ITC debates the future for coach travel in Britain
What does the future hold for coach travel in Britain?
Coach travel has traditionally played an important role in Britain’s long-distance transport network. Coach services provide essential inter-city and airport connectivity across the country, as well as a wide range of leisure opportunities. What does the future hold for this mode of travel? How should long-distance coach travel be integrated with smart highways? And do we need a national coach strategy to ensure its survival?
To debate this important topic, the ITC was delighted to welcome a distinguished panel of leading experts at its Spring Discussion Evening on 30th April 2019. The guest panel included: Richard Leonard, Head of Road Safety at Highways England; Chris Hardy, Managing Director of Coach at National Express; and Tony Caccavone, Surface Access Director at Heathrow Airport. The subsequent discussion was chaired by coach expert and ITC Commissioner Kris Beuret OBE.
What does the future hold for coach travel in Britain? Key issues raised by the speakers:
- Richard Leonard explained how coach travel was part of the strategic roads strategy. He introduced the challenges facing the strategic road network, including increasing usage and the need to adapt to changing travel trends. In particular, developing factors such as electric and automated vehicles, on-demand services, smart assets and environmental targets would all need to be accommodated in the future. Bus and coach operations are, and would continue to be a crucial part of the future connectivity offering on roads, he observed, especially in helping reduce the number of single occupancy vehicles. Highways England had therefore established a dedicated bus and coach steering group to advise at a strategic level and offer collaborative working across the two sectors.. The aim is to develop a bus and coach policy that could lead to better customer experiences on these services on the strategic road network. A national coach network was a possibility, he suggested, but this would require collaboration across operators to create a seamless travel service. A programme of activities was being developed with the bus and coach steering group, he explained, with the aim of developing a shared vision with clear objectives across both the short and long term.
- Chris Hardy gave a coach operator’s perspective on the challenges facing this mode. He explained that National Express was the UK’s largest coach operator, serving more than 700 towns and cities, and supplying 15% of public transport passengers to London’s major airports. There was a need, however, to change negative perceptions of coach travel, which in actual fact offered an affordable, convenient, comfortable and reliable service, capable of running in almost all weather conditions (unlike some modes). Increased coach travel could help to address a wide range of policy objectives, he suggested, including air quality improvements, filling network gaps, providing low-cost mobility, and improving road capacity – since a full single coach takes a mile of car traffic off the road. There had been strong growth in coach travel in recent years, he noted, with National Express passenger numbers up over 20% since 2012. However, the opportunity existed to grow the mode more substantially, since there were annually 1 billion leisure journeys in the UK over 50 miles in length but only 3% were taken by coach. What was now needed was to make coach travel more visible, he explained, and to sell its value proposition of low-price, reliable and high-quality journeys. Coaches could address many needs across an integrated transport network, he concluded, from a scheduled service to ‘on demand’ and holiday services.
- Tony Caccavone provided insights on the future of coach travel at Britain’s largest airport. He noted that Heathrow was the best connected airport in Britain with 650 departures a day and 10% of travellers arriving by coach. The airport has ambitious targets to have 55% of passengers arriving by public transport by 2040, and coaches had a crucial role in achieving this. A plan was being developed to extend the current coach network to new destinations. However, coach travel declined with income and age, and over 60% of sampled air travellers never used scheduled coach services. It would be important, therefore, to extend the coach market by emphasising the way coaches could provide services that achieved the core customer needs of speed, ease of use, and trust. Priorities included the need to increase awareness of coach frequency and punctuality, its low cost, and to improve the locality of pick-up points. A key concern remained the need to increase the online visibility of coach options when booking flights.
Key themes raised in the discussion:
- Public perceptions of coach travel need to be improved: A number of guests observed that the popularity of coach travel was inhibited by unwarranted perceptions of the mode as unreliable and uncomfortable. When people experienced coach travel their perceptions improved, so there is a need to provide better information about services to achieve higher patronage. Some guests suggested that a national coach lobby group is required to make the case for coach travel. One of the virtues of the coach is its flexibility: there is single travel purpose for coach but it serves a number of mobility offerings, from scheduled services to leisure and on-demand travel needs. There were some questions about whether Local Authority (LA) attitudes needed to change: coach operators suggested that support for coach services varied widely across LAs. Others suggested that operators should pay LAs to help increase patronage through quality partnerships.
- Coaches should be more tightly integrated with other transport modes: Many attendees argued that coach services needed to be more tightly integrated with other transport modes with the aim of providing a door-to-door mobility offering. In addition, there were calls to improve the profile of coaches on online journey mappers such as Google Maps in order to give more prominence to coach options. A number of guests suggested that increased multi-modal ticketing involving coach services would be helpful, with coach travel integrated with air and rail travel bookings. A single coach sales desk at airports would also be beneficial, some recommended, as well as improved facilities at coach interchanges.
- Do we need to create coach hubs as part of a national network? It was observed that the greatest challenge for coach networks was getting into city centres. As a result there were some suggestions that coach hubs should be created on the outskirts of cities as part of a national network, at which travellers could board smaller vehicles for local drop-off. Disagreement existed over whether coaches needed special treatment on the strategic road network: while some called for dedicated coach lanes, others noted that it was unusual to isolate a particular vehicle type across the network. Others suggested that hubs would only work if the penalty in time and cost was minimal for the traveller, and if these were part of a fully integrated transport network.
- We need better statistics on coach travel: There were a number of complaints that coach travel statistics in Britain need to be improved. It was observed that separate coach data was last collected by the DfT in 2009 and now needed to be assembled from other sources. There were calls for coach operators and local authorities to work together more closely to share data about coach usage and patronage along particular routes. Improved data collection about coach services could then lead to better policy making and help identify priorities for increasing patronage.
- Improved coach design and different coach sizes could be beneficial: Some guests noted that coach design had improved greatly in recent years, but further opportunities existed for upgrades. The coach operators suggested that internal design was less of a problem than the physical size of coaches, which restricted where one could drive the vehicle, particularly in city centres and in rural areas. Some called for smaller coaches to be designed that could more appropriately serve city centres and smaller roads in rural areas (as happens in Japan).