Buses in the UK

Long-distance, rural & city buses

Buses in the UK

In the UK, there are two main types of bus service: town and city services and long-distance, often referred to as coaches. Each region has its own local bus companies providing local town and country services. In large towns and cities, most bus services start and terminate at a central bus station and it can be confusing trying to find the right connection. If you need assistance, ask at the bus station information office.

Most bus companies provide free timetables and route maps, and many local district and county councils publish a comprehensive booklet of timetables and maps (possibly for a small fee) for all bus services operating within their boundaries. In many cities night bus services are in operation. Timetables are also posted at major bus stops.

National long-distance bus services are listed in Getting About Britain distributed by Visit Britain. Local bus companies organise special day trips and outings throughout the UK, plus European tours. Check that a holiday bus company is a member of the bonded Bus and Coach Council, which pays compensation should a member be unable to meet its commitments. London Transport bus information is listed on the television teletext service.

The deregulation of bus services in 1986 allowed any bus company to operate on any route, and led to cut-throat competition and many companies going out of business. In the last decade, the largest operators have swallowed up many of their competitors (amid numerous claims of dirty tricks) and on many routes have established a monopoly or near monopoly.

Long-distance Buses in the UK

A number of companies provide long-distance bus services. The major operator is National Express (NE) which provides a nationwide service in England, Wales and Scotland (where services are operated in conjunction with its sister company Caledonian Express Stagecoach). Some local bus companies operate express bus services (which make a limited number of stops) within their area, e.g. London Transport’s Green Line Coach service. Bus companies also operate sightseeing trips throughout the UK.

National Express serves over 1,400 major towns and cities nationwide (daily with the exception of Christmas Day) and carries over 11 million passengers more than a billion miles a year. It operates a fast and reasonably-priced hourly service to the most popular destinations. Express buses are the cheapest form of long-distance travel within the UK and, although journeys take up to twice as long as trains, fares are often 50 per cent lower. National Express coaches arrive and depart from Victoria Coach Station (020-7730 3466 for information) in London, which is a 10-minute walk from Victoria railway station.

Tickets can be purchased in advance at around 2,000 National Express agents (most travel agents) throughout the UK or from departure points. Assured reservations can be made for a small fee at least one day in advance and are recommended at busy times, on overnight services, when boarding at a suburban point, or when it’s important that you travel at a particular time. Access or Visa card bookings are accepted and must be made at least five days in advance if the tickets are to be posted to you.

Journeys may be broken, but tickets must be officially endorsed at the start of each journey. Information and tickets can be purchased via phone (08705-808 080 or 0990-808 080 for credit/debit card bookings) and credit card bookings can also be made via the internet (www.gobycoach.com ). You’re requested to limit yourself to one suitcase on National Express buses (plus hand luggage), although this isn’t obligatory. Smoking is permitted on single-decker buses at the rear of the bus and on double-deckers at the rear of the upper deck only.

International bus services are also available and include Eurolines, Supabus, Hoverspeed and Transline services, with regular buses to around 200 destinations in Europe. Most international services operate from London Victoria Coach Station, although some operate directly from the provinces. International services usually have domestic nationwide connections.

Airbus, Airlink and Flightline bus services are provided at all international airports, including inter-airport bus services. Airbus services operate from London Euston and Victoria stations to Heathrow airport. All international and regional airports have bus services to local cities and towns. Some local bus companies provide saver cards for the young, e.g. those under 24, offering discounts of around 50 per cent for travel after 9am. Many other reduced fare tickets are available, including cheap day returns, season tickets, rover tickets and family tickets.

Rural & City Buses in the UK

Most counties and regions are served by one or more local bus companies (e.g. London and its suburbs are served by London Transport), which often operate single and double-decker buses (including London’s world-famous red buses). In many towns and cities, bus companies also use mini-buses. Services usually operate from around 6am to midnight and in major cities there’s a also a night bus service, e.g. London has an excellent night bus service (with slightly higher fares than day buses) operating from 11pm to 6am.

