Coach transport in the United Kingdom

Coach transport in the United Kingdom
Two Oxford Tube vehicles at the Buckingham Palace Road terminus

There is an extensive network of scheduled coach transport in the United Kingdom. Coach services in the United Kingdom are distinguished from bus services in several ways. Coaches travel longer distances, are more comfortable, have separate compartments for luggage and do not stop as frequently as buses. It is common, but not universal, for coach travel to require advance purchase of tickets, whereas on buses tickets are mostly bought on board. The distinction is not absolute, and some coach services, especially in Scotland, operate as local bus services over sections of route where there is no other bus service.




A 1920 Punch cartoon shows UK government ministers in a charabanc

Long distance horse drawn stagecoach services were effectively killed by the arrival of the railways in the 1830s and 1840s.[1], but stagecoaches and charabancs were still used for short journeys and excursions until the early years of the 20th century.[2]

The first motor coaches were acquired by operators of those horse-drawn vehicles; for example, W. C. Standerwick of Blackpool acquired its first motor charabanc in 1911[3] and Royal Blue from Bournemouth acquired its first motor charabanc in 1913.[4] Motor coaches were initially used only for excursions.[5] In 1919 Royal Blue took advantage of a rail strike to run a coach service from Bournemouth to London. The service was so successful that it expanded rapidly.[6] In 1920 the Minister of Transport Eric Campbell Geddes was quoted in Punch magazine as saying "I think it would be a calamity if we did anything to prevent the economic use of charabancs"[7] and expressed concern at the problems caused to small charabanc and omnibus operators in parliament.[8]

Early history

The first scheduled motorcoach service to carry passengers from both ends and to and from intermediate points was the Greyhound Motors service between London and Bristol, started on 11 February 1925.[9]

The coach industry expanded rapidly in the 1920s, a period of intense competition. Several bus companies, including Midland Red, Crosville and Red & White, started coach services. By 1930, no fewer than 18 companies were running coaches between Oxford and London.[10] For example, the original Royal Blue service from Bournemouth to London grew from twice a week during 1920 to twice daily during 1921.[6]

The Road Traffic Act 1930 introduced a national system of regulation of passenger road transport and authorised local authorities to operate transport services.[11] It also imposed a speed limit of 30 mph for coaches[12] whilst removing any speed limit for private cars.[13] The act caused considerable disruption and it received criticism - In 1931 the commissioner refused to sanction coaches operating into central London. Frank Pick, managing director of Underground Electric Railways Company of London commented on this at the time saying The Road Traffic Act of 1930 was passed to restore order and prevent abuse on the roads. No one envisaged its use to deprive the public of reasonable service. It outruns its object. Control is one thing; prohibition is another.[11]

Following the 1930 Act coach operators bought, or reached agreement with competitors to share services and pool revenues.[citation needed] Many of the independent companies were bought by the two major bus groups, the Tilling Group and British Electric Traction. In 1932, a group of coach operators opened Victoria Coach Station in London, which became the London terminus for most coach services. In 1934 six coach operators formed the Associated Motorways consortium, and other co-operative arrangements were made.

Coach operators were required to suspend services from 1942 (during World War II) to conserve fuel. Services recommenced again in 1946.

The post-war years

After the Transport Act 1947 the nationalised government acquired the Tilling Group and Red & White bus companies, and Scottish Motor Traction, so that a large part of the coaching industry fell under state control. The 1950s and early 1960s were prosperous times for the industry, before foreign holidays became commonplace and car ownership spread. The Beeching cuts of the early 1960s generated more traffic for coach operators. The speed limit for buses and coaches on 'open roads' was increased from 40 mph to 50 mph in 1961.[14]

The Transport Act 1968 reorganised the nationalised bus and coach services creating five passenger transport executive and the National Bus Company (from January 1969) which merged the state owned Transport Holdings with the private British Electric Traction at which point most of the industry became state-owned.[15] Only a few independents, such as Yelloway and some smaller operators, remained.

