It’s been a bumpy ride for bus operators since the coronavirus pandemic saw passenger volumes plunge in March, but First Bus wants to talk about the future. We spoke to Giles Fearnley and John Dowie

Giles Fearnley: ‘Bus has to be the solution in every urban centre … So we are very, very well placed’

The UK bus industry remains in the midst of a crisis. Bus use is steadily recovering, yet it remains well short of pre-Covid levels. The need to maintain social distancing has drastically reduced the capacity on vehicles, making it impossible for services to cover their costs without support from government. And that support is set to expire within days, with bus operators crossing their fingers for a new, extended arrangement.

It might therefore seem like an odd time to start talking about the future, and the role that the bus should play within in, but that’s what First Bus is now doing.

“Why now? … Never a better time,” explains Giles Fearnley, who has been managing director of First Bus for the past nine years. “We are cautiously optimistic for the future of bus despite what we’ve been through, and loadings are beginning to come back nicely now.”

Fearnley is keen to talk about First’s plans to push buses through the recovery period and on the route to a ‘zero carbon’ future. Despite the economic impact of Covid-19, the group believes that the public transport sector must show ambition and lead this agenda. For its part, First recently announced that it will purchase no more diesel buses after 2022, and will move to zero-emissions by 2035.

This commitment is aligned with FirstGroup’s new sustainability strategic framework, Mobility Beyond Today. The framework highlights the group’s desire to be a leader across three priority areas: innovating for customers, being the partner of choice for low and zero-emission transport, and supporting its people.

Fearnley continues: “The recovery is green … The demand to the clean air is even greater than it was before lockdown. And we wanted to get out there right now so we can talk to the public about it and make sure that all our key stakeholders, local authorities right across the country, understand our ambition and have confidence that we will be delivering for them in the clean air space as they are bringing forward their plans.”

We can support them to be more ambitious and that will be a great result

“They are under ever more pressure to introduce restrictions and requirements, so we really want to play our part, as we always try to in First, with our stakeholders in saying to them, ‘you can have absolute confidence that we will deliver’ … We can support them to be more ambitious and that will be a great result.”

Our Zoom meeting with Fearnley also featured John Dowie, a former civil servant who joined First Bus as director, local strategies, in 2016. Both he and Fearnley offer a number of reasons to be positive about the future for buses in the UK.

People are returning to buses

When the coronavirus pandemic began to escalate in the UK in the second half of March, First Bus experienced a 90% drop in patronage within a matter of days. Four and a half months later, lockdown restrictions have eased and passengers are returning. Fearnley reports that some networks have now seen patronage reach 50% of pre-Covid levels, despite severe capacity restrictions on vehicles due to social distancing.

As a division, across the whole of England, Scotland and Wales, patronage is currently at 40-41% of pre-Covid levels. This is despite Wales, which accounts for 6% of the division, continuing to run a reduced timetable because there is still no deal with the Welsh assembly on recovery funding.

Dowie is interested in the changing pattern of demand. The nine-to-five commuting market has not yet returned so the peak period graph now resembles a “Cape Town mountain-type plateau rather than the traditional bull’s horns”, with new peak between 11am and 3pm. That might change in the autumn when the schools return, but Dowie is encouraged that there is still plenty of available capacity in the traditional morning and evening peak periods.

As more people return to buses, First Bus is taking steps to reassure them about their journeys. In June it launched an update to its mobile app that enables customers across the UK to live track not only the location of their next bus but also its available capacity. Complementing this initiative, a new ‘Space Checker‘ tool for passengers has launched in Glasgow, using data analysis to predict how busy given buses will be depending on the time of day.

Fearnley says that while the live tracking data is very useful, there is always a risk that available capacity may have been taken up by the time a passenger attempts to board a vehicle.

The Space Checker is taking us into a whole new world

“The Space Checker is taking us into a whole new world, where we are using real data and feeding that into predictive models effectively, and therefore showing through heatmaps, through all the hours of the day, and the days of the week, what our experience and knowledge,” he explains. “And the predictions will also be picking up what’s happening in the economy, so assuming forward not just looking back, as to which are the busier buses and which are the quieter buses.”

