FirstGroup announces £70m fleet investment in annual fleet order

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Treading cautiously over new technology drivetrains, Giles Fearnley, MD of First Bus told CBW “I would rather be a confident follower than an intrepid idiot”
Treading cautiously over new technology drivetrains, Giles Fearnley, MD of First Bus told CBW “I would rather be a confident follower than an intrepid idiot”

First’s largest double-deck order forms part of growth and partnership agenda

Alexander Dennis Ltd (ADL) has won the lion’s share of FirstGroup’s annual fleet order – which this year is for 305 new vehicles, representing an investment of £70m.

Giles Fearnley, Managing Director of First Bus said that the order, which comprises 204 double-deckers – the largest ever First Bus order of double-deckers – will help encourage more passengers across the UK to travel by bus: “This is great news for our passengers. We are determined to make the bus a more compelling proposition, attract more customers and grow our business. Ensuring that our passengers travel in modern, comfortable, fit for purpose vehicles which provide added value such as free WiFi and USB charging is pivotal to our customer engagement strategy and our future success.”

All of the new buses (detailed in the table) will be fitted with on-board WiFi by Icomera and leather seating – the latter having E-Leather as the main supplier, although some will also be sourced from Muirhead Leather. Some of the new buses will also be fitted with Vix next-stop audio-visual displays, and around 30% of the new vehicles will include USB charging points.

Asked what is the attraction of ADL Enviro200 MMC single-deckers, of which First is ordering 71 this year, Giles replied: “We carry out our own trials at the Millbrook proving ground each year and focus our order based on those results. There is no question that ADL products have improved in the last two years. We decided we’d benefit from a significant fleet of E200 MMCs. It’s about durability, whole life costs, an attractive vehicle for our passengers, drivers and engineering staff alike.”

First is also taking 71 Wrightbus StreetDecks this year. Giles said: “We took circa 80 StreetDecks in the year which has just ended. We’re very comfortable in taking a similar number this year too. Again, it’s about fuel economy and a bus which is user-friendly.”

Turning to the small number of Volvos in the order, he said: “We operate a huge number of Volvos across our fleets, whilst buying only limited numbers over the last two years. The Vantage, Leigh-Atherton-Manchester service that launched in April has the Volvo product and we are delighted in the current year to be taking a further 10 chassis for our Aircoach operation. We are however, finding that integral products are currently producing the best results when measured against whole life costs.”

Giles confirmed the 10 coaches are Plaxton Panther-bodied Volvo B11Rs for Dublin-based Aircoach. “Aircoach is performing extremely well – it’s a strong business, so it’s vital to keep the fleet fresh,” he added.

The order consolidates First’s position as one of the largest operators of low carbon emission buses in the UK. 87% of the new vehicles will be DfT approved ‘low carbon certified,’ which First estimates will save four million kg of CO2 a year.

The 2016/2017 investment will bring the company’s fleet of low carbon -certified vehicles, believed to be one of the largest in the UK, saving in total an estimated 15.5 million kg of CO2 annually.

CBW understands the 45 ADL E400s marked ‘exact spec to be confirmed’ are set to be Scania gas buses destined for Bristol – subject to a positive outcome from the OLEV (Office for Low Emission Vehicles) bid.

Asked what’s happening on Gyro drive and why only eight buses have been ordered, Giles replied: “We believe the concept is good, but it’s still in the proving period of what is very complex technology. We’re taking another step in the current year. On the basis it works well, we expect to see more gyro drives in future orders. We will be evaluating these buses very carefully.

“In the past, we’ve had issues with technology – a prime example being the electric buses on the York Park & Ride, where in the early days we had frequent diesel substitution. I would rather be a confident follower than an intrepid idiot.”

Asked about the apparent move away from Wrightbus’ StreetLite Micro-hybrid, Giles said: “If you look at the basis of this order – 204 double-deckers – it is significantly more than we need for DDA (Disability Discrimination Act) compliance – but it also reflects the increase in passenger numbers in Bristol and Cornwall. We are replacing single-deckers with double-deckers in both areas, a process that started in earnest 12 to 18 months ago in Bristol. The city is to get 68 new vehicles worth £18.1m, comprising ADL Enviro400 MMCs.

“In Cornwall, we are upgrading to double-deck operation, the trunk Truro to Redruth, Camborne to Penzance and St Ives corridors. We see opportunities for growth, especially serving the tourist market. We are investing £7.1m of this order in 30 new ADL Enviro400 MMC.

“We’ve cascaded around 100 vehicles to Cornwall in the last six months, resulting in a step change in the fleet. This latest investment will take that process a significant step forward. We will then have a fleet fit for a growing market, meeting the aspirations of the local authority.”

Asked about the threat of franchising, a dark cloud which for so long hung over bus services in Cornwall, Giles responded: “The local authority is now very positive about pursuing a partnership approach. We are both looking forward to seeing the enhanced partnership proposals expected to emerge from the forthcoming Buses Bill.”

In further good news in Cornwall, Giles said: “We’re working with our rail colleagues at Great Western Railway to develop a truly integrated public transport offering. The re-signalling project will result in two trains per hour from the December 2018 rail timetable change. While we serve all mainline railway stations now, there will be a concerted focus on information provision and ticketing options. We aim to ensure bus information is prominently displayed and connections between the two modes are made as easy as possible.”

Other areas to benefit from this year’s fleet order include 20 new Wrightbus StreetLites for South Yorkshire, 14 of which are due to enter service in Doncaster, marking the start of the ‘Doncaster Bus Partnership’ this month. The successful Sheffield Bus Partnership will also benefit from a further 10 new vehicles – ADL Enviro200 MMCs.

Reacting to news of the order, Colin Robertson, ADL’s Chief Executive, commented: “We’ve worked closely with FirstGroup over many years to raise the bar for the industry. Our shared vision is to provide passengers and drivers with world-class products that introduce advanced technology, improve comfort, safety and vehicle performance, and exceed environmental requirements.”

Ian Downie, Wrightbus’ MD – Sales and Customcare, said: “We are delighted to have received this significant order from one of our longest standing customers. When delivered, there will in total be more than 670 StreetLites and 136?StreetDecks, which were launched in 2015, in operation with FirstBus. Wrightbus is proud of its long-term relationship with FirstBus and looks forward to delivering this latest fleet of new buses into service.”