Taskforce driving forward rural bus zero-emission transition

In an event hosted at the House of Commons, the CPT-led Rural Zero Emission Bus Taskforce (RZEBT) launched a report outlining how rural areas can drive forward a transition to green buses.

Entitled ‘Delivering Zero Emission Bus Services to Rural Areas’, the report suggests the creation of local transport energy taskforces, the sharing of recharging points and a sustained investment programme from government are needed to ensure rural bus services can transition to net-zero in the coming years.

Formed in summer 2023, the Taskforce includes leaders from the bus, manufacturing and energy supply industries. Its report sets out how, by working in partnership, rural areas can become a driving force for the UK’s transition to a zero-emission bus fleet. It includes positive quick-win, cost-neutral solutions to help rural bus operators successfully transition to zero-emission vehicles.

The report recommends a key role for Local Transport Authorities in establishing Local Transport Energy Taskforces with bus operators and other key local stakeholders. CPT claims these will help determine a decarbonisation strategy for the area which prioritises energy for buses and identifies shared infrastructure sites, as well as expediting planning applications for depot recharging infrastructure. The bus sector would also commits to sharing recharging/refuelling infrastructure where appropriate.

Heading the Taskforce is Jeff Counsell, who is currently taking charge of Warrington’s Own Buses’ transition to an all-electric fleet.

Outlining the importance of the focus on zero-emission rural buses, Rebecca Kite, Policy Manager at CPT, said: “Rural buses provide a vital lifeline for their passengers, connecting people located in rural areas to towns and city centres, enabling them to access education, employment, medical appointments and other important services. Introducing the correct supportive measures will enable these bus services to transition to zero-emission vehicles and will help deliver the environmental and social benefits of a bus network that is continuously improving.”

Decarbonise faster

Opening the proceedings at the launch of the report, Andrew Jones, MP for the Harrogate and Knaresborough constituency, acknowledges the transport industry needs to decarbonise faster.

There are zero emission buses in Harrogate, he notes, which are ‘extremely popular’; passengers like them and he knows drivers like them, having ‘spoken to the guys on the front line’ himself.

He took the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, to see behind the scenes at Harrogate Bus Company earlier this month.

Speaking to operators, he says he understands the challenges of introducing zero-emission buses, such as the training required, the infrastructure needed. He notes those practical implications are compounded in rural areas.

Ending his speech, he said a strong bus and coach market are vital for the economy.

The issues

Highlighting the issues of decarbonising buses in rural areas, Bill Hiron, MD at Stephensons of Essex, said there is a ‘huge amount of uncertainty with range’ on zero emission buses. Operators are committed to green vehicles, he assures, emphasising that even Euro VI diesel buses are much cleaner than older vehicles.

He listed off a selection of industry challenges, no doubt all well known and experienced by readers, which exacerbates the challenge for rural buses to decarbonise. Identifying and overcoming these is why the Taskforce was set up.

Bill said the Taskforce identified three types of rural services: deep rural, interurban and an extended form of transport. Not all of the services fall into these brackets, Bill clarified, but it is helpful to classify them this way considering the challenge.

One of the problems with operating zero-emission buses in rural areas is range, with Bill outlining that some buses in the countryside run around 250miles a day, 400miles in some extreme cases. The average battery electric mileage for a bus is around 140miles to 160miles, he adds.

Also, tendered operations form a large percentage of rural services, according to Bill. With these contracts commonly running for three to five years, he said it is hard to justify a major investment. The infrastructure challenge is even more arduous in rural settings too.

Considering there is a higher proportion of concessionary passes taken on rural services, it is often a challenge to invest in diesel buses, he said, never mind zero-emission equivalents.

In terms of infrastructure, not only does the industry need robust power, it needs better grid solutions, said Bill. Rural services operate from a wide variety of locations, from car parks to farmyard to industrial estates.

Breaking down barriers

Starting by wishing CPT a happy 50th birthday, Simon Lightwood, Labour Shadow Minister for Local Transport, said that since taking up his role in 2022 he has sat down with as many operators and suppliers in the industry as possible to discuss how the bus industry can thrive. The sector already recognises the future lies with zero-emission vehicles, which he described will be an ‘incredible leap forward’. To make this leap a success, he says it is vital the government works with the industry, particularly in rural areas. “I’m pleased the taskforce has published this report,” he said.

There needs to be ‘bold reform’ to enable even more zero emission buses, he claims, with four-times more grid infrastructure required. The challenge for the government of the future, he says, is to break down the barriers to upgrading fleets.

Call to action

The report calls for the government to provide additional support through:

  • Working with Ofgem to introduce a new statutory duty on Distribution Network Operators (DNOs) which will prioritise grid infrastructure that will deliver social and community benefits. This will ensure that bus depots are moved higher up the priority list and help accelerate the process of increasing electricity supplied to depots.
  • Developing a hydrogen strategy that gives certainty over the supply of green hydrogen for bus and coach operators, and ensuring operators can access shared refuelling sites. It is vital that the Health and Safety Executive are given the appropriate training to certify hydrogen refuelling stations and mitigate the risk of stranded assets.
  • A longer-term approach to funding, with a five year £1 billion investment programme in zero emission buses and infrastructure in England, along with the continuation of support through the Scottish Zero Emission Bus Scheme (ScotZEB) in Scotland and similar continued support in Wales, which will instil confidence so the whole bus sector transitions to zero emissions. Government investment leverages private sector investment, with the recent ZEBRA funding scheme attracting around £1.20 of private investment for every £1 of central government investment.

CPT will continue to engage with government, Local Transport Authorities and other key stakeholders to ensure that the necessary measures are introduced to deliver the environmental, and social benefits of a bus network that is continuously improving and ensures rural bus services, and passengers, are not left behind.

  • Look out for more coverage of the Rural Zero Emission Bus Taskforce’s report in Bus and Coach Buyer.

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