• York Rotary

First Bus, Covid, and Climate Change

Updated: Nov 7, 2021

Russ reports...

On October 29th John Birtwistle, Head of Policy for First Bus, gave a passionate speech about how Covid had affected bus travel and then continued to detail how First Bus are addressing climate change. First Bus operate some 5000 vehicles in UK, including a fleet of 103 in York (33 electric), the purple and violet single and double deckers which operate most town services, the green and white electric vehicles and the silver bendy-bus park and ride services. York Electric Double-deckers

Covid had a massive effect on bus usage, with many commuters and school children not travelling and people being positively encouraged not to use buses, and to get the car out. Whilst having to maintain full service schedules for essential workers, but with only a fraction, ten per cent, of the income from fares, the financial strain during the lockdowns was severe.

Since ‘freedom day’ in July, bus travel has recovered to some 70% of its pre-Covid levels, with leisure travel recovering fully. Special measures such as inserting little blocks to prevent passengers closing windows completely, and deep cleaning of vehicles has hopefully reduced Covid transmission, but the biggest single preventative measure, mask-wearing, is unenforceable. One positive is the use of passes and card-swipe technology so very few fares are now paid in cash, a time consuming process, which Covid has helped to eliminate.

Government funding has helped and a Bus Services Improvement Plan is about to be agreed with local authorities, leading to an enhanced partnership to improve services over the next five years. New ticketing systems, ‘apps’ so people can find out how full a bus is, and predictive occupancy from past bus usage all being researched.

Moving on to climate changes, John described the various options open for adopting electric vehicles. Battery buses are fine for short urban services where the vehicle travels fewer than 200 miles on a shift, but for inter-urban routes, range is insufficient. Short bursts of recharging, around fifteen minutes, such as the pantograph system in Harrogate bus station allow a top-up, but development of battery technology to avert range-anxiety will be the only way to allow widespread adoption of battery powered vehicles. 2035 is the target for complete zero-emission buses, and First plan to buy no diesel vehicles after 2022. The national grid also insufficient to support all-electric at present, especially if home heating converts from gas to heat-pumps (which use electricity). The way to go is hydrogen.

John with Russ Rollings (l) and President David

There have been a few experiments in London using hydrogen, but the first extensive use of hydrogen is in Aberdeen where First Bus (whose HQ is in the city) is trialling fifteen hydrogen double-deckers.

Costing at least double that of a similar diesel-powered vehicle, it is a high investment strategy, especially as separate depot facilities, hydrogen storage, refuelling and servicing premises need to be built. Hydrogen and diesel vehicles do not mix safely in the same workshop. Road space is still a problem even if many people go to electric cars. Why not invest in excellent public transport?

Russ with one of the 15 Aberdeen hydrogen buses, introduced in 2021

John’s talk stimulated a range of questions from how bus services could be improved for rural areas, why electric buses were still noisy (the diesel engine had previously masked other noises such as rattling internal Perspex panels) to why use of Royal Mail buses couldn’t be extended. Sadly the last Scottish mailbus had just been withdrawn, since with the driver popping out to make deliveries, protracted journey times were no longer acceptable.

Thanking John for a speech with a very powerful message, probably made even more direct without the distraction of PowerPoint, it was noted that York could ‘hold its head high’ having operated buses with zero emissions at-point-of-use, on and off, for over a century..........

York battery bus recharging at Clifton Green “Electric Vehicle Charging Station” in 1915. These operated from 1915 to about 1920.

York tram approaching Lendal Bridge, pursued by its nemesis, a diesel bus. Electric trams took over from horses in 1910 and the last York tram ran in November 1935.

York trolley bus in East Parade, Heworth in 1931. Trolleybuses worked from 1920 and were withdrawn in 1929, reintroduced in 1931, closing for good in January 1935.

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