In 1972 the National Bus Company formed the brand 'National Travel' (soon to be re-branded as National Express) to run long-distance coach services. Most of the coach operations of NBC's subsidiaries in England and Wales were franchised to National Express - the bus companies mostly continued to own the coaches, but were required to adopt the National Express brand white livery.[citation needed] In Scotland, and between England and Scotland, coach services continued to be operated by subsidiaries of the state-owned Scottish Bus Group.[citation needed]

Unlike many local bus services, coach services continued to make profits.[citation needed] The spread of the UK's motorway network in the 1970s cut journey times dramatically, and coach travel had a significant cost advantage over rail travel.[citation needed]

Privatisation and competition

A Megabus double-decker
A Greyhound coach with leather seating, wifi and power points

Express coach services were deregulated by the Transport Act 1980 under the new Thatcher government five years before the deregulation of local bus services by the Transport Act 1985. This led to a flurry of new coach operators. The largest of these was British Coachways, a consortium of established independents formed in 1980 to compete against National Express on six routes. It was disbanded in 1982. Other operators survived longer, but could not shake the dominance of National Express.[16] An exception was the Oxford to London coach route, where two companies (now owned by the Stagecoach and the Go-Ahead Group) continue to compete fiercely.

National Express was sold to its management in 1988, and floated on the stock exchange in 1992. In 1985, Scottish Citylink was formed to run coach services to and within Scotland - as a franchise operation, like National Express. It too was sold to its management in 1990, but in 1993 it was sold to National Express. In 1997 the Competition Commission ordered National Express to sell Scottish Citylink, following the award of the ScotRail franchise to National Express.[17] In 1998 Scottish Citylink was sold to ComfortDelGro Corporation.

The first Coachway interchange (Milton Keynes Coachway) was opened in the late 1970s/early 1980s - Coachways are coach interchanges built close to motorway/trunk road junctions which link to local transport as distinct from interchanges in the middle of towns.

Speed limiters were introduced to coaches in 1988 which were initially set to 70 mph, to be reduced to 65 mph in 1994.[18] In 1993 10 people died in a coach crash on the M2 motorway provoking calls to make the it compulsory to wear a seat belt.[19] (In 2006 a regulation was passed to make it a legal requirement for all passengers over the age of 3 years to wear a seat belt if one is available. Previous legislation had required the provision of seat belts in all new coaches.)[20]

In 2003, Stagecoach started its Megabus operation in England and Scotland. This brought back national competition, and fares started to fall.[21]

In Scotland, competition between Megabus and Scottish Citylink drove Stagecoach to a joint venture with ComfortDelGro in 2005 to operate both companies' coach services. The Competition Commission ruled in 2006 that the joint venture reduced competition[22], and in February 2008 Stagecoach announced the sale of some services, operating under the Saltire Cross brand, to Parks Motor Group.[23]

Receipts for long distance coach travel in 1996/1997 were £1.4billion (2008 prices) rising to nearly £1.8billion for 2004/2005 (also 2008 prices). Since 2005 statistics are no longer collected for UK non-local bus services. Vehicles traveled 1.6 billion km in 1996/1997 falling slightly to 1.5 billion km in 2007/2008.[24]

From 1 January 2008 express coaches were banned from using the third lane of motorways by Section 4 of The Motorways Traffic (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2004.[25][26] In 2008 National Express announced that passenger numbers had grown by 2% in the previous year.[27]

In 2009 FirstGroup entered the market with Greyhound UK, competing with National Express and Megabus.[28] The Birmingham Coach Station opened after a major rebuild.[29] During the year various bids were made to purchase National Express Group during the year, including First Group[30], its main shareholder (Spain's Cosmen family)[31] and Stagecoach.[32] Reconstruction of the Milton Keynes Coachway started (opening Spring 2010).[33]

In September 2010 First Group announced that they would be expanding the Greyhound UK service significantly.[34]

