Boost for buses as Government takes more steps to support and decarbonise sector

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Buses Minister Richard Holden at the launch of First Leicester’s fleet of new electric buses. JONATHAN WELCH

Plans to help improve recruitment, training and retention of staff, as well as to improve the passenger experience, have been put forward by the Government

A new initiative to upskill, recruit and retain a new generation of bus professionals, alongside support to help our bus sector get stronger, was announced by Roads Minister Richard Holden on Tuesday 21 March, alongside the unveiling of a new fleet of electric buses for Leicester. Backed by £815,000 in Government investment, the new Bus Centre of Excellence is intended to bring together expertise from local government, bus operators and industry to boost skills and diversity in the bus sector.

As pledged in the Government’s National Bus Strategy, the new Centre of Excellence promises to give life to a new generation of bus professionals to drive forward more reliable, affordable and cleaner bus services. Hosted by the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, it will provide training opportunities, direct access to resources and industry experts, as well as networking events to uplift the capacity and capability of the whole sector, working to encourage people to get back on the bus.

The Centre is planned to complement the ongoing decarbonisation of the sector and work being carried out towards improving the whole passenger experience; the announcement was made as the Government confirmed investment of £3 million for 18 new zero-emission buses in Leicester. Manufactured by Wrightbus and operated by First, the new vehicles will mean that all diesel buses at the operator’s depot in Leicester will be replaced with 86 electric ones funded by the Zero Emission Buses Regional Areas (ZEBRA) scheme, making Leicester home to one of the first bus depots in the UK to transition to fully electric.

In total Leicester has benefited from nearly £22 million funding from the ZEBRA scheme to support 114 electric buses. Roads Minister Richard Holden said: “Buses are the backbone of our transport network, providing affordable travel for commuters, families, and pensioners, and providing an economic lifeline for towns and cities around the country. This multi-million investment for Leicester’s clean transformation, coupled with the new Bus Centre of Excellence, will help drive the country’s bus sector recovery and provide passengers with cleaner, more affordable buses that run on time.”

The new zero-emission buses for Leicester build on the success of the existing ZEBRA scheme, which was launched in 2021 to allow local transport authorities to bid for funding for zero-emission buses and supporting infrastructure, and complement the buses already operating on the city’s ‘Greenlines’ network.

The move brings total Government funding from the ZEBRA scheme to almost £300 million for up to 1,400 zero-emission buses in England.

The project is supported by the Government’s ZEBRA scheme. JONATHAN WELCH

Neil Johnstone, President of the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation, which will support the new Centre of Excellence, said: “CIHT has a proven track record of delivering high quality continuing professional development for those working in the transportation sector. We are delighted to be the chosen partner to help work on improving this important sustainable transport mode.

“This partnership (alongside other Government initiatives) will see CIHT help to bring together a wide range of professional skills and knowledge from both the public and private sector to facilitate change to local infrastructure, service delivery and the sector across the country – with the ultimate aim of improving bus services.”

Managing Director at First Bus Janette Bell said of the new fleet and upgraded depot in Leicester: “We’re absolutely delighted that Leicester will become one of our blueprint bus depots of the future, helping us to refine and iterate this new concept so we can roll it out across the rest of the UK. At First Bus, we’re continuing to trail-blaze with our partners to ensure we meet our net zero targets, supported by co-funding from the Department for Transport.

“As leaders in sustainable mobility, we are fully aligned with the Government’s ambitions for a net zero carbon transport system. Through this co-funding with the ZEBRA scheme, we’re excited to electrify another five of our UK depots before March 2024, and look forward to introducing even more electric buses to our constantly growing fleet. We cannot wait to see our customers’ reactions once the project is complete, as we know the difference this will make to the city. Electric really is the future and we’re glad we can take our customers on this journey with us.”

The new Bus Centre of Excellence initiative follows the £155 million announced in February to continue supporting bus services up and down the country and providing affordable journeys by extending the popular £2 bus fare cap, and brings the total Government funding to protect buses at over £2 billion since the pandemic, with a further £1 billion invested to improve the quality of bus services through the Bus Service Improvement Plans.

The Buses Minister attended the launch of the first of the new Wrightbus GB Kite single-deck buses for Leicester, at which stakeholders and press were able to get a first look at the new buses. See our feature on page 26 for the full details.