Like national bus companies, local bus companies organise local, national and international day trips and tours with pick-up points in local towns and villages. Buses are often slow during the day due to traffic congestion, particularly in major towns and cities, and it’s often quicker to take a train or, in London (and a few other cities), the tube. In rural areas, buses run infrequently, rarely to where you want to go and they usually follow a circuitous route that takes in the surrounding villages and towns. A direct journey taking, say, 15 minutes by car can easily take an hour or two by bus!

Buses throughout the UK are usually denoted by a route number, which is shown at bus stops and on buses. The destination of a bus is also shown on the front and sometimes also on the side or back (so you can see which bus you’ve just missed). Always check the route number and direction of a bus before boarding. If in doubt, ask someone. There are compulsory stops (called ‘fare’ stops) and request stops, where you must hail a bus by raising your hand if you want it to stop.

When you want to get off a bus at a request stop, you must signal the driver by pressing a button or pulling a cord inside the bus, which activates a buzzer or bell in the driver’s cab. Make sure you give the driver adequate time to stop and don’t ring the bell at the lat minute just as you’re approaching your stop. You usually get off a bus via the middle or back doors.

Most buses are one-person operated, where you show your ticket or pay the driver when you get on. On some double-decker buses, tickets are purchased from a conductor on the bus. Keep your ticket, as it may be inspected at any time during your journey. Fares in London and some other cities are based on a zone system, as for London tube trains. In London, in addition to standard double-decker buses, Red Arrow single-decker buses operate frequent services between major railway stations in central London.

On Red Arrow buses, a flat rate fare is charged for adults and children, which is inserted in a machine (no ticket is issued). Have the exact fare ready when boarding or buy a Travelcard or bus pass valid for the central fare zone. A Travelcard includes travel on most London buses, the London tube, south-east railways and the Docklands Light Railway. London Transport publishes extensive bus guides (including maps) for all areas and operates a 24-hour information service (020-7222 1234, www.tfl.gov.uk ).

Most bus companies charge reduced rates (usually half fare or less) for children aged 5 to 15 and those under five travel free if they aren’t occupying a seat (although some bus companies may limit the number of free children per adult). There’s usually no charge for dogs, which are carried at the discretion of the driver or conductor (if the bus is already carrying a dog, they may refuse, although guide dogs are usually accepted).

You’re usually charged an additional full fare for non-collapsible baby carriages and prams. Senior citizens (over 60) and blind and disabled people may be entitled to free or half fare travel in certain areas, but usually require a permit from the local district or borough council.

Most bus companies provide bus pass or season tickets on most routes (weekly, monthly or annual), both point-to-point and unrestricted, for which a photocard is usually required. In some areas a ‘Sunday Rider’ or ‘rambler’ ticket provides unlimited Sunday travel on most local bus services (Sunday timetables are provided). Bus services on unprofitable routes are often subsidised by local councils and run as a public service, e.g. early morning commuter and hospital services.

From Mondays to Saturdays, services usually run at the same times each day. On Sundays and public holidays a restricted service is usually in operation, with the exception of Christmas and Boxing Days, when no services are normally provided. All buses have an official seating capacity and allow a certain number of passengers to stand when all seats are occupied, shown on a notice displayed in vehicles.

Anything left on a bus can be reclaimed from the offices of the bus company (the largest have their own lost property offices). There may be a small charge for the return of property, depending on its value. If you find an article of lost property on a bus, you’re required by law to hand it to the driver or conductor.

In central London, a special service for disabled passengers uses small buses equipped with wheelchair lifts to connect Paddington, Euston, King’s Cross, and Waterloo stations and the Heathrow/Victoria bus link. Free or subsidised door-to-door bus services are provided for the blind and disabled in most areas. Bus timetables (free or for a nominal fee) are provided by all bus companies and are available from transport companies and public libraries.

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

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