One of the givens of British life – along with iron skies, Conservative governments, overpaid footballers and Katie Hopkins – is the awfulness of the train service. To many, it’s a national embarrassment, a Thatcherite economic experiment gone awry, a privatised-not-privatised vampire planting ever sharper fangs in the soft, fleshy necks of tourists and commuters. And what do we get for the defence-budget-of-a-small-country prices we stump up in train fares every year? We get: overcrowded carriages, crumbling rolling stock, cancellations, delays, Nazi ticket inspectors, regular industrial disputes, apocalyptically unclean toilets, toilets with doors that slide open automatically and unexpectedly, wailing infants, over-loud phone conversations and if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to stand by a window, views of mournful South London.
How we bargain-loving Brits have put up with the above for quite so long is a mystery beyond answering. It’s what happens, I suppose, in a captive market. Trains are a scandalising rip-off but short of catching road rage, chartering a chopper or risking our necks twice-daily on a bike, we have no choice but to take them. And this is their genius: to profiteer, unashamedly, from a nation’s transport desperation on the safe assumption that we’ll be too distracted by our headphones or smartphone screens or the armpits of the people standing beside us to have the energy, much less the elbow room, to muster a transport revolution.
But what they don’t know is that the revolution is here – in fact, it pulled into the station some time ago. It’s a four-wheeled revolution that calls itself, simply, Megabus. Now, I know what you’re going to say. That I can’t be serious. That I haven’t thought this through. That Megabus, granted, is cheaper, but ugh: slow. So slow. I mean, can you imagine it, sitting in stalled traffic on the drizzly North Circular for unendurable lengths of time, surrounded by people who, just like you, are too poor to afford the train! It would be like taking the mail coach during the steam age, if, that is, the mail coach was daubed with a lurid yellow-and-blue livery with a picture of a fat, leering, bus conductor on one side.
Aesthetic shortcomings aside, however, there is really nothing unbecoming in taking the bus. When train tickets are this trouncingly expensive, it’s an economic inevitability. Me, I first fell under the sway of Megabus when I was a student at Exeter University. The train being, obviously, far beyond my student purse, Megabus’s low fares were irresistible. But all the same, I was wary. London to Exeter is a bugger of a distance to travel by bus, and as a martyr to motion sickness, I would be unable to beguile the passing hours with a book. What did they expect me to do? Sit with folded hands for the entire four-hour journey? (I should add, importantly: this was the pre-smartphone era.)
But even without the consolations of Snapchat or Pokémon GO, my maiden Megabus journey proved to be none so terrible. It helped, of course, that I’d dosed myself to the gills with travel sickness pills, and brought batteries to spare to service my ageing Sony Discman. But here was the best thing: once I’d flourished my printed-off ticket to the driver and stowed my luggage in the undercarriage, there was nothing further to worry about. No bothersome tea trolleys, no tedious canned announcements, no officious ticket inspectors demanding to see reservations and railcards. I could just sit back and enjoy the journey. And boy was there plenty of journey to enjoy (more than four hours, give or take the odd stop at the services).
By slow degrees, I got there. And despite myself, I enjoyed it. Much of the journey I spent in a state somewhere between waking and dreaming, the West Country flashing past my heavy-lidded eyes, Interpol, Bloc Party and British Sea Power piping into my half-listening ears. And when I arrived, I found something had taken root in me. Suddenly, I was a Megabus man, ready to preach the benefits of four-wheeled travel to anyone who listened. It wasn’t until I graduated and found a job that I again set foot on a train, and then only begrudgingly.
In writing this encomium, I am aware that Megabus is not the miracle solution to the nation’s transport ills. For a poor student, they may well be perfect; for a commuter the case is somewhat different – there is no bus, mega or otherwise, that can replace the 8:04 from West Wickham to Charing Cross. But if you are travelling across the country and are unfussed by the trade-off between ticket price and transit time, then the coach may be up your street. And you would be joining the revolution. There is a reason that Megabuses are seen more and more on Britain’s roads, an ever-expanding armada bowling smoothly along our motorways and dual carriageways. That is because, in the era of the plutocratization of train travel, coaches are the only option. So let’s embrace them. Megabus, I salute your affordability, your unfussiness, yes, your garish colour scheme. And to the train snobs that scoff at your slowness, I say only this: if the choice is between taking your time on the Megabus, or spending aeons waiting for an affordable train ticket to show up anywhere definite in the calculable future, I know what I’m going to choose. Buckle up!