In October 2010, Philip Hammond, the transport minister announced that the M4 bus lane would be scrapped explaining, 'Nothing is more symbolic of Labour’s war on the motorist'.[35] The Confederation of Passenger Transport said that the decision, which is supported by all the main motoring organisations had 'come out of the blue' and that 'high occupancy vehicle lanes for buses and coaches can be key tools in persuading people out of their cars and onto public transport.'[36]

The organisers of the 2012 Summer Olympics aim to get 100% of people to the venues by public transport or other non-car modes (cycling/walking)[37] with around 10 per cent of spectators arriving by bus and coach.[38] In January 2010 the South East England regional transport board criticised the current propsals for not providing plans of a credible long term coach network - "The ODA has been working on an extensive network of coach services... [but] the lack of reference to this work [in the plan] is both intriguing and at the same time concerning."[39]

Coach operators

The main coach operators today are:

  • First Glasgow - operating nightly services between Glasgow and London since Dec 2008 (previously operated by Silver Choice)
  • Greyhound UK, a low cost operation started by FirstGroup in 2009
  • Megabus, part of Stagecoach, who operate a no-frills service requiring advance booking on the internet
  • National Express Coaches, the dominant operator in England and Wales
  • Scottish Citylink, the dominant operator in Scotland.
  • Ulsterbus, the state-owned company which runs coach services in Northern Ireland
  • Oxford Espress (part of the Go-Ahead Group)
  • Oxford Tube (part of Stagecoach)
  • Parks of Hamilton, who operate some routes in Scotland
  • Caledonian Travel[40], operating coach tours departing from Glasgow
  • National Holidays[41], operating coach tours departing from Yorkshire, North East, North West and Midlands
  • Stagecoach Express
  • And smaller independent operators: Bakers Dolphin[42], Berry's Coaches[43], Thandi Coaches[44], New Bharat Coaches[45] and others.
  • EasyBus, operating from London to the London airports
  • National Express, using the National Express Airport name
  • Oxford Bus Company, under the Airline brand name
  • RailAir, linking airports to railway stations
London commuter

National Express and Scottish Citylink are mostly franchise operations. Coaches are contracted in from many operating companies.

In addition there are numerous operators of coach excursions and tours, and coaches for charter.

Major coach interchanges

There are a number of major coach interchanges in the UK, some of which are listed here:-


