Newest Review: ... the driver to let me on as I did not have enough cash to buy a new ticket and I was unable to call National Express to buy a new ticket... more
Don't shoot me! I'm only the driver.
Member Name: sweary
Date: 07/10/04, updated on 18/10/04 (4574 review reads)
Advantages: Cheap fares, Internet tickets for the chronically disorganised, Staff usually respond to humour
Disadvantages: Use roads so being reliable is difficult, Can take a while, Less control over standards delivered by contractors
I swore I wouldn't do this but I find I have to.....
Browsing everyone's opinions of National Express I get the impression you either love 'em or hate 'em. Fair enough but I also notice some of the questions you put are things I can explain... so, as an ex employee who therefore knows how desparately anxious they are to please, I hope this will shed a bit of light on some of the odd decisions they make and why. They're not always sensible but there are a lot of instances where their decision making reflects the constraints within which they have to work.
Potentially there could be quite a variation depending on which services you use and whereabouts in the country you are. Certainly the reviews I've read here would appear to reflect this. National Express contract out a lot of their services to other smaller operators. Some of these are much better than others so the quality of the service will vary. In addition, there are more companies vieing for the business in some areas than others so quality will again be reflected in a) the number of operators NatEx had to choose from and b) whether there is enough competition to keep the operator chosen on their toes. Bear in mind there may be instances where they want nothing more than to sack the operator but can't because there's no one else in the area who can fulfill the contract.
I used to have to travel from Cambridge to Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted and Luton airports regularly using their inter Airport services then National Express Jetlink (now National Express Airport). Unless something dire happened I wasn't often more than about 10 minutes late. Considering that these services all use the M25 I think that's seriously impressive. There are two very efficient planning departments at National Express and I suspect the level of accuracy of timings depends on a number of factors, first, how well the route planner knows that particular route, second, how thoroughly the timings have been evaluted and more to the point, how recently, third how articulate the company operating the route is about any changes they think should be made. The timetables are re-evaluated, ammended and changed where required every Spring and Autumn, usually end of March/early April or September. At these times, all the leaflets are re-issued, too, to ensure everything's kept up to date.
As far as I know, I don't work there any more, every coach bought or leased by National Express since 2001 is spec'd with more legroom and air conditioning. With just over 800 vehicles it'll take a few years for all these upgrades to filter through to all of the fleet and with coaches at around £120k a pop they can't really replace the whole lot at once.
Most coaches come with standard configurations of seating (like cars) and one of the problems NX have is that there isn't much middle ground between 35 seats and 56. They have gone for the maximum legroom possible without "family" (ie four seats, 2 facing forwards and 2 backwards round a table) seating. If I remember rightly, this gives an extra inch per seat and without going for 35 seats that's as good as they can get it for the moment.
Why not go for a 35 seat option? Well, two reasons; first they'd have all the car-sick-prone people (like myself) whinging about having to sit facing backwardsand their sick bag provision budget would double. Second, it would still cost the same amount of money to operate each vehicle as it does now. In addition, it would take almost double the current number of vehicles to carry the same amount of passengers as they do now. At busy times, like Christmas, they would also need double the number of duplicate vehicles to cope with demand and in order to make the whole thing break even they'd have to just about quadruple their fares. They believe they are always going to be the cheap and cheerful option so clearly, hiking up fares would be a bit like introducing first class on Ryanair... It wouldn't quite fit.
They did use to have ladies who would sell sandwiches and teas and coffees ("mini skirts were in style when they tripped down the aisle back in '63" etc etc....) but they disappeared shortly before I started working there. I think the line was that it cost more to run than they made from sales, the quality of the food wasn't very good and as a result they got lots of complaints. Their policy now is to have vending machines in abundance at all coach stations so that passengers can buy anything from hot and cold drinks to rolls, sandwiches maybe even a hot carton of chips plus a couple of coffee or sandwich bar style outlets. Before you complain about vending machine prices, remember they have to strike a balance at the coach station between providing food for passengers while at the same time not selling the kind of foods that'll attract dodgy characters in or extra people who are only there to buy food and not use coaches (most coach stations are busy enough as it is without lots of spotty burger eating chubsters cluttering up the place).
If coaches have a lavatory they will need to find somewhere with a properly constructed "elsan dump" where they can empty it safely and hygenically when it gets full. This is easily done each night if the coach is returning to its depot and in the case of many big coach stations, even if there isn't one actually there there's usually a spot near by, beit another operator's yard or a specially designated "lay over" area. Often, at the end of a long haul journey the coach will "lay over" while the driver has a break, before he (or somebody else) refuels the vehicle, puts it through the wash (where applicible) and empties the waste from the lavatory. Usually there's enough time put aside in the lay over for all this activity BUT if the vehicle comes into the bus station late, there may not be time for anything more than refuelling before it starts its return journey with another driver. Worse, not all coach stations have an elsan dump and if they don't or there isn't one nearby, the loo fills up and pongs. A lot of the time, full toilets are caused by the knock on effects of traffic delays. I'm not saying it's excusable but at least it's explainable. One of the companies I worked for thought that this problem was best dealt with by not having a loo on the coach at all, instead they factored in extra time for passengers to go to the toilet at major coach stations. It sounds a bizarre plan but it actually worked very well.
I don't know whether this applies specifically to National Express but one of the reasons services are getting cut right across the bus and coach industry is not necessarily that they aren't making a profit but that they're not making a big enough profit for the operator. As an example, two costs that have had a significant effect on coach operator's profits are the increases in the costs of staff pension contributions and spiralling insurance premiums - many companies are paying several orders of magnitude more into their pension funds than before and insurance premiums are so high that for a lot it's more cost effective to self-insure. A profit of 10% of operating cost doesn't go far any more, especially when you also have to deliver a dividend to shareholders. The result of this is that a lot of bigger companies are having to cut or sell off low margin routes and "low" can often mean routes that appear to be busy to the people who use them and which perform "medium-well" on the balance sheet.
