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Saturday, 23 August 2014

Victoria Coach Station Tour Part Three

In the previous two parts of this special post I reported on my visit to Victoria Coach Station to see Mark Geldard,the General Manager, and described some of the day to day challenges that VCS faces, along with some of the issues that prohibit VCS from joining the 21st Century. In this final part, I'll describe not only how Mark wants to change the whole VCS experience, but also show how that is going to be a very difficult task.

The first thing that needs to be said is that not one single thing is going to make a blind bit of difference. It needs to be a combination of several things working together and in unison with each other, which is going to require co-operation from many organisations and agencies on an almost D-Day scale. So I'll try and break it down into sections, but of course there will be some overlapping.

Infrastructure

The main problem VCS faces is how to modernise and update the place while still running a 700 coach departure, 24/7 operation. The obvious solution is temporary relocation but where? I suggested Battersea Power Station which is a big enough site, with shuttle buses running to Victoria and Waterloo. However it appears I'm too late with that one as Battersea is being redeveloped. On top of that the coach park at Nine Elms is also closing meaning coaches will have to finds somewhere else to have layover periods. So maybe an upstairs move could work - there is a whole floor that is virtually unused, so extra departure lounges could be created, allowing work to take place on the lower floor. Mark wants to change the seating arrangements, and the seats themnselves, which are ghastly, and have more of an airport departure lounge feel to the place. That is all well and good, and is great in theory, however as the pic below demonstrates it will have to link into the operations side too.

A pscked South departure terminal at VCS
Operations

You will see that there are queues at all the gates, and that is one of the problems VCS face. As none of the coach operators offer seat allocations everyone wants to be first on board to bag the best seats, and I freely admit I am no exception to that. At the moment it is easy to find out which gate your coach is departing from more than 2 hours in advance, which causes the sort of scene you can see above. Mark is considering introducing an airport style arrangement, when the departure gate is not announced until the coach is ready to board. However, in order for that to work, as he freely admits. seat allocations for journeys out of London need to be introduced to stop a stampede when the gate is announced like you get at rail stations when platforms are announced. Something that has just come to me that we didn't discuss is that coaches will also have to turn off destination displays until gates are announced to avoid the same thing. Then the airport style lounges could work. Better airflow systems will also be needed and I know they are being worked on now.

Coaches also need to depart more frequently - the "ballet dance" as Mark describes it on the hour and half hour is outdated. However that means co-operation from Westminster City Council in adopting a traffic flow system whereby coaches get priority and can leave the area asap. That is already in progress, with plans in place to change the junction outside the coach station so coaches travelling South don't have to go North up Buckinham Palace Rd, but will be able to turn left and straight onto the Embankment. That will take around 200 coaches a day out of the Victoria area. The other scheme is to have traffic lights in the control of VCS at departure times so coaches get priority. That is a sensible idea which could reap great rewards if the right co-peration from the local Council is given.and would clear the concourse for the next departures far quicker than it is now.

I mentioned in the last part about the increase in foreign coaches. An idea being mulled over is transferring foreign departures to the nearby Bulleid Way Coach Station, which is the home of Green Line and where a lot of coaches, including Megabus and Oxford Tube take their layovers. Of particular interest is that the layout there would enable right hand drive coaches to load up and indeed unload with relative ease. I ventured there for a look after leaving VCS and think it is an idea of real potential.

Golden Tours rather striking Volvo B something MCV with the all over Harry Potter vinyls in Bulleid Way Coach Stastion
However there are many stumbling blocks before that can be achieved, none more so than who can actually give the go-ahead for the development. The site is owned by Malaysians but because it also overhangs the railway Network Rail have to be involved, as do the local Council. All very complicated in a country where it can take two years to get permission to paint your window sills a different colour.

So here is a summary of what is needed to bring VCS up to scratch and then I'll reveal the sledgehammer waiting to bludgeon the best laid plans to dust.

  • New layout to departure areas and creation of additional areas on first floor
  • Better lighting, air flow and interior decoration
  • Enhanced pest control to eliminate pigeons
  • No gate information until ready to board, just which terminal to go to
  • Seat allocation on departures out of London
  • More frequent departure slots, with traffic management giving coaches priority
  • Relocation of international departures to Bulleids Way Coach Station
One thing I simply must mention before anything else is the left luggage facility.  At Victoria rail Station it csot from £8 to leave an item of luggage for a few hours. At VCS there is a fully staffed secure area which costs just £2.50 for a couple of hours which is ample if you are changing coaches and need some time to go and get something to eat and stretch your legs without lugging cases with you. I like that - impressive.

Anyway back to the monumental fly in the ointment. Crossrail 2 is routed to go right underneath VCS, which means sink holes will be dug on the concourse which will then become permanent ventilation shafts upon complettion. The safeguarding plans are still not finalised - indeed Crossrail 2 doesn't yet have a start date, but it creates a huge amount of uncertainty on what can and cannot be done, and a mammoth opportunity for a "let's wait and see" culture to establish itself.

I left home on Wednesday wanting to be impressed and have a good report to write. That was achieved. Behind Mark Geldard's friendly and welcoming exterior I could see a man with steely determination to get the job done. It may take many years to achieve it, but he has a team who manage the impossible day after day after day, and if anyone can achieve it I think he will.

The issues I have with VCS are mainly still there, but it is reassuring to know that those issues are recognised by the bloke at the top, and he wants to see them eradicated just as much as I do. Thanks again, Mark, for inviting me down and giving me so much of your time. It has given me a great deal of pleasure to write such a positive and praising report.

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