“Take the National Express when your life’s in a mess, it’ll make you smile,” goes “National Express”, the 1999 Divine Comedy hit single about the UK’s original cross-country bus company founded in 1972. “All human life is here, from the feeble old dear to the screaming child,” the lyrics continue. And it’s true: this Christmas, National Express will be ferrying (well, bussing) people across the country and it is the only national travel operator running services on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.
That’s not to mention the 17 million people travelling on the National Express each year and its sister company, The Kings Ferry commuter services. The services are proving more popular than ever this year, with two new routes being launched in North Somerset on top of the existing 36 commuter services between Kent and London. The company’s customers are a microcosm of British society. But what are the stories behind the faces you see sat across the aisle from you?
I recently had the pleasure of meeting a singer-songwriter called Bruno after I boarded a National Express bus at Heathrow airport shortly after midnight. While getting the bus is a rare occurrence for me, Bruno, who splits his music career between London and Newquay, has been using the National Express every week for about two years. “It can be an adventure from time to time, whether the bus is late showing up, your driver’s mood dictates your trip, you spot a fellow regular traveller on your bus or you sit next to a very friendly stranger who you might chat to the whole way to kill time.”
And chat we did, about anything and everything while a suited and booted auditor, on his way to Plymouth to spring a surprise visit on a store in the morning, snored next to me. While Bruno admits he is always impatient to arrive at his destination and frustrated with what he describes as “a lack of focus on the comfort of us long-distance travellers”, it’s the company’s reputation that keeps him coming back. “It’s one of the UK’s most iconic and economical means of travel for everyday people. The pride and the professionalism of the National Express always influences me. I think it’s an invaluable British institution.”
But for travellers such as Tymn, who starts his journey with a walk along the sleepy Weymouth harbour to a row-boat that takes him and his luggage across the river to the bus stop, the National Express is his only means of travel to the capital – and the journey really is as good as the destination. “Travelling up to London is like the pull of a huge magnet. The pulse raises in anticipation. It is an ‘experience’, not an ordeal,” says Tymn, who welcomes the calm of the coach since he no longer enjoys driving and finds the train too expensive and overcrowded, which he never experiences on the bus. “The coach gives you a stress-free view of both town and countryside. Coming back, I love being driven down Knightsbridge in my elevated ‘room with a view’, eye-balling all the swanky stores as we head west into the sunset.”
Convenience probably isn’t a word that many people associate with bus travel but for Tymn, it’s the point-to-point service and minimal cost that makes the National Express unbeatable. “Getting off at Hammersmith is exactly how a travel interchange should work. I can cross the road from the coach stop and be straight on to the London Underground and often be in north London before the coach has arrived at Victoria.”
Boarding the National Express for sightseeing and commuting purposes is one thing, but when money is tight, and you’re smitten with someone living 153 miles away from you, it can save your love life. “With me living in London on a graduate salary and Dan in Cardiff, bus travel is really the only affordable means of seeing each other as much as we do,” says Jenny, who met her boyfriend, Dan, on a night out in the Welsh capital shortly before graduating from Cardiff University and moving to London.
“I simply can’t afford to pay for expensive train tickets or run a car. I’d rather put up with coach delays and all the screaming babies in the world in exchange for a cheap fare.” The couple try to see each other every two to three weeks and take it in turns to travel between the two cities. “Making so many journeys is often noticed by National Express, too,” Dan says. “A recent promotion sees a traveller getting a free journey when they make a journey 10 times. Since I’m making the journeys anyway, that’s a nice bonus.”
It's the affordability of National Express that is another big grab for Celia, another twenty-something, who regularly travels by bus between Exeter and London. “Travelling by National Express means I have more money to spend on the weekends on dinners and drinks with my friends,” Celia says. “I’m not fussed about the time it takes to travel on the bus. For half the price of train travel, I don’t mind it taking double the time.”
The subject of time is an interesting one considering that our fast-paced, 24/7 society means that people are often impatient for time to pass, especially when it comes to travelling from A to Z. But the next time you find yourself glued to your smartphone on the way to work or catch yourself eye-balling the barista for your morning wake-up call or screaming internally because your train is severely delayed, perhaps consider these final lyrics: “Don’t just sit there feeling stressed, take a trip on the National Express.”