When it comes to short hops, there are two main reasons, the first is that the less stops a service has the less passengers it inconveniences. The second is mainly down to logistics and positioning the vehicles. I'm a bit sketchy on driver's hours, vehicle allocations etc as I'm afraid my metier was Markeing but I was also the person who used to have to reply to the complaints so, I'm going to risk entering the twilight zone.... I think the basic gist of it is this:
Your driver can only drive a certain number of hours before he has to have a 12 hour rest - I think it's 8 but I'm not 100% sure. He has to have a certain number of breaks, one 45 minute one in the middle with two 15 minute ones either side. Your vehicle can run as long as you like during each day but you need to factor in when it's likely to need to be refuelled and when the lavatories are likely to need emptying. You want to make the most of the driver's allowed time at the wheel while still allowing for delays and traffic congestion. These factors are far more effectively managed on shorter haul journeys than on long ones.
Leading on from that, the other side of it is this, the more major cities a route serves the more people are going to be inconvenienced if it is delayed for some reason. For example, say there was a service from Manchester to London via Birmingham and it gets delayed on the outskirts of Manchester. If the bus is late into Birmingham, it's not only going to inconvenience the people on the coach, it's going to inconvenience all the people at Birmingham who want to travel on the same coach to London. If the route is divided into two high frequency shuttles the delay on the Manchester to Birmingham coach is not going to affect the passengers waiting at Birmingham to go to London, their service will start from Birmingham on time and when the Manchester crowd turn up, they may have missed their connection but they won't have to wait long for a subsequent London service.
In theory, the longer a journey, the greater the potential for delays and greater the potential for them to get worse. Once you have a delay, in all likehood it'll throw all the driver's scheduled breaks out of kilter and he may end up having to take them on route or worse, run out of hours before he reaches the point where the next driver is due to take over.
Also it makes it easier to take steps to keep the services running on time. Most coach services are run by operators with a depot at one end and nothing at the other, so the problem is not so much getting the coach from A to B it's getting it there in a way that means it will leave B to come back when it's meant to.
For the sake of argument, let's pretend the coach from Birmingham to London takes 3 hours and there's one every hour from 0700. Everything's been going fine, the lad driving the 0900 from Birmingham leaves on time and is due into Victoria at 1200. Once he gets there, he has to take a break so normally the timetable will be set up so he and the bus wait an hour at Victoria and then become the 1300 service BACK. There are legal minimums for the number of minutes break a driver has after certain numbers of hours driving. So say it's 45 minutes for our lad driving the 0900 from Birmingham. If he doesn't arrive in Victoria by 1215 then the service he's supposed to drive back at 1300 is going to leave late. The way they get round this is something called a shunt. You arrange it so the bloke who left Birmingham at 0900 takes the 1400 back instead of the 1300, meanwhile the 1300 departure from Victoria to Birmingham is driven by the guy who came down with the 0800 service to London. To arrange this, you either have to send out a spare driver by car or minibus to take the first service back or you may have to send two guys on the first coach. Either way, ensuring you have the overlap driver is much easier and more cost effective to arrange where the journey times are relatively short. Hence, short hops.
A case which eloquently illustrates the point is one that happened to my husband (who was then my boyfriend) when he came to see me in Brighton, from Nottingham in about 1986. He was getting a coach from Nottingham where we were both at university but what he didn't know was that his coach didn't actually start it's journey at Nottingham, it was coming from Newcastle via Leeds and Bradford. There'd been an accident on the M1 so it was an hour late arriving at Nottingham, by the time it got to Birmingham it was one and a half hours late, by Luton, two and a half hours, by Heathrow it had crept through the M25 at its rush hour peak and was so late the honeymooning couple across the aisle from him had missed their flight to Kenya. By the time the Coach arrived in Gatwick the driver had run out of hours completely and wouldn't be able to drive again for 12 hours. Luckily a London Brighton shuttle service appeared and he and all the other passengers were able to get onto that. He arrived in Brighton 4 hours after the timetable said. Because it was so late, the service back from Brighton, which was scheduled to depart two hours previously, had had to be cancelled.
That's what they're doing it to avoid.
Varies hugely, there doesn't seem to be any middle ground, the drivers are either crappy to the passengers or top people and the customer service and call centre people are either plankton or wonderful. That said you would not believe how shabbily treated bus drivers and call centre staff are by the general public so they do get quite defensive. If you don't believe me, try treating one like a human next time you take a coach or have to speak to a call centre, remember it's not their fault the bus is late or that you've been 20 minutes on hold, they just work there, crack a joke or smile, the difference will be incredible.
What I would say is that while nobody likes to be ranted at, an articulate, well thought out letter of complaint can not only result in you getting a refund if you post it to them soon enough after the event but it can actually be very useful to them. I hope everyone who has told their fellows on here or Ciao or any other review sites you've discovered which I haven't of their coach journeys from hell wrote and told National Express, too. The one thing most people agreed on when I worked there was that, they can't fix things they don't know are broken. So if something's wrong, they appreciate being told.
I'd recommend them, but be realistic, they're cheap and they're not pretending to be a luxury operator. What they do try to do though is deliver the best possible service and on the whole I think they do ok. They also have some great ideas, too, you can buy a ticket on the internet up to an hour before you travel (it may even be 10 minutes by now) so you don't have to be organised, queue at a ticket office or wait for your ticket to be sent to you - you just print it off and the booking is in their system. It's called an e-ticket.... I think. You may even be able to SMS tickets by now. Try getting something like that for a train. Also, try to remember, providing public transport is far, far more complicated than it looks and they try to deliver.
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