A new front has opened in the battle for the most recession-proof method of travel. Hostilities broke out at 5am yesterday morning when the maiden international voyage of Megabus left Birmingham, destination Paris. One passenger had paid only £2.30 return for the journey – less than the price of a coffee on the ferry.
The blue bus, with the message "A partir de 1€" emblazoned on the side, stopped to pick up more passengers at Coventry and Victoria coach station in central London, then travelled non-stop to Dover.
None of the 37 passengers on board had paid more than £10 each for the all-day journey to Paris, where the coach was due to arrive at 6.40pm last night. Another service from Leicester departed at 5.15am, destined for Brussels and Amsterdam. By this morning, a twice-daily service will also be operating between the Dutch, Belgian and French capitals, at prices far below the existing rail operators.
The pioneering passengers were full of praise for the venture – and the fares. "I'm thoroughly enjoying it," said Julie Panfili, a care assistant from Abertillery. "The driver's excellent, everybody's excited and it's brilliant value for money."
She and her son, Ross, had paid £56 return – including the link from Cardiff, where they had begun at 4am – but said they preferred it to flying: "This is more relaxing and a more human experience."
The low-cost bus operation is part of the Stagecoach Group, the giant transport consortium that includes East Midlands Trains and South West Trains. Megabus was originally a "no-frills" offshoot shuttling students around Scotland, but has since expanded to the rest of Britain and to North America.
In response, Eurolines has cut its lead-in fare to the French capital to £9 each way. It is a consortium of bus companies from across Europe, including National Express in Britain, which has by far the widest network in Europe. On the prime London-Paris route, it has recently introduced more luxurious coaches, and offers free Wi-Fi.
But Megabus yesterday raised the stakes by announcing the first fully fledged sleeper service between London and Paris since the overnight rail service ended in 1980. Megabus chief executive Sir Brian Souter said his company was working on a "concept vehicle" with 43 bunks that would enable passengers to sleep their way between the two capitals, aimed at luring business passengers from aircraft and trains.
Mark Smith, the rail guru known as "The Man in Seat 61", questioned the appeal of the proposed overnight service: "With a Eurostar journey of just two hours, 15 [minutes] from London to Paris, I'd have thought a sleeper service is hardly necessary. I wonder if you'd get much sleep, bumping around on a bus, especially if they wake you at unearthly hours for passport control at Dover and Calais. This sounds more aimed at backpackers than businessmen, surely."
But the standard £69 return from London to Paris is exactly 30 times the amount that the most frugal passenger on yesterday's service paid. Mark Beech, 26, a student from the West Midlands, bought a return ticket from Birmingham to Paris for £2.30, including the booking fee.
"I'm a bit of a Megabus addict," he said on the P&O ferry crossing between Dover and Calais, on which a latte costs £2.60. "I spotted they were putting these on sale and bought the very first seat at 3am." The bus arrived at its first stop in France, at Boulogne, five minutes ahead of schedule – and five hours after leaving London.