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Warwick Uni’s bus battle hots up

Monday 6th January 2020

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Universities are good business for bus companies. Many towns and cities benefit from having a network of attractive frequencies and buses running late into the night thanks to student travel.

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Despite this few, if any, University travel markets are hotly contested with competitive bus services. One exception is the University of Warwick on the southern fringe of Coventry where Stagecoach Midlands introduced a new like-for-like competitive service against National Express Coventry from Saturday.

It follows recent impressive investment in new ADL Enviro 400 buses for routes U1 and U2 which Stagecoach run between the University campus south to Leamington Spa and Warwick at a combined 7-8 minute term time frequency.

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Now when buses arrive at the University on route U1 instead of heading back to Leamington Spa they morph into the brand new route U12 to provide a fifteen minute frequency northwards direct into Coventry for the rail station and Pool Meadow bus station.

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This new route treads firmly on the toes of National Express Coventry’s route 12X which has been providing the same direct link between Coventry and the University for some years.

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National Express Coventry has also invested significantly in new vehicles and last year introduced £5 million worth of ‘Platinum’ branded buses on both the 12X and route 11 which the Company operates between Coventry, via a more circuitous route through Earlsdon to the University and on to Leamington Spa – competing with Stagecoach’s routes U1 and U2 between the latter two points. Pointedly National Express Coventry doubled the daytime frequency of the 11 last September which perhaps partly explains the background to the U12’s introduction now.

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As you’d expect in a contested student market both operators offer good value fares and ticket prices. A Stagecoach Unirider, lasting a term, is £99 on the U12 and £140 including the U1 and U2, while National Express Coventry offers a term’s ticket for £124.90 including all local travel in Coventry too.

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Aside from these deals you have to hand it to National Express – their pricing/fare offer is remarkable for its good value and simplicity.

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With contactless even the previous impediment of needing the correct change for the farebox is now old hat.

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Following this weekend’s route U12 introduction, Network West Midlands have done a good job updating all the bus stop flags and timetable panels along the route although the inclusion of both term and vacation times with minuscule sized notes alongside each entry makes it quite hard to work out what the actual departure times are.

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In Coventry’s Pool Meadow bus station routes 12X and U12 have been given separate but adjacent departure bays (J and K) ….

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…. but at the ‘Transport Interchange’ on the University campus both routes depart from the same bus stop.

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I spotted some timetable leaflets for the 11 and 12X in Pool Meadow bus station but none for the U12 nor were there any available on board buses of either company. It looked to me like a low key ‘soft launch’ was the order of the day for the new U12. No balloons or cupcakes to be seen.

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Today was the interloping U12’s very first weekday (and term time service day) so not surprisingly the buses I rode on, and others I saw, were very lightly loaded.

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It looked to me as though the 12X was keeping its market share helped by a number of students seemingly having National Express Coventry’s loyalty tickets.

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By contrast it looked like Stagecoach have the higher market share on the Leamington Spa routes with a number of buses spotted on routes U1 and U2 coming on to campus with very impressive loads even in the late morning.

Whereas the 12X has an increase in frequency from every 15 to every 10 minutes in term times the U12 runs a consistent 15 minute frequency all year round. On Sundays the 12X dips to every 30 minutes whereas the U12 runs more frequently at every 20 minutes. Last journeys on Mondays to Saturdays around 23:30 to midnight are similar on both routes.

The last time I travelled between Coventry and the University of Warwick was quite a few years ago which I’m pretty sure was before the 12X had started running as I recall what seemed like a laborious winding journey on route 11 taking around half an hour to complete, as it still does today.

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Compared to today’s experience of running pretty much non-stop (although bus stops along the route are served) along the direct and impressively straight A429 towards Kenilworth with a journey time of little more than ten minutes was, and I don’t use the term lightly, transformative.

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I’m not surprised Stagecoach want a bit of the Coventry action but it looks to me as though National Express have got the frequency, the fares and the service quality for the city centre to University market well sorted so it will be fascinating to see how this latest competitive battle pans out in 2020.

