My love-hate relationship with National Express

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts, writes Holly Baxter.

When I first got told that the New Statesman was desperate to hear from an insider about the "red-headed stepchild of transport", I had to agree with their assessment of coach travel. Coach travel is unglamorous. In fact, it’s no understatement to say that coach travel has been the bane of my otherwise plain-sailing twentysomething life: hailing from Newcastle and living in London, it’s both an alluringly cheap and experientially horrific form of travelling from Hoxton hipsters to Geordies in a "mere" eight and a half hours. In fact, I’ve been drawn in so often by the National Express website’s glittering promises of £5 rides from London Pride to Newcastle Brown Ale that I even went to Belgium on one a couple of months ago. In case you’re wondering, that one had its horrific moments too – but I’d do it again in an instant.

Nothing makes you question the nature of your inner life more than eight hours alone on a glorified bus with seatbelts. The terror sets in the day before: am I interesting enough to sustain myself intellectually for almost an entire waking day, sandwiched (in all likelihood) between a screaming child and an impossibly fat man, with only my iPod to separate myself from them socially? Will they attempt to speak to me? Will I feel compelled by British politeness to reply, and so end up in a long conversation about the nuances of my upbringing somewhere along the M21? Will I cry? Even worse, am I one of those people who isn’t quite calm or stupid or drunk enough to immerse myself fully in back-to-back albums of Indie Artist A with nary a thought in my head, but also not quite profound enough to retract into my various deep and meaningful ruminations, feeding for hours off the various philosophical scenarios that they offer up? Inevitably, yes, you are one of those people. You are traversing the country at a steady and constant 50mph, stuck between "bored of Leonard Cohen after four hours" and "bored of my own theories on the use of anarchist spaces in urban environments after one". Folk rock and a hard place.

If you have a companion on these arduous journeys, the whole situation can be made even worse. My friend Sean and I, for instance, have travelled back home together a handful of times, and no longer do so for the sake of our friendship. The near-fatal argument came when Sean convinced me to branch out into the £1 Megabus, despite my previous lifetime loyalty to the lush pleather seats and the plentiful wifi of the National Express. About five minutes into stepping aboard, the coach heated up to about 40˚C (unexpectedly, since it was the middle of December) and stayed this way for the entire journey. The man across the row from us was visibly panting. Sean and I had to keep swapping seats in order to take turns pressing ourselves against the condensation on the windows to temporarily cool down. Regrettable words were passed between us – but a year on, the wounds are beginning to heal. It may have ultimately made us stronger.

The coach is an increasingly niche form of transport: the most recent reports by the ONS found that many coach passengers are – for want of a much better cliché – jumping ship. Trains are becoming the preferred method of public transport for those who previously hopped on the coach, although most of those who work choose to drive ourselves. To travel by coach nowadays, you’re most likely to be either very young or very old: 17-20, or well into your retirement. This may say something about these demographics having the least amount of money (or, indeed, sense) at their disposal; but I prefer to see it as symptomatic of the undying optimism of kindly grandmothers and The Youth. It’s cheap, it’s easy to access, it comes with the tantalising possibility of being scenic; you can kick back with a pear cider and a headphone splitter and ask your boyfriend what he thinks of your band’s latest album before you arrive at Glastonbury. The coach driver will probably be a laugh. Everyone will glance at each other knowingly when the boxy vehicle takes a turn too sharply, because being squashed into such close confines at such low prices comes with its own wartime-esque camaraderie guarantee.

For this sort of experience, the train doesn’t really cut it. For one thing, trains are and have always been segregated by class, never mind planes and types of cars: Geordie legend has it that when Queen Victoria passed by Newcastle on the rail network, she requested that all the first class blinds be closed lest she catch a glimpse of the filthy waters of the Tyne and its filthier residents dwelling above. There is no class system on a National Express coach. Everyone has to follow the same treacherous motorway choreography to the toilet. There are no delusions of joining the Mile High(way?) Club. Orgasms on the dual carriageway? Pah! Even an inadvisedly microwaved panini from the buffet car is out of reach: almost all passengers will have a cellophaned sandwich in their hand luggage, tucked away for the fourth hour, at which point everyone will simultaneously set their lunches free and the one unthinking sushi-bringer will be judged harshly but fairly.

If that’s not enough to tempt you into a slippery pleather seat, then consider that coaches are six times less polluting than an aircraft, four times cleaner than a car, and twice as environmental as a train. They are seven times safer than driving on your own, and if you get through the journey from the South to the North of England in one piece while journeying alongside a companion, the trauma (and the subsequent "funny story") will almost definitely cement your relationship for life.

And that’s without even factoring in what can happen if you carry on into Scotland.

This piece is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts about travel and transport.

A woman passes a coach. Photograph: Getty Images
Holly Baxter is a freelance journalist who writes regularly for The Guardian and The New Statesman. She is also one half of The Vagenda and releases a book on the media in May 2014.
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