Following sustained lobbying from JCB heir Jo Bamford, the transport secretary is backing a hydrogen bus town experiment

 
Shapps: I think we can also steal a march on other places in the world by having British bus manufacturers lead the market

 
Transport secretary Grant Shapps is “very, very keen that we push hydrogen” and will announce plans for a ‘hydrogen bus town’.

Local authorities have already been invited to apply to become the UK’s first all-electric bus town. The winning area will receive up to £50m to help pay for a brand-new fleet of electric buses, reducing emissions and cleaning up the air in their community.

Appearing before the House of Commons Transport Select Committee this week, Shapps said: “I will also be following that up with an announcement in the future about going for hydrogen buses, a hydrogen bus town experiment.”

Shapps expects the project to be of particular interest to the UK’s three major bus builders – Alexander Dennis, Optare and Wrightbus. Meanwhile, he said: “To the public, the advantage again of not being on a bus, or stuck behind a bus, which is spewing out goodness knows what, will be a fantastic innovation”. (The transport secretary might be surprised to learn that a modern diesel bus produces fewer harmful NOx emissions than a modern diesel car, despite having 15 to 20 times to the carrying capacity!)

Wrightbus owner and JCB heir Jo Bamford has led a vigorous pro-hydrogen bus campaign in recent months. Bamford rescued Northern Ireland-based Wrightbus from administration last year. He saw an opportunity to combine the company’s expertise in producing hydrogen-fuelled vehicles, with the experience of his Ryse Hydrogen venture in hydrogen production and refuelling. His father, Lord Bamford, is a major donor to the Conservative Party, providing £3.9m during last year’s general election campaign.

In April, Bamford put forward a vision for a UK-built, 3,000-strong hydrogen bus fleet across the country, arguing that zero carbon, UK-made hydrogen technologies must play a pivotal role in driving the UK economy forward. He was also among the signatories of a letter to Shapps that challenged the government’s “deliberate” and “misjudged” bias against hydrogen buses in its pursuit of decarbonising public transport. The letter also called for an “all hydrogen bus town”.

We’ve talked quite a bit about electric before but I’m very, very keen that we push hydrogen forward

The campaign appears to have resonated with Shapps, who told MPs: “We’ve talked quite a bit about electric before but I’m very, very keen that we push hydrogen – which could be a British manufactured, all-British manufactured bus as well – forward.”

He added: “I have some concerns, that will need to be overcome, with hydrogen … At the moment very little of our hydrogen is produced in an entirely green fashion.

“We do need to learn some lessons from having pilots first, but I am extremely ambitious on it … and I believe we can do it as a country. And I think we can also steal a march on other places in the world by having British bus manufacturers lead the market as well on hydrogen.”

Shapps said that the government was not biased in favour of any particular propulsion technology. “Our ambition is not to get to only electric buses, it’s to get to clean buses,” he said. “That could be electric, that could be hydrogen, that could be other forms of energy which haven’t been broadly thought about yet.”

The £5bn that was announced for cycling, walking AND buses, there’s £3bn of that that we have yet to allocate … there’s £3bn of investment in buses yet to come

And he suggested that the step-change in government funding for buses announced earlier this year could be used to acquire 4,000 new buses. “The £5bn that was announced for cycling, walking AND buses, there’s £3bn of that that we have yet to allocate … there’s £3bn of investment in buses yet to come,” he said. “I think we think we’ll be able to buy something like 4,000 new buses as part of that investment, and do many other things. And we want those buses to be using cutting edge and environmentally friendly technologies.”

Jo Bamford welcomed the support from Shapps for hydrogen bus technology. “We’re delighted that the secretary of state shares our vision and belief that the UK can lead the world in hydrogen technology,” he said.

“As the producer of the world’s-first double decker hydrogen bus, we have been encouraging the government to consider a hydrogen bus town as we believe this will be a brilliant showcase of the vital role that zero-emission hydrogen buses – all of which can be produced and manufactured in the UK – can play in improving air quality.

Hydrogen buses are essential for longer routes and heavy usage, as they can do many more miles than an electric bus and take only five minutes to be refuelled

“Hydrogen buses are essential for longer routes and heavy usage, as they can do many more miles than an electric bus and take only five minutes to be refuelled.

“The secretary of state’s leadership and support can kick the hydrogen economy into full swing and will be a much needed shot in the arm for UK jobs and the UK economy. We stand ready to work with authorities looking to become the first ever hydrogen bus town.”

Growth of road traffic levels is a concern

Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South, pointed out that road traffic levels have already increased to 70% of pre-lockdown levels. She asked Shapps if he was concerned by the potential for long term behavioural change as people avoid public transport and chose to drive instead, and that traffic might exceed pre-lockdown levels.

“It’s an excellent question,” he responded. “I do think we have to be very conscious of this point. After all, we are quite literally signalling to people to avoid public transport, which, as I have been saying through this crisis, must make me the first transport secretary in history to actively discourage people from using the system that we put so much time and attention into building. And one of the options – it should be said, after walking or cycling – is indeed to drive, because right now it prevents the overcrowding on the public transport system that we are working so hard to protect.”

Shapps said that the return of road traffic levels to 70% of pre-lockdown levels was “not I think as an indication that we’re 70% of people travelling again but rather that there is a transfer from public transport onto the roads”. He added: “Of course it must be a concern that we don’t end up bedding in long term changes of the wrong type in that process.”

However, Shapps declined Greenwood’s suggestion that he might want to set targets for traffic level reductions in the “slightly longer term”, believing that car ownership is losing is allure without the need for government intervention.

I don’t have a sort of ideological bent against the car. I think it’s fine for people to use cars

“No, I don’t have a sort of ideological bent against the car,” he said. “I think it’s fine for people to use cars. However, I think it is inevitably the case, and I am really enthusiastic about it, that car ownership will probably change. People will use car sharing services more, when we can all sit together, even clever algorithms that mean an automated car comes to you, picks you up and then picks somebody else up on its route to the ultimate destination.

Shapps said that his own children were at the age where they were starting to drive, but their attitude towards getting a car and wanting to start driving is quite different to when he learnt to drive.

“I think there is already a sort of different attitude,” he said, “and that comes about because it’s so much easier to have an app and call a taxi or a private hire vehicle than it was.”

Will the government continue to fund bus operators?

Robert Largan, Conservative MP for High Peak, asked whether bus operators would continue to receive subsidy payments from the government until social distancing ends. The current funding arrangement expires in early August, but social distancing looks set to continue beyond that. And the reduction of the require social distance from two metres to one metre plus will do little to enhance the carrying capacity of buses.

Shapps responded: “I think it is fairly obvious if I say that, you know, if you’re not able to run your services with 100% capacity then it is of course difficult to make those services profitable. So let me just put it on the table and be completely blunt with you.”

It’s going to continue to be challenging

He did not give any commitment to extend funding to bus operators beyond early August, but he added: “I make no bones about it, of course it is extremely challenging to run public transport services, including the buses, whilst at the same time sending the message to please try and avoid them unless you have exhausted other options. And as a result, you’re right, it’s going to continue to be challenging.”

Memorial for transport workers at Victoria?

Responding to a question from Grahame Morris, Labour MP for Easington, Shapps said: “I have spoken to the union and others about doing something in the slightly longer term to commemorate transport workers’ extraordinary input and effort to assist the country in this time of crisis. Perhaps with some of commemoration or memorial, and perhaps even a Victoria Station where Belly Mujinga worked but sadly died … I think that might be an appropriate location to remember all transport workers during this crisis”

 
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