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Roger French

BusAndTrainUser View All

I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.

9 thoughts on “Warwick Uni’s bus battle hots up Leave a comment

  1. Last September National Express doubled the daytime frequency on the 11 to Leamington. I have wondered if this was a factor that made Stagecoach decide to start the U12.

    A year ago Stagecoach Midlands went through quite a big trimming exercise. The U12 is its first commercial expansion since then. It will be very interesting to see how it pans out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder why no smaller independent operators attempt to enter these lucrative university markets. Maybe it’s because the big operators can just reduce their fares to unsustainable levels for a short period to put the smaller operator out of business perhaps?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Universities are frequently situated on private property, which means that there is no automatic right for a bus operator to run a service. More and more are establishing partnerships or even formal contracts that give one operator exclusive rights, which generally ensures either a long operating day, cheap fares for staff and students, or indeed both.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What goes around comes around!

    In the early 1980s, the University’s stock of student housing started to dry up in Coventry, and the University awarded a contract to Midland Red to operate five round trips a day to and from Leamington, where rental accommodation was plentiful. By 1985 the contract had passed to local company G&G Coaches, and in 1986 when I joined the company as Operations Manager I increased the service to hourly. Even so, literally hundreds of students were still hitching lifts to and from the University each day (each paying £1 a day under an approved car-share scheme) and the University was under increasing pressure to build a second multi-storey car park. Within a year, I signed an agreement with the University to increase the Leamington service to 4 buses an hour, with the University subsidising the cost of termly passes down to the same £1 per day.

    Immediately, our sales of termly passes rocketed from 150 to over 1,000 – and demand continued to grow. As a mixed bus and coach operation, we routinely operated late night private hires for the Student Union and quickly became their preferred partner on a wide range of activities. The bus fleet was struggling to keep pace though, and when the company was sold to Western Travel in 1990 (becoming G&G Travel, under my management) our double deck fleet was more than a little tired, and breakdowns had become an increasing problem. There was growing frustration among academic staff at the University who pressurised the Academic Registrar to sign a contract with (then) West Midlands Travel to extend their service through to Leamington, threatening a major part of my bus revenue. That September, the University also refused to allow us into the campus buildings to sell our termly passes, expecting that students would switch their allegiance to WMT.

    A back-up plan was quickly devised and by 8am on the first day of term I was in the campus car park selling tickets from the back of my company car. Security was alerted and I was politely asked to desist – with a wry smile from the my friend the Chief Security Officer who walked away saying he’d tell his boss he hadn’t seen me – but having come prepared with hundreds of free travel vouchers, my colleagues and I switched to trawling campus for two days offering free travel back to Leamington Spa where we had pre-arranged a town centre sales pitch for our largest vehicle – a Metroliner double deck coach – to double as a University ticket office. A little cheek and creativity paid off and by the end of the week, we had amassed no less than 1,200 termly ticket sales and (as we subsequently discovered) WMT had sold just 40. Our strategy convinced the University we were serious, and we were invited back next term to sell our termly passes on campus – alongside our new “friends” from West Midlands Travel.

    By the time Western Travel was sold to Stagecoach in 1993, our share of the market had grown to more than 1,500 termly passes and the route was running with duplicates every morning and evening to meet demand. We had also extended alternate journeys into Coventry and were starting to eat into the traditional WMT business base there. And so, the Stagecoach Unibus to Warwick was born, and has continued to grow from strength to strength. I like to think I contributed to that success in a small way, even when the chips appeared to be down!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Perhaps they are saving the cupcakes & launch for the freshers in September? It may have also been quiet, as despite term starting again now, regular lectures won’t start until the end of January due to exams.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. NXWM are retaliating! From 26th January, they’re extending alternate journeys on their 20 (Coventry-Bedworth, which is paralleled by Stagecoach’s ten minute 48) onto Nuneaton in competition with Stagecoach 48!

    I’ve also heard a whisper that the 11 will soon be extended from Leamington-Warwick, via Stagecoach’s X17 route! I wonder where this will end!

    Liked by 1 person

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