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Merger Ahead?

Posted on February 14, 2022

Reading time: 3 minutes.

One of the big developments that emerged in the U.K. transport services world in the last few months has been the possibility of National Express and Stagecoach coming together. This time around, it is National Express that is the senior partner and that is very different to how things were ten years ago. There were talks around that time that never came to anything but it would have been Stagecoach that led in those days.

Things are serious enough that Stagecoach’s express coach service operations are to go to Comfort DelGro, their partners in the Scottish Citylink operation. It extends further than that though because MegBus and South West Falcon would be sold to them as well. That would leave National Express coach services and allow the possibility of using Stagecoach depots for these as well.

Currently, the deal is on hold pending the outcome of an inquiry by the U.K.’s Competition and Markets Authority. If it were to proceed, then a new international transport company would be created. Within Britain, it would be mainly a bus and coach service operation along with the Sheffield SuperTram in the light rail market. Because of respective travails, it has little impact on the rail network.

There was a time when National Express dominated the U.K. rail industry with numerous franchises that included ScotRail, Central Trains, Midland Mainline, Wales & Borders, Wessex Trains, c2c and National Express East Coast (NXEC). Most of these were lost on re-tendering while NXEC did not make enough money to pay the franchise premium and c2c was sold to Trenitalia.

Stagecoach also became a pervasive operator with South West Trains becoming one the longest-lived private sector operators and East Midlands Trains taking over from National Express undertakings. Another long-lived association was with Virgin Trains in its CrossCountry, West Coast and East Coast incarnations. While the brand was spared the indignity of operating through the pandemic, their uplifting, optimistic and somewhat cheeky air is something that I still miss a lot. The execution may have been imperfect but their heart was in the task and there was an entrepreneurial air that needs rekindling in these darker times. Stagecoach eventually gained such a reputation for competence that they too might be missed and they did get a fitting send-off in the National Rail Awards.

The company tried out all sorts of things in its day with even a hovercraft service across the Firth of Forth being tried for a while. Some of the innovations remained while others did not last but there was a sense of experimentation that was laudable. Numerous overseas ventures were attempted even if a lot of them did not persist. Despite these initiatives, they never forgot the core business so you could depend on them and that is more than be said for some operators today.

To me, National Express makes more of a steady-state impression and their white coach liveries are in line with this. Their bus operations are limited to the West Midlands these days with their Dundonian ones having been sold to McGill’s. Given that, you might think them smaller than Stagecoach with its more pervasive bus networks but that is not how it is. innovation does not strike as a hallmark of the company but it is promising a big switchover to electric vehicles as part of the merger outcome.

Losing Stagecoach’s inventive spirit would be a loss but I still am watching what happens. For now, my vantage point is through the pages of Buses magazine rather than something more speedy in information delivery terms. It looks as if a big changeover is coming so we may have little choice but to await what comes. It could be just the shake-up that the bus and coach market needs.

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