Cheap Flix … Bus

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I was for many years, a coach driver and tour guide based in Western Australia, including periods as a Greyhound and Bus Australia express coach driver, and I still do the occasional coach tour as a driver / guide, so when the opportunity came up to make a quick return trip to Bremen (from Bielefeld in Germany), I was very interested to see what the Flixbus operation was like.

Flixbus commenced operations in 2013 as a low cost intercity and country (it operates in 16 countries across Europe) express coach service. Offering a considerably cheaper fare structure than rail, or air, it has to be considered an outstanding success, having reached the point where it is taking over competitors.

The passenger mix would appear to be the classic backpackers from all over the world and Eastern European migrant peoples. The fare for the 185km one way trip was just E9.00 compared to E39 for the train, so it’s easy to see why people on low incomes or travel budgets are attracted to the service.

Booking online proved similar to booking a train or plane, print out your own ticket, or save it on your phone and they do send you update phone messages if there is some sort of delay, which segues into our first complaint. They sent a confirming message stating due to roadworks the departure time was slightly delayed and the departure time was now 7.05am (a Sunday morning). Fine. But, when we got to the terminal – well – street side, opposite the station, there was no bus. With no customer service representative in sight, my wife did her best to try and reach somebody, eventually getting a message to say the departure time was +60 minutes of the printed departure time and that information was printed on the ticket. We looked and sure enough it was, in small orange print. But why a day later, send a confirming text message stating the departure time was now 7.05am when it was actually 8.05am? To be fair, when I Tweeted my annoyance, whoever was watching Twitter from Flixbus, did after, three Tweets, see the point.

The bus arrived. Now top marks to Flixbus for their coaches, most of the fleet appears to be Setras (part of the Daimler Benz Group), Australians would remember Deluxe Coachlines used to run Kässbohrer Setras across Australia, apparently Setra dropped their founder’s name (Kässbohrer), as English speaking people found it too hard to pronounce. As drivers, we had great respect for them in Australia. The coach was obviously very new, clean, stylish and comfortable, with double USB charger connections for phones and laptops in one of each of the double seat configuration. There is supposed to be free Wi-Fi, but we couldn’t hook into to it on either journey. The seats have small picnic tables and there is a downstairs toilet, although the configuration of the above passenger seat and the small size of the toilet compartment means it’s a ludicrous size, also all the signs are in German, if you don’t read German, it could be very difficult to work out what button does what. Setra needs to look at the toilet compartment design. They run automatic gearboxes, presumably ZFs, they appeared to be an eight speed box (I stand to be corrected) with very smooth up and down shifts.

As we waited to board, it became obvious Flixbus was running as a budget coach line, the driver had to do everything and whether it was just the two drivers we had on our return trip I don’t know, however neither driver spoke English, which had the potential to make things difficult, especially as it seems coaches always run late. I would have thought English as a second language would have been a pre-requisite on an intercontinental express coach, given the pax mix. The drivers take very little interest in where passengers sit and so on a near full coach, there’s the inevitable situation of somebody and it’s usually always a girl, (nothing’s changed!), taking up two seats with her luggage and not wanting to move, Guys will always move, but women? No. As in trains and planes, you need to be aware that Muslim women will not want a male sitting next to them, so they and their families will move Heaven, Earth and Allah presumably, to ensure you aren’t anywhere near them. Without driver control, you may find you have to be blunt to find a seat.  We were down the back of the coach for the first trip, so I had no idea of the driver’s behaviour other than to say the trip was very smooth and comfortable.

As with a budget airline, once your journey is completed, you are on your own, the driver only has time for inspecting new passengers tickets, queries about bins and luggage are met with exasperated stares, shouting and pointing to a relevant bin and the driver doesn’t load or unload the bags, so there is utterly no control over the movement of your bag. At Osnabrück, the driver had to ask on the PA system, who owned the large blue suitcase on the footpath, it seemed somebody else had put the suitcase there in order to retrieve their own bag and just left it there! Luckily someone spotted it. So beware, you could easily lose your luggage and nobody would ever find it, there just isn’t any control.

