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Review National Express bus from Manchester to London: not the Shinkansen!

In June 2010 I travelled on the 16.45 National Express coach from Manchester Central Coach Station to London Victoria. It didn't turn out quite as I'd expected. It wasn't the Shinkansen and I didn't get to see Lady Gaga on it. But it was cheap and I got to my destination bang on time. Read my review.

I've been travelling by coach between Manchester and London for quite a few years now. In 2007 I wrote an article about my experiences on Megabus. That article got quite a few page views. It's 2010 and I am writing an article about my journey on National Express from Manchester Central to London Victoria.

General information about National Express

National Express is a transport group that operates long distance buses across Great Britain. They also run train and tram services in the UK and have transport interests in other countries too. Note, bus services in Northern Ireland are operated by Ulsterbus, part of Translink.

To buy a ticket on a National Express coach anywhere in Great Britain, the easiest option is to go to the National Express website www.nationalexpress.com and book your ticket there.

When you've selected your journey and number of passengers, you are presented with a list of departures.

Some departures may have funfares available. Funfare is the name given by National Express to their cheap fares. There are some restrictions, check on the National Express website for details. Funfares were introduced to compete with the low-cost rival Megabus, owned by Stagecoach.

I chose a one way journey, Manchester to London, Monday 7 June 2010, 16.45 departure and the funfare was just 8. The normal fare would have been 24.40, a good saving.

All that remains is to pay by card. There is a one pound booking fee. You don't have to register with the site, a very good feature. The ticket appears on screen and you can then print it. You also have the option of picking it up from a station or having it sent to you.

You can also buy tickets at any National Express coach station or through a travel agent.

The journey from Manchester to London

Several days later, with my ticket printed, bags and umbrella in hand, and rather behind schedule, I take the train to Manchester Piccadilly and walk the short distance to Manchester Central coach station.

For directions to Manchester Central coach station use the postcode M1 3JF.

I have only 10 minutes to spare. My fellow passengers are waiting at the end departure area.

They are a mixed bunch, from many countries and cultures. You'll get to overhear lots of exotic languages on National Express coaches.

Then we queue up to board. The driver, dressed in reflective jacket, checks the tickets, e-tickets or in some cases scraps of paper with a number on them. He crosses off a code on the list. One lady doesn't have her concessionary pass but after she rummages in her bag for a few moments, he just tells her to get her on.

I take my seat second from the front on the left.

I place my laptop bag and camera bag on the seat next to me. I wonder if I'll have to give up the seat next to me but no, there are only about 25 or so passengers on a 50+ seater bus. With two seats, you can enjoy a measure of comfort, better than on a crowded train. But if the bus is crowded, you'll have to share your personal space with a member of the public. Lady Gaga wouldn't like it.

I notice however, that this particular bus doesn't have the familiar National Express logo or colours. It is operated by a private operator, who I notice from the address on the side, is based in Daventry, roughly half way between Manchester and London.

National Express outsource many of their services to private contractors.

The bus is not brand new. I've seen some very impressive Scania Irizar PB buses in the new National Express livery. A few years ago they changed to a new 'Computer circuit board' design, and they also changed the website. Personally I preferred the old design.

Our coach today is a relatively aging Bova. It is comfortable enough. The driver is courteous and good humoured.

We set off bang on time from Manchester and head down the M56 with around 180 miles to go.

Change of plan

I really wish the road signs around Manchester would display distances to London, as they do in Leeds. From Leeds there is one motorway direct to London, the M1. From Manchester have to take two motorwaysk: the M6 and then either the M1 or the M40. For this reason, London is not displayed, only Birmingham.

From the M6 we have taken the M6 Toll and things seems to be going to plan until we approach Norton Canes services. The driver announces we must change buses. But then there is a change of plan. We will change buses at Northampton services instead.

Bova coach at Norton Canes services

Bova coach at Norton Canes services

The change of plan is probably due to problems with the driver roster. We as passengers often forget the organisational headaches that go with operating bus services on Britain's often congested roads.

We continue a further 62 miles to Northampton services on the M1 where another bus, belonging to another company, is waiting. The driver parks with doors facing doors so bags and passengers can quickly be transferred from one bus to the other.

My thoughts are: This is not the Shinkansen. Passengers on Japan's bullet train - which I've travelled on - don't usually have to get out halfway between Hiroshima and Tokyo to board another train because of a driver rostering problem. And air passengers don't expect to have to change planes midway between Manchester and London. But this is bus travel!

Filing on and off the bus for a toilet or refreshment stop is all part of the experience. Our departing driver has a good sense of humour and wishes me lots of fun taking more photos. I think he saw me taking a photograph of the bus and must have assumed I'm a bus spotter nerd, which I am not!

We are now heading south again on the M1, our new driver is playing some nostalgic Engelbert Humperdinck hits from yesteryear, including 'There goes my everything'. This reminds me of childhood coach trips to London, see below.

What else remains to be said? We arrive bang on time at London Victoria coach station at 9.30 feeling relaxed. What more do you want?

Our bus after arrival at London Victoria coach station

Our bus after arrival at London Victoria coach station.

Some memories of travelling by coach to London in the 1960s

And here, just for fun, are a few memories of travelling from Manchester to London by coach in the mid-1960s.

Up till around 1972, coaches departed from Lower Mosley Street bus station, with its wonderful white tiles and railings. It stood on the site of the Bridgewater Hall.

I remember taking the night coach to London, operated by North Western. It was, I believe, a Leyland Tiger Cub, a small but attractive bus with skylight windows, rather like a Samba VW camper, painted either white or red. The bus was pretty, with that lovely painted tiger cub insignia on the front. The loud growling engine helped me to sleep. I was about 8 years old.

In the mid-60s there was a long gap between the M6 and the M1. As the bus was cruised along endless A-roads in the early hours, I would occasionally open my eyes to see fields, houses or factories, including one named 'Wishaw'. On later trip I remember watching the moon through the windows of the bus as I listened to 'Tiny Dancer' by Elton John on my Sinclair matchbox-sized radio. That places it around 1971.

After dawn broke, the bus would reach Hendon on the northern outskirts of London. Everything about London looked different, the buses, the traffic lights, the policemens' helmets, the Underground stations. This was swinging London, the Beatles and the Stones were in the charts. It was exciting and very different to Manchester.

On another trip I remember arriving at night in London Victoria Coach Station and stood at a bus stop waiting for the number 11 bus, a Routemaster or maybe an older RT. The streets were illuminated by white fluorescent street lamps that disappeared in the 70s. In my head was the song 'Strangers in the Night' by Frank Sinatra, so that trip was in mid-66. It all fused into a feeling of magic and excitement at arriving in London by coach, a feeling you probably won't experience today.

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2010-06-08

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