Simon Calder: In search of Britain's most exclusive bus
The man who pays his way
Saturday 02 April 2011
There it is, right near the end of the Milton Keynes Travel Guide: the rarest bus in Britain. Not once a week, nor once a month; bus W13 runs on Tuesdays. But not every Tuesday – indeed, hardly any of them. The 12.45pm departure from Central Milton Keynes to Southill (with further calls on request to Broom, Henlow and Stondon) operates on the "Fifth Tuesday of applicable months".
This year the bus is scheduled on 29 March, 31 May, 30 August and 29 November. "No service on other days," warns the timetable. Only a footnote reading "every 29 Feb", "Once in a Blue Moon" or "When Hell Freezes Over (bank holidays excepted)" could confer a bus with more rarity value.
To enjoy the most exclusive transportational treat in the nation, all I needed do was to reach Central Milton Keynes by 12.45pm. Before that, though, I wanted a day of bus superlatives.
My trip began at Britain's swishest bus stop: the lobby of London's Hilton Metropole, an executive lounge for the bus world. But it did not start well.
Every morning at around 9am, a well-dressed bunch of visitors (last Tuesday, from Russia, Japan, the Middle East and India) sit and wait in the deep, comfortable seats close to the concierge's desk in the Hilton Metropole. Each has a ticket for the once-a-day service to Bicester Shopping Village in Oxfordshire. When I walked in, a helpful concierge enquired as to my business. "I'm here for the Bicester Shopping Experience."
"Bicester Shopping Experience," he called out to the assembled travellers, and indicated they should follow me – until I explained that, despite appearances, I was not actually the bus driver, but a fellow passenger.
Five minutes later, the real thing turned up – and I had to admit that I looked more like a bus driver than the charcoal-suited, red-tied and designer-sunglassed Abda Hassan. Six days a week, he drives the Bicester Shopping Village Express. It is Britain's premium-economy bus service. A £14 one-way ticket buys you 80 comfortable minutes on the ride to the Oxfordshire shopping centre aboard a Volvo coach. After 20 minutes you shrug off London and race into the green hills of Buckinghamshire; at 50 minutes, the motorway carves through the last of the Chiltern chalk and descends into a green, pleasant landscape. Bicester Shopping Village is not quite a match for the average Cotswold hamlet, but the number of people prepared to surrender a fine spring day to spend time and money in designer stores shows it meets a need. With more time, I might have shrugged off my bus-driver look.
Despite a skirmish with the timetable for the connecting X5 bus (the schedule on the stop turned out to be for an entirely different location), I reached Central Milton Keynes in good time for the W13. The city's main bus station is a cheerless place, bearing the civic motto: "Pedestrians do not have Priority".
Twenty minutes after the W13 was supposed to leave, I gave up. Oh well, there'll be another along in nine weeks.
Like a bus driver bereft of a vehicle, I set off for the railway station (Milton Keynes Central is, naturally, a mile from Central Milton Keynes). The next southbound train was running late: it was the 13.13. I bought a ticket. It cost £13. Unlucky for some.
Passengers' rights are paid for by ... other passengers
The best kind of bus for many travellers is an Airbus – for some, because it means they will not be flying on Ryanair, which uses only Boeings.
But whatever your view of Europe's biggest low-cost airline, pity Michael O'Leary. The airline's much-loved chief executive has been forced to charge all passengers booking Ryanair flights from Monday onwards a €2 surcharge to cover the costs of meeting the airline's obligations under EU261, the rules that give airlines a duty of care for their passengers in cases of delay or cancellation.
The news will be greeted by long-standing fans of Ryanair, including me, with derision. All EU airlines took a hit from the volcanic ash fiasco and assorted air-traffic control strikes. You and I will ultimately foot the airlines' higher costs, however it might be dressed up. Applying a surcharge is pointless; travellers choose to fly, or not, according to the total fare.
Unlike the Irish banks, Ryanair is a highly successful organisation, the leading provider of air transport in Europe. And it achieved that status by keeping fares low.
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