Space Checker, which was created in partnership with Prospective, will be expanded across the rest of the UK before the end of August, and will operate independently from the real time capacity tracker on the First Bus app.

“We see them as entirely complementary.” Dowie adds, “because you use Space Checker to take broad decisions about what time of day you will travel. You use the roadside measure [on the app] of actual buses heading towards you just to allow you to decide which bus you are going to try and board etc.”

Although these tools have been developed to address the immediate challenge of limited capacity on buses, Fearnley believes that this kind of information will continue to be offered after the current crisis has passed.

“Yes, we are planning permanent stuff here,” he says. “Absolutely.”

Dowie points out that these tools could provide ongoing reassurance for wheelchair users, who have concerns about whether there space for them on buses. “This is a brilliant tool for them, regardless of Covid,” he says.

First Bus has meanwhile begun a trial in the West of England for the first ever system for booking spaces on scheduled buses across the country, ‘Book my bus ride’.

As part of the trial, customers travelling on the Brislington Park and Ride service will be able to book their space ahead of their journey. This will be extended to journeys on the 3a service from Batheaston to Weston in Bath from August 3 and on the T1 service between Bristol and Thornbury from August 10. Bookable buses on these services will be renumbered as 3b and T1b to denote that booking is available.

The initiative is being trialled by First West of England in partnership with the West of England Combined Authority and is believed to be the first system of its kind operating on regular, scheduled bus services in the UK.

Decarbonising transport

Amid all the gloom as bus patronage collapsed in late March, the Department for Transport published a Decarbonising Transport document that placed modal shift to public transport at the centre of its vision to decarbonise transport. In the foreword, transport secretary Grant Shapps wrote: “We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.”

Dowie was encouraged by this development, but he also has concerns. “The really big, big positive is that they were clearly, explicitly talking the language of modal shift and talking the language of a hierarchy of transport users, with car lower down the hierarchy,” he says. “That is a tremendously important strategic signal, so I attach a lot of importance to that.”

However, Dowie and his colleagues want to see these words turned into action. He cites the government’s £1.4bn Transforming Cities Fund, which sought to invest £1.4bn in bus and cycling enhancements in selected cities, as an example of a well-meaning initiative that fell short.

He explains: “I think it didn’t quite fulfil its ambition because at the end of the day they were still stuck in what I might call old-style thinking.”

This thinking meant that it was regarded as a ‘disbenefit’ if a scheme diverted cars into the rest of the road network, and those cars were more congested, because priority was given to buses.

In 2020 we should not be having this debate. It does not sit with the carbon emergency, does it?

“I was really, really disappointed that DfT still was stuck on that. In our experience, not all but most of the authorities that were proposing real modal shift measures, real bus prioritisation, had to do more work because it was generating car disbenefits … In 2020 we should not be having this debate. It does not sit with the carbon emergency, does it?”

He is also concerned that while the prime minister is happy to talk about buses, and has pledged to invest in 4,000 new low carbon buses, DfT carbon strategies and statements continue to shy away from talking about them explicitly.

“Bus is still not getting a lot of attention in these strategies explicitly, and that runs back through previous carbon strategies and statements,” he explains. “Bus is a bit of a footnote when we think bus should be centre stage, that we as a sector are up for this. We think on the basis of Boris’ 4,000 buses that central government is up for this, so why are we not getting on with it rather than appearing as a sort of afterthought footnote.”

Decarbonising First Bus

First Bus recently announced that it will purchase no more diesel buses after 2022, and will move to zero-emissions by 2035.

The group this week launched the roll out of the UK’s biggest zero emission park and ride fleet. The first of 21 new all-electric double-deckers entered service on the York Park & Ride network, a partnership between First York and City of York Council, starting with the Askham Bar corridor to the south west of the city. The full order of Metrodecker EVs, manufactured by Optare, will be brought into operation this summer, replacing existing diesel vehicles in an investment totalling £9.3m. It will see the fully electric fleet on York Park & Ride expand to 33 buses.

The group is open minded about which low carbon technology solution to employ. Jo Bamford, the owner of Northern Ireland-based Wrightbus, has piled pressure on the government to back his hydrogen bus vision, but Dowie can see merits in both electric and hydrogen.

