Three months on from the National Bus Strategy: how the industry is changing

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June 16 marked three months since the publication of the Government’s highly anticipated National Bus Strategy. John Dowie, Strategy Director at First Bus, discusses how the strategy has impacted on the industry in this short time.

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[/wlm_nonmember] [wlm_ismember] The sector welcomed the publication of the National Bus Strategy (NBS) three months ago – it was very much an affirmation of what we have been doing at First Bus to put the customer first and implement a long-term, green future. The NBS – and the £3 billion financial commitment from the Government that comes with it – is an opportunity to revitalise the bus industry. We are excited about the future and it’s promising to see so many aspects of our strategy aligning with the Government’s focus.

The NBS highlights making bus attractive for the customer and we’re already responding to customers’ needs for affordable and easy travel. Over the past 18 months we have also introduced several app updates to adapt to customers’ needs throughout the pandemic. This included the introduction of carnet options in Scotland, more Tap & Cap schemes, and the enabling of Apple Pay ‘Express Mode’ payments via our on-board ticket machines. We also introduced an update that enabled customers to live track the location of their bus, and view in ‘real time’ the capacity of vehicles nearby, and importantly, whether wheelchair space was available on board. We were recently awarded Travel App of the Year.

The NBS also covers climate change, and the need for a green overhaul in the bus sector. We’re delighted to see this is a focus and are proud to be making substantial progress in this area already. Back in Spring 2020, First Bus pledged that we would only invest in low and zero-emission vehicles from December 2022, with the aim of achieving a 100% zero-emission fleet by 2035. Work to meet this ambition is already underway. We’ve recently announced that we are acquiring an additional 126 electric buses for the city of Glasgow, with support from the Scottish Ultra Low Emission Bus (SULEB) scheme. This will bring the number of new electric buses bound for Glasgow to 150, and these buses will operate from our Caledonia depot which is currently undergoing work to become the UK’s largest EV depot.

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges ahead. The NBS provides direction, and a long-term vision for the future of buses; it isn’t however a delivery plan. To implement the Government’s vision, we’ll need a roadmap that marks out timelines and responsibilities for all stakeholders. Timescales are tight; the Bus Service Improvement Plans have to be finished by end October 2021 and the Enhanced Partnerships in place by April 2022. It is important that haste doesn’t become the enemy of the good. We need well considered plans, which make the best use of the funding available. We need our local authority partners to take the necessary hard decisions on how best to allocate road space.

But so far so good. We’re pleased that our own strategy and sustainability commitments align with those of the Government. We’re eager to hear how additional funding from the Government will empower us and our industry counterparts to make further positive changes and truly ‘level-up’ bus.

First says it is pleased that much of what it is doing aligns with the NBS, but remains keen to see how the Government’s plans will allow it, and the wider industry, to build on this. JONATHAN WELCH