Zero hour

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Optare’s Metrodecker EV is the vehicle of choice for the York Park & Ride service, which First operates under contract to the City Council. FIRST YORK

Shortly after First Bus announced its intention to operate an entirely zero-emissions fleet by 2035 back in July, Peter Jackson spoke to its Managing Director Giles Fearnley and Director of Strategy John Dowie to find out more about how it expects achieve its target

CBW: What has your focus been on recently, besides of course protecting passengers and staff on your buses from Covid-19?

Giles: The fact that we’re in these very strange times has dramatically accelerated the speed with which we’re bringing forward customer features which are particularly important for right now. One is Bookmybusride, another is Space Checker, which we’re planning to introduce across all our businesses within four weeks. These launches have also coincided with the 21 new electric double-deckers for the York Park & Ride network, so there’s been a lot going on in a short space of time. Our focus has been on doing all we can to make it easy for customers to use buses and to encourage them back.

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CBW: Why have you chosen this moment to push ahead with your zero-emissions plans? A lot of companies have taken a step back in recent times.

John: I think from our point of view, we’ve got to kick off and start shaping the future. If First – and the bus sector as a whole – becomes introverted, and is just focusing purely on surviving the day-to-day, that’s going to jeopardise the exit from Covid. There are lots of challenges here – how is patronage going to come back, what’s going to happen to the city centre market, what about retail and so on.

All of these challenges are very clear, but the way to address them is really to press on with what we all know and the key elements of success. There’s the customer offer, which we’ve been demonstrating through Covid in terms of the very quick adoption of new functionality on our app for example. We’ve worked really hard to give people the confidence to use buses, implementing social distancing measures, marking out seats etc.

We need as we exit Covid to build on contactless and the move towards fare capping – all of that is still as important as ever, so we need to press on with it. The shift to zero is the same. 2035 is 15 years away but if we don’t crack on now – if we do nothing for a couple of years – we’ll miss it. We need to create the future, not just say ‘woe is us’ and ‘isn’t Covid terrible.’

Giles: There’s no question that clean air is good for us all, including the bus industry. We want to do all we can to support our local authority partners as the pressure mounts on them – particularly post-Covid – to introduce low-emission zones and clean air zones and so forth. So we want to be crystal clear that First Bus’ commitment to zero emissions will apply in each and every area we operate in.

Wrightbus is keen to push its hydrogen fuel cell offering. RICHARD SHARMAN

CBW: In terms of the fleet makeup, do you see electric being the primary choice from this point forward?

John: We are very much viewing two options as being pathways to zero. I think in the end we’ll have to see, because it could be a bit like VHS and Betamax – one may win out. But it’s too early to say. Electric has strengths; clearly a lot of R&D has gone into it, and battery technology has been progressing rapidly, but it’s still not a mature product for all uses. Single-deckers are getting there, but the greater weight of double-deckers is still an issue in terms of range – they’re just not good enough yet for mainstream applications. There’s also a lot of work to do in terms of connecting up depots to the electricity grid.

Hydrogen could fulfil a role. It’s got a greater range and can be refuelled quickly – five minutes as long as you’ve got the refuelling capacity – but its problem is cost, which needs to come down. Wrightbus and Ryse, overseen by Jo Bamford, have been very articulate over the last few months about giving hydrogen an opportunity, pointing out that volume purchase will drive down costs.

So, let’s see what hydrogen can do, because for longer-distance and more interurban bus networks with more hills, it could be a really important part of the mix provided costs can be reduced.

Giles: We’re really excited to be taking 15 hydrogen double-deckers for Aberdeen. We’ve had first-generation hydrogen buses for some time, but now we’re moving to the latest generation which will be a great opportunity for us to understand the product as we plan ahead. They would have been with us by now if not for Covid, but currently they’re expected to arrive in early autumn.

CBW: Of course there is still 15 years to go before 2035; do you see biogas playing a role in the transition to zero emissions?

John: Biogas definitely has a role in our West of England market. We’ve got 77 ADL Enviro400CBG-bodied Scanias there now, and Bristol Community Transport runs more on its metrobus services under contract to us. We are certainly envisaging that we will bring more biogas into that fleet, which is part of the reason for the December 2022 cut-off for buying the last of the diesels. In a market with quite a lot of hills, when hydrogen is still too expensive (unless Government comes forward with more generous support) and electric is going to struggle (our hybrids struggled in Bath), biogas definitely has a role to play. It delivers a reduction in CO2 emissions of between 80 and 85%, so it’s a really good intermediate option – it’s just not zero at tailpipe.

Giles: We believe that by 2023 we will have absolute confidence in the electric and hydrogen products to be able to turn off diesel. Between now and then, we will take some more diesels, but we will progressively be taking more electrics – we have some exciting plans for next year and the year after.

John: I think a big part of this is that we need to break away from the recent past, where Government funding has been very piecemeal. When it comes to electric and hydrogen, we’ve had 10 vehicles here, five there and so on – the exciting thing about biogas is that we’ve been able to deliver volume.

Government funding rounds are divided up between lots of winners, but what the sector really needs – and First is absolutely convinced of this – is volume. That’s where we are in discussion with Government, where the Prime Minister’s talk of 4,000 zero-emission buses over the next four years is absolutely crucial. We all need to step up our acts, this is no longer about playing around at the margin.

Biogas still has a place in First’s fleet – how long for depends on how zero-emission technologies progress. PETER JACKSON

CBW: What was the process behind the electrification of the York Park & Ride service?

Giles: We’ve been operating the service for many years, and successfully held it via a re-tendering in 2017. At the time, we bid to convert all but one route to operate using electric double-deckers, which was an ambition of the council which we absolutely shared. There have been some delays, because that bid at the time of that tender was perhaps a little bit ahead of the manufacturing sector for double-decker electric buses – and of course most recently, Covid has got in the way.

But finally we’ve taken delivery of these 21 vehicles, which will join the 12 electric single-deck Optares which have been running on the Park & Ride network for six or seven years. The combined fleet of 33 electrics is clearly very substantial, and in terms of a city network, will be the greatest proportion in any fleet in any city across the UK which is electric right now. It’s really exciting, and we have greater ambitions in York for electric. We’re bidding with the City Council on the Department for Transport (DfT)’s electric bus town funding; I think York would be a phenomenally good place to do that. We could do it there very quickly, and we’d be working with a City Council who are very much pro-bus. They would implement further car restraint measures into the city centre, so the whole thing would come together very well – and very quickly.

CBW: How well do you think First will be able to bounce back post-Covid?

John: It’s very interesting how the market is rebuilding itself, and I think we’re feeling cautiously optimistic at the moment. We got down to the depths in April and May where out patronage was down to about 12% of normal levels, which was a very depressing place to be. Fortunately Government recognised the central role of bus in supporting the economy through the emergency, so that helped us to carry on meeting essential needs. Patronage has been rebuilding itself, and we now have markets above 50%, which is perhaps a little above where I expected we’d be.

Giles: I would echo what John said, but coupled with that, the mood music on the clean air agenda – with Boris talking about the green recovery – means we feel very well-placed. We want to make sure we’re working with our local authority partners so that they can rely on us and trust us to deliver what they’re looking for, to ensure that bus really does play its full role in all our urban networks – particularly over the coming years.