  1. ^ Dyos, H. J. & Aldcroft, D.H. (1969) British Transport, an economic survey Penguin Books, p.225
  2. ^ Anderson, R.C.A. and Frankis, G. (1970) History of Royal Blue Express Services David & Charles Chapter 1
  3. ^ W C Standerwick Ltd by Peter Gould
  4. ^ Anderson, R.C.A. and Frankis, G. (1970) History of Royal Blue Express Services David & Charles p.28
  5. ^ Anderson and Frankis (1970) p.32
  6. ^ a b Anderson & Frankis, p.41
  7. ^ "Punch, or the London Charivari, Volume 159, August 18th, 1920 by Various". 
  8. ^ "Corporation Profits Tax.". Hansard. "Mr. BILLING: the poor people who cannot afford a motor-car and who go out occasionally in charabancs—are being taxed £84 a year, according to the seating capacity. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that represents about 25 per cent. greater than the capital cost of the vehicle?... The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Sir E. Geddes): Will the hon. Gentleman send me a workable scheme?" 
  9. ^ Hibbs, J (1986) The Country Bus David & Charles, p.100
  10. ^ Flitton, D.(2004) 50 Years of South Midland Paul Lacey ISBN 0-9510739-8-2, p.41
  11. ^ a b "The initial crisis of bus service licensing 1931-34". Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  12. ^ "Before The London Transport Identity". Bus World. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  13. ^ "Speeding". UK Motorists. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  14. ^ "Higher Bus speeds and road safety - new regulations approved". The Glasgow Herald. Retrieved 2010-02-27. 
  15. ^ Transport economics & policy: a practical analysis of performance. p. 107. ISBN 9780749437725. 
  16. ^ Townsin, Alan (1992). "Coach deregulation arrives". The British Bus Story - The Early '80s: The Die is Cast. The Transport Publishing Company. pp. 21–31. ISBN 0863171702. 
  17. ^ Competition Commission Report 1997
  18. ^ "History of British road safety". Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  19. ^ Wolmar, Christian; Moyes, Jojo (1993-11-11). "Seat-belt row after 10 die: Motorway disaster victims crushed as tourist coach tumbles down embankment". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  20. ^ "Regulations to extend compulsory seat belt wearing to bus and coach passengers". Department for Transport. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  21. ^ "Greyhound to start running coaches in the UK next month". Backpackers Ultimate Guide. 2009-08-20. Retrieved 2010-02-13. 
  22. ^ Competition Commission Report 2006
  23. ^ Press release February 4, 2008
  24. ^ "TSGB 2009 Chapter 6: Buses, Coaches and Taxis - data tables". Department for Transport. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  25. ^ "The Motorways Traffic (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2004 (section 4)". 
  26. ^ "University of Glasgow - Guidance notes on the use of university vehicles transport services department". "With effect from 1st January 2008 all vehicles weighing more than 3.5 tonnes, or vehicles designed to carry more than eight passengers, must be fitted with a ‘speed-limiter’ which will restrict top speeds to 62mph; all such vehicles will be banned from using the outside lane (Third Lane) of motorways." 
  27. ^ "National Express expands Bristol to London coach service". National Express Coaches. Retrieved 2010-10-01. "The timetable extension news comes as National Express Group announced a 2% rise in coach passenger numbers at their preliminary results on 28 February." 
  28. ^ The Guardian, 19 August 2009
  29. ^ Portlock, Sarah (18 December 2009). "England boss Capello opens Birmingham coach station". BBC News (BBC). Retrieved 20 December 2009. 
  30. ^ "National Express turns down bid". British Broadcasting Corporation. 2009-06-29. Retrieved 2009-06-29. 
  31. ^ National Express gets £765m bid BBC News. 3 September 2009
  32. ^ "Rival renews National Express bid". BBC News Online. 2009-10-19. Retrieved 2009-10-25. 
  33. ^ "Building the new Milton Keynes Coach Station". Milton Keynes Council. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 
  34. ^ "FirstGroup plots Greyhound UK expansion". Local Transport Today. 2010-09-17. Retrieved 2010-10-02. "Greyhound UK Managing director Alex Warner told LTT that the move should be viewed as the start of a new phase of plans to roll out the Greyhound brand following the launch of the first routes between Southampton and Portsmouth and London a year ago, with subsequent extensions to Bournemouth and Poole. He is planning to launch another new route before Christmas, which he expects to surprise many people." 
  35. ^ Massey, Ray (2010-10-01). "End of the road for Prescott's M4 bus lane as Tories scrap 'symbol of Labour's war on motorist'". The Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 2010-10-01. 
  36. ^ "The most hated stretch of road in the UK?". BBC News. 2010-10-01. Retrieved 2010-10-02. "Simon Posner, chief executive of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the industry group that represents bus and coach companies says the government's decision had "come out of the blue. We are deeply worried at any move to close lanes put in place to give priority to bus passengers... high occupancy vehicle lanes for buses and coaches can be key tools in persuading people out of their cars and onto public transport." 
  37. ^ "Transport". Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  38. ^ "Bus and coach". Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  39. ^ "ODA plays down South East’s fears about Olympic legacy coach network". Local Transport Today. 2010-01-22. Retrieved 2010-01-30. 
  40. ^ Caledonian Travel
  41. ^ National Holidays
  42. ^ Bakers Dolphin website
  43. ^ Berry's Coaches website
  44. ^ Thandi website
  45. ^ New Bharat Coaches website
  46. ^ Armchair website
  47. ^ Reliance Travel website
  48. ^ Marshalls website
  49. ^ Richmond's website
  50. ^ Clarkes of London website
  51. ^ "Coachway". Milton Keynes Partnership. Retrieved 2010-01-20. 

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