I fear that I’ve been lulled into a false sense of confidence about National Express following a rather brilliant journey a few weeks ago from Norwich to London. This is the National Express bus station in Newcastle, which was perhaps not unsurprisingly closed at 22:45 which was when the bus was leaving to get me to London. Although on this point, I recall in the United States that the Greyhound bus stations I went to remained open if there were services going out. What was more surprising was that National Express haven’t bothered putting more than a couple of benches in the area, leaving most people to stand up.
Here we are waiting for the service, which was due to arrive into London at 06:30.
The coach turned up twenty minutes early, but this was mostly so that the drivers could stand in the entrance to the vaping. I have no interest in what they do, but it takes a little away from the National Express message not to smoke or vape on their vehicles if their drivers are doing it. The staff member was greeting customers by, well, saying nothing and just looking at their tickets or phones to ensure that they were meant to travel on that service. He wasn’t impolite to me, but it was all a bit cold. Although I was fortunate, he was quite abrupt with some customers behind.
I felt sorry for the lad who was about 18 and had managed to buy a coach ticket for the wrong day and he then resorted to trying to buy a ticket from other passengers. I’m not sure what happened there in the end, but I don’t think he was able to travel. Nor indeed were a couple of customers at other stops further down the line who had turned up on spec in a bid to get to London.
I boarded first and so had the full choice of seats although the first couple of rows on the right of the above photo were reserved. This is always a dilemma, there’s a better seat which is the emergency exit seat at the rear near the toilets, but there were a few groups of friends visible and I thought they’d probably want to chat and the like at the back, so it might be quieter at the front. So I picked the seat behind the two closed off for the drivers, so at least no-one could recline into me.
Being used to not annoying coach drivers I had already put my bag on the floor and put my seatbelt on, so the driver meandered by me to announce loudly to a few people further back “get your bags off the chairs as this service will be full and you will have people sitting next to you”. It’s probably sensible to tell people to make it easier for later customers to board, but I did wonder how personable this approach was.
That’s also the difference between the Caledonian Sleeper service I took last week and this coach service. There the stewards were wearing masks, there were big gaps between customers and there was a level of professionalism to the whole arrangement. National Express didn’t bother faffing around with that convenience and safety, they filled every seat. There was a slight disregard from the drivers over customers wearing seatbelts, but I think it did say to wear them on the pre-recorded announcement.
On this, I note a swathe of negative reviews of National Express for returning to full seating with no social distancing, but their argument is that the Government said they could from 29 May 2021, so that’s what they were going to do. And I can’t much complain about that given the low price of the ticket that they charged me.
The service isn’t the easiest to sleep on, as every stop the driver turns on all the lights so that customers can board. There’s probably not much that can be done about that, otherwise people would be tripping down the aisles when boarding, but it’s not the most conducive with regards to being a restful environment. At 02:30 we also had the added excitement of stopping at a service station for thirty minutes, although this was handy to use their facilities.
As for the seats, they were crammed in to the point of being entirely unsuitable in my mind for an overnight service. With every seat full, it was all far too cramped for my liking, although since I seem to be able to sleep anywhere, I didn’t much let it bother me. I’m not sure that National Express themselves would even claim they’re going for comfort here (if they were being honest), it’s simply a way of getting people from A to B. For anyone taller than me (so over six feet) they’d likely be distinctly uncomfortable.
The drivers didn’t worry about both coming in at the same time to use the toilets at the service station and leaving the coach open and unlocked. I imagine at some point someone will board the coach and nick passenger belongings, or indeed the entire coach, and then some more care might be taken. There were two drivers who took it in turns to drive the coach and although there was no real effort at customer service, they were professional drivers at the wheel and it all felt safe and secure en route. I suppose that I’d rather have this than a driver who is very friendly but yet collides with numerous things during the journey.
Here we are in London Victoria Coach Station, a few minutes before the expected arrival time. On the plus side, this journey only cost £12 to get me from Newcastle to London. It was also on time, the driving was safe, the USB points worked and the coach was clean. On the negative side, it was cramped, uncomfortable and the drivers were grumpy. I’m not really a fan of coach travel, so the positive here for me is that I’m going to try and take the train in the future, it’s a better way to travel as far as I’m concerned. Although I might try Flixbus now they’re in the UK, as although they used to annoy me, I’ve become something of a fan of theirs.