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Last Updated: Monday, 1 March, 2004, 14:57 GMT
On board the 1 intercity bus
By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Online

Stagecoach claims its new 1 intercity bus service Megabus, which launched nationwide on Monday, will transform the industry. We coughed up some loose change to join the first trip from London to Birmingham.

I'm not sure what frills a "no frills" coach service can have done away with. From my memory there aren't too many luxuries to start with.

MEGABUS ROUTES
Megabus
Liverpool-Leeds-Manchester
Birmingham-London
Plymouth-Exeter-London
Swansea-Cardiff-London
Bournemouth-London
Bristol-London
Southampton-London
Brighton-London
Portsmouth-London
Oxford-London
Glasgow-Edinburgh-Perth-Dundee
But as I approach Victoria's Greenline coach station in the frosty early morning, I put warmth at the top of my list of requirements.

Megabus is a ticketless web-based service, so all passengers have is a booking reference acquired after paying 1 plus a 50p booking fee.

The service, which piloted in several cities last year, has already sparked a price war with National Express, and Easyjet founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou is also preparing to enter the market.

At 0700 GMT, 30 minutes before departure, there's no bus, no passengers and no indication that this was the right place. A more pressing need is to find a toilet because there aren't any on board, so I pop into a cafe.

When I return, a blue double-decker with the Megabus logo pulls up opposite and the driver directs me to Bay 5. There's only one other passenger waiting, and by the time of departure there are just five of us in total.

The moment of transformation for the coach industry is going to be a low-key one.

"This seems too good to be true," says fellow passenger, Chantal Kashma, commenting on the price. "I haven't seen inside yet to check if it's comfortable, but I usually get the National Express, so it'll be interesting to compare."

Choose your seat

Chantal goes to Birmingham once a fortnight to see a friend, so I knew her opinion would be an informed one.

She says she pays less than 10 for National Express if booking online, although it's 23 otherwise.

When the bus pulls up, two supervisors got out to greet us warmly and promise the lack of Megabus signs in the station is going to be addressed.

Chantal Kashma
Chantal Kashma: "I'll be back"
Chantal has the honour of being the first passenger to board and her prize is a choice of seats - a dubious reward when there are only five passengers.

Inside it resembles any town or city bus in layout, but is refurbished with new upholstery, air conditioning, heating and lighting.

Tall people may struggle for leg-room and there are no luggage racks or baggage holds.

But the helpful spare driver, Franklin Tumfo, says there's flexibility about the one-item luggage rule and they would always try to find space - much to Chantal's relief.

We depart on time with just the five passengers - a total of 7.50 paid between us.

MEGABUS SMALL PRINT
20% of seats guaranteed at 1, late bookings may be up to 4
Book from six weeks to one hour before departure
All seats booked online - you can't turn up and pay
More than one bag cannot be guaranteed a space if busy
It's Victoria's Greenline station, not the main station
No scheduled toilet breaks

Two of them are from exactly the market Stagecoach hopes will flock to Megabus - students.

Mingjie Zhou, 24, who studies at the London School of Commerce, says: "It's very cheap and it seems good value, although we didn't expect this kind of bus. But it's fine and we'll definitely use it again because we're students and we like to visit places."

As we sit in traffic on the A4, the bus provokes a lot of interest from other motorists, as well as suspicious looks from a National Express driver.

Happy customer

There are no pick-ups in London, just one brief toilet break at services in Heston, near Heathrow.

Sitting on the top deck is quite a bumpy ride, especially when trying to eat, but three hours pass quite comfortably.

The traffic in London mean we are running 40 minutes late, but no doubt the frilliest coach services share that problem.

Inside Megabus
The Megabus launch was low-key
As we edged towards Birmingham city centre, I ask Chantal for her verdict. "Overall, I'm happy," says the 35-year-old Londoner. "It's not as comfortable as National Express but I'd definitely use it again - if I can bring less luggage."

Three hours 40 minutes after leaving Victoria, the bus drops us off round the corner from Birmingham Snow Hill station, as if we are uninvited guests. But our arrival does not go unnoticed - a passer-by shows a keen interest and snaps a few pictures as we disembark.




SEE ALSO:
Rival bus firms battle over fares
19 Feb 04  |  England
Now Easyjet founder targets buses
23 Nov 03  |  Business
No frills bus service launched
14 Nov 03  |  England


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