Coach operators deserve better

This is a message for the London Mayor and every city and town currently planning rules for coaches in low-emission zones – you’ve failed before you started.

When your LEZ begins, with its ‘Euro VI or pay’ ultimatum for coaches, you’ll have almost exactly the same mix of vehicles you had before, and any notion you had of reducing overall coach emissions will be sunk. The reason? Appalling levels of stasis in developing a policy for retrofit coach emissions systems.

If it didn’t make me so angry, it would be laughable. The government has either convinced itself that coaches are just buses, or decided that the nettle is too toxic to grasp. Everyone from the Low CVP to the CPT, operators and emissions specialists have explained that almost every coach is different, but progress is glacial.

The problem is the cost of certifying retrofit Euro VI systems, with hugely expensive test cycles at Millbrook. If you have 250 Enviro200s to retrofit, there’s no problem. These buses are more or less identical, so one certification test covers the lot. But there is no such thing as a ‘standard’ coach – they vary in manufacturer, body type, body length, engine, transmission and whether they are on chassis or integral.

Outside of the National Express fleet, I doubt it’s possible to line up 250 identical Euro V coaches, much less getting their operators to commit to converting them, so there is absolutely no economic case for certifying coaches using the same, stringent regime as used for buses. Exhaust systems exist which can do the job. What’s missing is a reality check. There needs to be a workable certification route for coaches.

Operators with Euro V coaches bought new are discovering something uncomfortable; their asset value is now much lower than predicted because of the rush to create Euro VI LEZs. Now at least £20,000 behind where they thought they’d be with each coach, those operators would consider a certified Euro VI emissions kit. But it doesn’t exist.

Those operators who invested £250,000-plus in Euro VI coaches may not ‘clean up’ in the LEZs for a simple, economic reason; their hire prices will need to reflect the depreciation of a new vehicle. Suddenly, operators with £150,000 Euro Vs, having already sweated the depreciation, may find that even after paying the £100 LEZ fee, they can compete not only with Euro VI operators but with each other.

So while local authorities may scoop a windfall of £100 fees, the coach mix entering the LEZ will be more or less the same. The tiny proportion of emissions coming from coaches in city centres will not change. Nor does it need to, because coaches aren’t causing the problem.

So here’s a plea to local authorities. If you are serious about reducing inner-city pollution, create the infrastructure for good coach and bus services, make access by private cars difficult or expensive, and set your ambition at getting more Euro V coaches on to your streets. The modal shift will do more to address air quality issues than you can ever achieve by aping Sadiq Khan’s Utopian dream.

Coach operators and local authorities are being let down by a heel-dragging approach to Euro VI retrofit, and we are now at the point of no return. Big investment decisions in Euro VI equipment must be based on the certainty that every visit to an LEZ saves £100. That still does not exist.

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