“I can readily imagine that in 10-15 years’ time one of them might emerge as the clear winner, but at the moment they have got different strengths and weaknesses,” he says.

“Electric has had the benefits of huge international investment, batteries, energy intensity is improving, the single decker is a serious mainstream product. Double-decker not quite so. But they’re still banging up against range limitations.

“By contrast hydrogen, much much better offer in terms of range, refuelling in five minutes, that’s great, that’s closer to being a diesel substitute, but they cost a lot more.”

He continues: “I think we have to see which wins out. At the moment we keep our options open because actually electric is better for an urban sort of distance market, hydrogen potentially has a role for longer distance, interurban markets. So we’ll ride both horses now.”

An extended government support package

With no prospect of running a commercial service, the industry is waiting to discover what funding arrangements the government will put in place to support bus operators during August and beyond.

In England, an initial £167m ‘COVID-19 Bus Services Support Grant’ covered the provision of vital bus services over the 12 weeks between March 17 and June 8. And from May 12, when the government allowed non-essential workers in England to return to work, a new £254m ‘COVID-19 Bus Service Support Grant Restart’ programme began, covering the 12 weeks to August 3.

I am entirely confident there will be a helpful announcement imminently

“Government is addicted to short term decision making so I am entirely confident there will be a helpful announcement imminently,” says Dowie. “It has repeatedly been done on short term, limited chunks of funding and agreed at short notice. That’s just life isn’t it sometimes, dealing with government. But we are hopeful this time round that the settlement that will take forward from the beginning of August will perhaps have a longer time horizon. Let’s hope.”

He continues: “Clearly it’s essential because although patronage is coming back, social distancing at 45-50% does mean that we can’t run a commercial bus service with that degree of social distancing, so we do need government support to be ready for school return in September. Government gets that.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

In February, before the coronavirus pandemic arrived in the UK, prime minster Boris Johnson announced a step-change in government funding for buses. In a statement to parliament, Johnson announced £5bn of new funding to overhaul bus and cycle links for every region outside London, and £3bn of that planned investment in buses has yet to be allocated.

A month later everything was thrown up in the air, but Fearnley believes that the bus industry can regain its passengers, and regain its position on the national agenda.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” he says. “[The pandemic] did get in the way of all the good we were doing, but through this pandemic we’ve seen the chatter about clean air, emissions zones and all that goes with it rise up the agenda. Boris is very clear, this is going to be a green recovery, and we know all our local authorities are under ever more pressure to deliver clean air in their areas. So bus is absolutely there to do it.

We are very, very well placed

“Bus has to be the solution in every urban centre to achieve what public, let alone the politicians and indeed the legislation, is going to require. So we are very, very well placed.”

He continues: “I think the industry has shown in the last four or five months now, just how adept it is, how agile it is, and we talked about some of these initiatives earlier, how customer-focused we are.

“I think we are in a very good position, I’m very confident to move forward and grasp this agenda very quickly. And what Boris says about 4,000 buses again, and all the mood music, reassures us as well that we are up there. We really are an essential service and we can deliver, and we’re demonstrating that we can and will deliver.”

While acknowledging that the next few months will be “a rough ride”, Fearnley remains upbeat. “We have some great markets,” he says. “We had great markets pre-Covid. We will have great markets post-Covid. No question, and we will play our full part.”

Dowie believes that the extra funding that Johnson announced in February will play an important role.

“We believe the [unallocated] £3bn is still there, so that gives us confidence. It’s from ’21/22, but it is still there. It will help power us out of this challenging period.”

He also points out that the role of bus as “an essential service” was recognised by government during the crisis.

“If you compare where we are with the aviation sector, they feel really really battered and mugged by the whole process,” he says. “They still haven’t had any significant targeted support from government … In comparison we had a deal from the beginning of April.”

In addition to the promise of extra funding, the bus industry also succeeded in lobbying for a National Bus Strategy before the pandemic pounced. The good news is that this has not slipped off the agenda.

Dowie has heard suggestions that there might be an interim ‘bus recovery plan’ in the Autumn, followed by a full National Bus Strategy next year, but this could change.

“Whatever the date, National Bus Strategy is regularly mentioned by ministers as well as civil servants,” says Fearnley. “It is absolutely on their agenda.”

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