EXCLUSIVE: General optimism but still difficult operating environment – SMMT
In an exclusive Q&A session with B&CB, Will Reeves, Bus and Coach Section Manager at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), tells us optimism is coming back, but says we are still facing a very challenging operating environment.
Registrations have been seen to improve in 2022, albeit still below 2019 levels. How likely are we to see continued growth in 2023?
“There is a general feeling of optimism in the sector that 2023 will see increased confidence and orders as passenger numbers continue to recover, with 3.09 billion journeys in the first half of last year, up 55% on the same period in 2021. Registration levels are largely dependent on ridership and operating conditions, so the 8% uptick in the first three quarters of 2022 was positive, if unsurprising given that services were able to remain open after lockdown periods in the previous year. The pandemic inevitably put the brakes on the sector, more so than the LCV, HGV and car sectors, and the long-term decline in routes and ridership has meant bus and coach has been slower to bounce back.
“The sector is resilient and should grow this year in key areas such as zero-emission single- and double-decker buses, with bus orders via government’s Zero Emission Bus Regional Area (ZEBRA) fund – being placed in more areas around the UK – and expected to reach the road this year and next. There were almost 1,090 buses registered by the end of Q3 last year and, considering that ZEBRA funding is expected to deliver nearly 1,270 vehicles this year and next, we are on the road to growth. Crucially, this would help to ensure that everyone has access to affordable zero-emission transport.”
What will be the main factors affecting bus and coach registrations in 2023?
“There’s a clear demand from the sector to ensure that ZEBRA funding, announced in autumn 2021, is being delivered at greater pace, but currently only 17 local authorities are funded with some 48 areas yet to receive any. Registration levels will of course be affected by the rate of roll-out. Government plans such as the Bus Back Better scheme and Get Around for £2 have potential to have an impact. However, we are still experiencing a very challenging operating environment, particularly in the coach sector, with changes in working patterns and economic challenges affecting journey numbers, in turn impacting on the viability of fleet renewal.
“However, we are still experiencing a very challenging operating environment, particularly in the coach sector, with changes in working patterns and economic challenges affecting journey numbers, in turn impacting on the viability of fleet renewal”
“Minibuses too are a key segment and proposed changes to driver license regulations could allow more people to drive these utilitarian vehicles, in turn raising demand, however the industry is still waiting for a decision from government.
“Manufacturers have the tech and capacity to deliver the latest low- and zero-emission vehicles, but not everyone is ready to invest. There is no quick fix and all stakeholders need to develop a long-term plan: infrastructure to support zero-emission vehicles will be a necessary part of this, especially for the unique use cases of coaches. Successful decarbonisation can only be achieved with a nationally coordinated and locally delivered plan to deliver heavy ZEV charging and refuelling stations ahead of need.”
How much of a factor will government funding be?
“While ridership is returning following Covid, it is still below pre-pandemic levels, and so more financial and fiscal support is needed to keep services running and encourage fleet renewal. Government has pledged 4,000 buses in this parliament, however, so far only around 1,300 have been funded via ZEBRA in England and nearly 350 in Scotland through the Scottish Green Bus Fund, so there is scope for further delivery. This is very important given the impact that these vehicles have on boosting mobility, decarbonisation and reducing congestion.
“While ridership is returning following Covid, it is still below pre-pandemic levels, and so more financial and fiscal support is needed to keep services running and encourage fleet renewal”
“Other interventions to protect routes and ridership levels are also welcome, such as Transport for London’s additional £25 million per year to prevent bus service cuts, ensuring all-important mobility for people that are unable to drive a car. The funding provided so far is a good start but momentum needs to continue. One way this can be achieved is by providing more local authorities with the opportunity to secure funding, as well as support for the costs of installing charging infrastructure at depots.”
How likely is the industry to see a return to 2019 figures?
“While single- and double-decker registrations have continued to rise each quarter in 2022, bus passenger journeys were still more than a quarter below pre-pandemic levels, with some way to go before we return to the registration levels not only of 2019 but previously higher years. This is unlikely to be achieved in 2023 alone, however, the sector remains confident that this year will bring continued success. We are only at the start of a huge transition to net-zero public transport, with manufacturers developing and delivering the next generation of electric and hydrogen buses and coaches. It means that we have the opportunity to return to 2019 levels and beyond with new zero-emission buses and coaches that will deliver on the UK ambitious green targets, bringing with it significant cost and environmental benefits for the sector and public alike.”