds of thousands of passengers each year to some of the rural villages and small Wolds and Fenland towns that would never be considered by Megabus and Greyhound. This demographic tends to be older, with increased levels of disposable income and seem happy with the service offered. While this remains prevalent, the inroads made into NX's dominance on a national scale will be limited.

Megabus expansion press relase

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