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The Dawn of a New Age of Coach Travel?
John Thackara, 20 Apr 10

If Katla (above: she's Eyjafjallajökull's much bigger sister) blows, and grounds flights forever, will this finally be Dr Storkey's moment?

The blogwaves are already filled with links to Seat 61. But as I've Cassandra'd repeatedly (yes, I've made it into a verb) train travel is not all that light once total system costs are factored in.

As the graph shows, the best motorized way, by far, to move long distances is by coach. Buses produce 29g of CO2 for every passenger kilometer traveled, compared with 52g for trains and 170g per passenger km for cars and airplanes.

[Plug-in electric cars are very popular with politicians and car companies: they embody the myth that we can all carry on driving around in private vehicles as normal, and the planet gets saved. It's a dangerous con: the true costs of electric cars - from the heavy metals in their batteries, to the coal-generated power needed to run them - mean that their viability as a long-term alternative to unsustainable mobility is an illusion].

Car, road, and aviation industries have had a death grip around the necks of policy makers in most countries, so bus travel has not flourished. But this could be its moment.

To develop as a mass alternative to flight, what's needed next is an integrated combination of enhanced vehicles, improvements to existing infrastructure, web 3.0 platforms and social innovation to make each step of a journey easy and fun.

A few weeks ago I asked a group of senior car designers to consider coach travel as a product service system. I asked them to identify what elements would need to be improved, in such a system, to persuade them to consider coach travel seriously. Here's a summary of what they came up with:

Free parking at hub
Shuttles from home/work
Social status
Crash safety
Info at hub and on web
Clear route data
Better experience than air travel

Can you add to this list? Have you done a project on any of these items?

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Ah, statistics. You can make them say anything you like...

I was surprised that in your graph trains fare so poorly. Doing a quick search on the internet gives the capacity of a single car in a TGV train: 516. At the average occupancy given by SNCF (the rail operator) of 80% that makes 412 persons per car,almost 10 times the number used in your "statistics". It therefore goes to follow that rail would be about 10 times more efficient, and therefore ahead by a large margin. This number is confirmed by similar comparisons I've seen elsewhere.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for bus travel as a complement to the other modes of transport. But lets try not to throw around faulty "facts".

Posted by: Chris on 21 Apr 10

Thanks for that clarification Chris. That was my hunch as well, but I appreciate seeing some facts to demonstrate it.

Posted by: Josh S on 21 Apr 10

Does the above include transportation costs/resources used to/from airport/train station/etc.? Airports are increasingly located further away from urban centers while train stations are embedded within.

Posted by: Miguel Marcos on 21 Apr 10

In the U.S. greyhound is the dominate 'coach' provider and as nearly anyone can verify that is really a poor way to travel long distances. The buses are always over booked, customers are treated like cattle, and the food options are horrible. While the bus, is more of a setting, this NYT article is very representative of the greyhound experience

Posted by: Max on 21 Apr 10

Correction... the best motorized way, by far, to move long distances is by hitchhiking (it's the bar below walking and biking). Anyone up for hitching from Cali to Europe this summer via the Bering Strait? The new age of travel is so much more exciting!

Posted by: Brad on 21 Apr 10

Chris: I think that you've got your wires crossed between car and whole train capacity. If wikipedia is to be believed then you're looking at at most 750 *per train* ( and just intuitively there's no way you'd be getting 500 people in a 60-odd seat carriage.

More generally, you'd think there's enormous potential for aligning coach travel with reliable real-time data: for me the biggest problem is its unpredictability of journey times. Why not use Google traffic data (or similar) to reliably predict a latest ETA?

Also, if First Great Western in the UK can put multichannel video screens in seat-backs (coming in 2010) why not something like that in buses?

Reliable toilet facilities (they're often out of order)

Posted by: Alastair Morton on 22 Apr 10

Could be interesting to take a look at Turkey - it has an excellent intercity coach travel network which fulfils almost all of the criteria you listed. The most modern coaches have seat-back entertainment systems too. Plus complimentary tea and snacks every few hours. There are many competing coach companies based in different cities around Turkey – here’s one (it’s all in Turkish but maybe you can get an idea)

Turkey's rail system is not well developed and car ownership is low (vehicles are highly taxed and petrol very expensive) so coach travel is the main option for most people.

Posted by: Lucy on 4 May 10

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