Thursday 9th July 2020
After 118 days of bus and train travel abstinence, I thought it was time to venture out again following the easing of Government messaging from “essential travel only” to “consider all forms of transport before using public transport”. I did, and decided you can’t really test out a new coach route in a car or on a bike. I’m also struck by the Chancellor’s call for us all to ‘help out’ the economy, so my paying a few train fares will go a smidgeon towards reducing that £180 million bill it’s costing the Government each week to run minimal loaded trains.
I thought I’d dip my toe in the water by doing a quick round trip from Sussex via London and Portsmouth and in so doing try out the new express coach venture launched last Thursday by ambitious German owned coach operator, Flixbus, linking those two destinations.
As well as the Portsmouth route, Flixbus have also begun operating to Birmingham and Bristol as highlighted in Saturday’s news round up. As I wrote then, to launch at a time of devastated demand for travel is a very brave move indeed and their initial choice of destinations is interesting. Both Birmingham and Bristol are well served by National Express and Megabus with the latter also initially targeted by the erstwhile newcomer Snap. Birmingham also enjoys intense rail competition from Avanti West Coast, London NorthWestern Railway and Chiltern Railways who offer a range of cheap advanced fares while Portsmouth has competition from National Express and is where First gave it a good competitive go with Greyhound a decade ago.
As shown in Saturday’s blog the initial timetable offering from Flixbus is fairly modest with two return journeys on Thursdays to Mondays with an extra trip on Fridays and Sundays but nothing at all on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
I booked a ticket online last night for today’s 11:00 Victoria to Portsmouth journey. It cost £2.99 plus a £1 ‘service fee’ – although there was no other way to book it without the £1, so I’m not sure why they don’t just say it’s £3.99.
The journey listing shows the two destinations in Portsmouth seperately (the International Ferry Terminal and The Hard Interchange) as well as the other London pick up point of Wandsworth High Street as two further options. There’s also a stop in Guildford which is listed below those entries. I found it a bit confusing at first but then got the hang of which one I needed to click.
National Express were offering a £10 single on their 11:00 departure and I see this is reduced to £3 for the same timed journey on Monday.
I took the first off peak Southern train from Hassocks to Victoria (at 09:02) and it was noticeable how quiet the station was with just three of us boarding what is usually a very busy departure. Maybe the posters at the entrance are still a bit negative?
Victoria station was well organised with extended barriers keeping arriving passengers from those departing, and quite a few high viz wearing staff looking busy as they ogled their smart tablets. Mask wearing was good with only a few non compliers including one loud mouth shouting into his mobile phone as he walked through the train – he could of course be exempted for medical reasons, so I tried not to make a judgement.
Victoria Coach Station was also well organised with a one-way system to reach the waiting areas for its nineteen departure bays.
Staff were on hand at the front entrance to check tickets and only allow booked passengers in. Having checked your ticket, you’re advised which bay number your coach departs from which is helpful. Mine was bay 19.
The waiting areas for the lower numbered bays were quite busy with the higher numbered bays deserted with only my Portsmouth departure leaving in the next twenty minutes.
There are some rather nice retro photographs and company logos along one wall of the coach station which brought back happy travelling memories from the past.
I arrived about 10:30 and my minimalist Flixbus branded coach was already on the stand.
The friendly driver beckoned me over as soon as he saw me in the waiting area at 10:45 and zapped my QR coded ticket and invited me on board to take a window seat.
The former Whippet Coaches owned 2015 Caetano Levante bodied coach has seen service on National Express – you can just make out the old vinyl imprint on the white paintwork – and, of course this coach body was initially produced exclusively for National Express.
The seats are quite comfortable with average spacing albeit it feels less than 1 metre in a Covid-world.
The on brand lime green high-viz wearing driver explained coaches will be in the company’s bright corporate colours in due course.
Like NatEx, Flixbus contracts in coach operators to run its services and this one was operated by Hounslow based BM Coaches (“Your Partner in Travel”).
There were only four of us on board so plenty of empty seats to choose from and spread out so it was quite extraordinary despite the signs and advice from the driver that one passenger sat in a prohibited gangway seat!
Our patient well-mannered driver asked him to move, which he did but I noticed he was wearing his face mask around his chin for all the journey, including when he wandered down the gangway to use the on-board toilet. It’s this type of person who’s the risk factor rather than public transport itself.
We left Victoria at 11:03 immediately behind the similar timed NatEx departure to Portsmouth. The first thirty minutes was a bit slow going through Battersea and Clapham Junction but we reached Wandsworth High Street spot on time for the pick up at 11:30, but there were no takers.
The next half hour passed much more quickly as we headed south out of London down the fast moving A3 passing the A308 turn off for Kingston at 11:39, the A243 to Chessington at 11:47 and crossing over the M25 at 11:55. There’s a call at Egerton Road in west Guildford which is just off the A3 close to the Royal Surrey Hospital where we arrived at 12:05 and waited for the scheduled departure at 12:10 but no takers here either.
The second hour sees us continue down the A3 through the Hindhead Tunnel then along a short stretch of the A27 and into Portsmouth on the M275 calling in at the International Ferry Terminal (no one got off so a bit surprising we made the call) and finally arriving into the smart, relatively newly revamped, Hard Interchange bus station alongside Portsmouth Harbour rail station and ferries on time at 11:10 and the four of us alighted.
Four passengers each paying £3.99 would barely cover the cost of the engine oil used on the journey but it’s a start I suppose. Actually I was quite impressed as many as three other people were on board, half expecting a coach to myself. The driver agreed with the thought it was a strange time for Flixbus to be launching a new service but I could tell he was very pleased to be having some work out on the road. That’s not exactly been a feature for coach companies over the last few months.
National Express operate eight departures a day between Portsmouth and London. One was just about to leave as we arrived and I noticed just half a dozen passengers boarding – all subject to temperature checking as per NatEx’s policy.
The Hard Interchange was quiet with few passengers but it was good to see First Portsmouth’s travel centre open with two helpful members of staff on hand answering questions about the latest timetables being operated. I asked for a timetable, and was reluctantly handed a copy of the last issued book (last September) as it was explained timetables were not yet fully back to normal.
It’s a tough time out there for coach operators. There’s not going to be room for three major companies. It’ll be interesting to see developments in the next few months – as I wrote on Saturday, it’s notable that Flixbus bought out Megabus’s continental operations in Europe as an expansionist tactic.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement enjoy Britain’s splendid scenic delights travelling by bus and train, and commenting along the way.