“I basically live off National Express coaches my whole life,” says Sam Serrano. “I was on first-name terms with most of the drivers. But I never thought I’d get an adrenalin rush from being on a bus.”
Sam is a stand-up comedian, and about to embark on an all-nighter: the 12.01am coach from Manchester to London.
“I’m on this coach to go and see my girlfriend in Bournemouth who I haven’t seen for going on for five months now. So it’s very, very exciting.”
As with the comedy industry, so with long-distance coaches: it has a been a miserable pandemic. No National Express coach has run for the past 11 weeks. But the government has now lifted the stay at home rule, allowing “non-essential” travel for the first time.
The two drivers of the midnight coach to London, Dave Crooks and Bryan Brown, pronounce themselves “glad to be back” and “back in the old routine” respectively.
“It’s very safe to travel,’ says Dave, keen to dispel passengers’ concerns. “People have got their masks on, there’s hand sanitiser on board, they’ve been well cleaned before the journey, so absolutely no problem at all.”
Every passenger has their temperature taken before being allowed on board.
For social distancing reasons, solo travellers get some welcome extra space, with only window seats occupied (though two-person “bubbles” are allowed to sit side by side).
Passengers were travelling for a wide range of motivations: one woman with dentistry booked in London, another travelling to the Latvian Embassy and a pair of students setting off on a 15-hour marathon to Portsmouth.
With only a fraction of the normal operation running, some connections at Victoria Coach Station in London and the National Express hub in Birmingham are uncommonly long.
“We’ve got about 15 per cent of our network running from today,” says John Boughton, the commercial director for National Express. “We’ll aim to be back at our full scale as soon as we possibly can.
“Getting the wheels back on the road, getting paying customers back on our coaches, 29 March is a really big day for us.”
The post-lockdown National Express route map is a shadow of its former self. Almost all the links run to and from London, with nothing venturing further north than Leeds and Bradford. While there are services to Cardiff, Swansea and west Wales, they cannot be used for non-essential cross-border journeys.
“Our busiest routes are Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Bournemouth,” reports John. While tonight’s coach calls at Manchester, Birmingham and Luton airports – minor diversions from the most direct route – there are no dedicated airport services at present.
By 2am the coach had wandered south to Wolverhampton through a series of Staffordshire villages. National Express has always been more inclined to turn off the motorway than its smaller rival, Megabus.
But every stop now has to earn its place on the network. Presented with a “year zero” in the shape a complete shutdown of operations, the National Express schedulers have rebuilt the timetable from scratch – with faster journey times partly achieved by “optimising stops according to level of demand”.
Overnight coaches, I find, are smoother without roundabouts and traffic lights every couple of miles. But the suburban scenery is mildly distracting even in the early hours, with an implausible number of supersized McDonalds and silent arrays of non-essential retail.
Wolverhampton was the first place in the UK to get traffic lights, which is perhaps why the city remains so fond of them. The coach sighed to a halt two hours after departure. The train takes just 70 minutes. But coaches have long offered economy in exchange for slower travel: typically passengers pay half the corresponding rail fare and expect a journey to take up to twice as long.
Nine minutes after arriving in the wraparound glass-and-steel bus station, bus 422 set off with three extra passengers on board. Six were left behind – apparently because they were booked on the following night’s service. Bryan the driver called the duty office in Birmingham to let them know of their plight.
“Still Essential Travel Only,” fibbed a temporary sign on the way into Dudley. From today it is no longer an offence to be out of your home without a valid excuse, and you are perfectly entitled to board a coach, local bus, tram, train or the Isle of Wight hovercraft.
Ferries and flights are fine, too, as long as they are not venturing abroad; at the same time as rules are eased within England, a £5,000 fine applies to anyone with the temerity to head to a foreign destination without good reason.
At a deserted Dudley bus station, Bryan had to remove a couple of traffic cones that were blocking the way. Presumably the place has not seen much action over the previous few months.
Then Dave had to tackle Birmingham’s inhuman geography – a geometry dominated by tangential and arterial roads.
Just before 3am, Dave’s and Bryan’s vehicle reached the hub of the National Express network: Birmingham coach station, which is also the location for the company’s HQ. By now we were almost half-an-hour late, but they made up some of the delay later in the journey.
In the eternal night that stretches from 1am to 5am, the traveller has an eternal friend in the shape of gentle giant Dotun Adebayo – the overnight presenter on BBC Radio 5 Live.
At 3.45am, Hilary in Ewell was telling Dotun, and the nation, that she will get her second Pfizer jab on Easter Saturday.
Vaccination is not a requirement on National Express.
The National Express motorway avoidance plan continued all the way to Coventry and beyond. Included in this particular schedule is an interesting diversion for those who like to count parked planes, and a useful one for the single passenger waiting at the airport. The schedule looks designed for an earlier age, when people flew in and out of Birmingham airport.
I think it’s going to be a brilliant summer
Milton Keynes Coachway, a stop just off the M1, was a non-event – but at Luton airport five passengers, 20 per cent of the bus population, got off. Signs on the approach to the airport warn: “You must by law complete a travel declaration form.”
At the foot of the M1 the coach picked up the ring-road riff once again with a brief arc around the North Circular Road, before drilling down to Golders Green to drop people off at what is effectively a park-and-Tube stop.
The final cadence was a repertoire of familiar London locations: Baker Street, Marble Arch, Park Lane, Hyde Park Corner and Buckingham Palace Road, reaching a climax at 6.30am at Victoria Coach Station.
An American Airlines jet from New York JFK had set off later than we had from Manchester, and had touched down at London Heathrow while the coach was still on the North Circular.
The journey was not as romantic as a chrome-plated Greyhound rolling along Route 66 or as thrilling as a yellow former school bus on the Pan-American Highway through Guatemala.
But even in the dark it was the most scenic trip I have made for months, a reminder of the world and the lives beyond the radius which I can walk from my front door. And for National Express and the nation, it was a symbolic journey.
Driver Bryan Brown said: “I think it’s going to be a brilliant summer.”