Our return trip the next day commenced the same way as the previous trip – a text message telling us the coach was 40 minutes late. At the Bremen street pickup, again there were no staff on hand and some people had been waiting almost two hours for their coach. The problem is you can’t leave as you have no idea when the coach will eventually turn up and believe me, an express coach already running late, will not muck around, it will be a lightning fast stop, to try and make up time.

The first Flixbus to arrive should, in terms of timing, have been ours, however the sign on the window was for Hamburg, ours would read Munich, so we ignored it, but it was fascinating to observe the driver. He stayed talking on his mobile phone the entire time the coach was stopped, passenger queries were met with nods or head shaking, or pointing and shrugs. Interestingly, where the driver the day before had a hand-held machine to scan passenger tickets, this driver just looked at the tickets, then pointed at the door he wanted the passenger to enter through.

Ann (my German wife) was becoming worried, as by this time one Hamburg coach had already left and the one we were watching was getting ready to depart, she decided to ask the driver if he had any idea when the Munich coach would arrive. It’s a good job she did, he’d been so preoccupied on the phone and dealing with passengers, he’d forgotten to change the signs, the Hamburg bus was the Munich bus, but you needed to ask the driver to find out!  If like us and some other people, you relied on the bus signs, you’d still be there on the street.

He pointed us towards the middle door and we entered the coach, but finding seats was a real problem, once again single women were taking up double seats with no intention of moving, one even lied her box off saying the seat was taken, her friend was in the toilet. I’d had enough and strode up the aisle telling the driver, “There are no fucking seats mate!” Although he also spoke no English, he understood that! And moved his gear off the double seat at the front right. I knew that trick. All good, though he wasn’t happy.

Within a couple of minutes of getting out of the main CBD area, he began plugging his phone in and sorting out his earphones, all while negotiating busy city streets. Full marks for dexterity, but safety obviously didn’t factor in any way. He then continued to hold several phone calls over the next hour or so, often at 100km/h in pouring rain on the motorway. It seemed he was annoyed at the hours he was working – he’d been delayed the previous evening by a couple of hours had had to start early this day and then had to replace a windscreen wiper. I recognised all the hallmarks of a stressed, tired, overworked driver, just perfect for an express coach full of passengers on a busy motorway.

Now the guy, in his mid thirties, could drive, he knew where to place the coach on narrow streets and lanes, but then again, an automatic Setra with every modern feature, including an early warning ‘Too close’ buzzer, is not exactly difficult to pilot – I could have jumped into the driver’s seat in a second without ever having driven that model before and had no trouble, the GPS appeared to be preloaded with each stage of the journey. He had excellent control in pulling into and out of the heavy vehicle lane to let fast cars through.

As a professional driver, I just wasn’t comfortable with a tired, stressed, annoyed driver, constantly on the mobile phone. When we arrived at Bielefeld, as we got off, I was very relieved to see another driver take over.

In conclusion, I can see the game plan, Flixbus are pushing prices down so low, they are crippling any competition, a great business plan if you have deep enough pockets and they seem to have the cash to play the game, besides the customer is always price-conscious. However I am certain this is at the expense of driver conditions and any form of control and order mechanisms for passengers and luggage. It’s another of those ‘everything is done on the internet’ modern companies, where actual people contact doesn’t factor. Given the price difference between rail, or air, there is more than sufficient room to raise the prices a little and provide decent driver conditions, have a representative on site to organise luggage and passenger queries and ensure safety is the priority. I am amazed that European, German especially, laws are so lax in terms of safety and driver conditions, there appears to be no official safety or quality control mechanisms / legislation in place. I think the lack of driver uniforms indicates the lack of interest, you can shout all you like that a no uniforms policy represents fun and relaxation, what it actually says is cost cutting. Flixbus is primarily a line haul transport company carrying an inconvenient freight – people. As good as the Setra coaches are, I wouldn’t risk travelling with Flixbus again.

Greg Ross

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