Monday 6th January 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Aside from these deals you have to hand it to National Express – their pricing/fare offer is remarkable for its good value and simplicity.
With contactless even the previous impediment of needing the correct change for the farebox is now old hat.
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.
In Coventry’s Pool Meadow bus station routes 12X and U12 have been given separate but adjacent departure bays (J and K) ….
…. but at the ‘Transport Interchange’ on the University campus both routes depart from the same bus stop.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.