“I’m hugely optimistic for the future”.
That’s the overarching message from Graham Vidler, CEO of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, the trade association representing 90% of the buses on UK roads and also the majority of coaches.
You may have expected Vidler to be somewhat more cautious in his assessment, given that the industry his body represents is on the frontline of so much fast-paced change.
Instead though, he sees the huge opportunities that exist for CPT membership to benefit as they step up and play a crucial role in solving myriad societal problems, including the climate emergency, air pollution and urban congestion.
“The climate emergency that’s facing us all is behind lots of the change that’s going on at the moment,” said Vidler, “and the desire of the UK government to be at the forefront of tackling that, which is particularly heightened in the year we will host COP26, will present a huge opportunity for the most environmentally-friendly forms of motor transport.
“Buses and coaches are already really good for the environment compared to other modes of transport and we can become better still by continuing the transition to zero emission technologies.
“But the biggest contribution we can make and the real game changer is if we can work with government at national and local levels to help people move away from cars for at least some of their journeys and use buses and coaches as a flexible, efficient and environmentally-efficient alternative.
“That’s represents a huge opportunity for both industries at the moment, notwithstanding some of the very real challenges we’re helping our members through.”
According to Vidler, one of these challenges will be helping members navigate the patchwork of carrot and stick approaches to clean air springing up across the country.
He said: “I live in York and the city council has just announced its intention to ban non-essential car journeys in the city centre from 2023. Birmingham has said something similar and so too has Bristol.
“Across the country we’ll see lots of these ‘sticks’ developing as council leaders recognize that to meet their own zero carbon targets, they’re going to have to do something about cars traveling through their cities.
“But, at the same time,” he added, “we in the bus industry are working closely with government to dangle the ‘carrot’ as we make huge investment in developing bus networks, improving the quality of buses and introducing measures to tackle congestion.
“So, as well as the stick of restricting car use in some places, we are working constantly to make bus a much better choice and to get people out of their cars for at least some journeys.”
But what about the other challenges, opportunities and issues facing the bus and coach industries moving forward?
Vidler said, “Like most trade associations our members have very different needs and priorities.
“The key things we do include representing our members with government and regulators at national and local level, making sure that their voice and equally the voice of their passengers is heard.”
He added, “So on the bus side, I would say the number one issue, and it’s probably been the number one issue for a decade or more, is congestion. It makes bus operations less efficient, more costly, and ultimately means a worse service for passengers.
“On the coach side, I would say our big challenge is making sure that legislators understand how coach operations work and adjust the rules and requirements accordingly.
“By way of an example, lots of parts of the country are implementing clean air zones and for a coach operator based outside those zones and operating into them, it’s very, very hard. They’re almost always charged through those clean air zones and it’s very difficult for them to get the kinds of support with adjusting their vehicles that might be available to businesses that are operating within the boundary itself.
“Our aim is to help legislators understand coaches and the way they work and their operators’ needs when they’re designing things like clean air zones.”
Then, there’s the issue and challenge of the transition towards electrification and other cleaner and more efficient powertrains.
“Converting the vast majority of a 40,000-strong bus fleet to new technologies is clearly a huge task but we’re already well on the way,” said Vidler.
“Electrification, or rather the transition towards zero emission vehicles, is huge for us but on the bus side, we’ve pledged as an industry that with government support, we’ll only buy zero or ultra-low emission buses from 2025.
“We’re helping our members in this area by working with government to develop a funding package that would cover not just part the cost of the vehicles themselves but also infrastructure, the installation of chargers, conversion of depots and connection to the national grid.”
He continued, “On the coach side it’s going to be a longer journey to transition to zero, because coaches tend to have much longer daily journeys and at the moment not many of their daily rotas can be accommodated by the range of an electric coach.
“Now I suspect that will change quite quickly in the coming years but our role in the meantime is to work with our members to help them understand the possibilities that will emerge within the market so they are well placed to make that transition when it eventually comes over the next couple of decades.”