Electric versus biomethane and the trials of being on the buses…
Have a guess how much a double-decker electric bus costs? Couple of hundred grand perhaps?
Well, you may be staggered to find out that they are actually an eye-watering £675,000. Even more astonishing is that almost half – £310,000 – is just for the battery pack – which is then only guaranteed for two years! The good news is that by comparison, a biomethane double-decker “poo bus”, soon to be seen on the roads near you, is around £300,000, only slightly more expensive than a new Euro 6 diesel.
Last night James Freeman, Managing Director of First Bus Bristol & Bath, along with his colleague Chris Hanson, spent an evening chatting to residents of North Somerset about the challenges and opportunities of running a 21st century public transport system.
First Bus has long been a subject of ridicule, but I think even the most disillusioned at the meeting were to a greater or lesser extent won over by their new understanding of the backdrop of legislative problems and congestion issues against which First Bus have continued to improve service and passenger numbers. Like many, I wasn’t aware that the ‘time boards’ now fitted at many stops are not actually operated by the bus company. They are council owned and managed by Travelwest, a third party, and when the bus can’t connect via GPS, the system gets easily confused. Hence the incredibly frustrating experience of timetables, smart-phone apps and electronic boards never seeming to agree.
Ultimately of course, many would like to see public transport back in public hands, but the complexity of running 1800 busses, with 1400 drivers, on gridlocked roads, whilst trying to generate enough money to reinvest in more routes is a lot more tricky than just handing over the keys to the Council. Personally, I’m a fan of social enterprise, which if supported by public sector spending, could work in partnership with the private sector to transform the way in which we all get around. I have to say that my experience of using my local services has been 95% very good, but, as a bus user (and driver) himself, James agrees that the other 5% of the time, it is incredibly annoying! I’m lucky though as I live near a major route; the reality is that for many people, using the bus isn’t a viable option at all.
Where busses are available, and this is the big one, the most significant reason for unreliable bus services is stop-start car & van traffic, often exacerbated by roadworks. On summer days, when the M5 is at a stand-still and locals have taken to the A roads in a forlorn attempt to get home early, the bus network is, as James put it (I paraphrase here) “screwed”. It doesn’t matter how many busses there are if they are all stuck in the same traffic jam as the rest of us. However, when the roads are moving, and double deckers can get through on time, passenger numbers are increasingly steadily, offering the opportunity to experiment with extended hours and even new routes.
There are some really significant improvements on the way – better connectivity for the electronic systems, faster cashless ticketing using phones and contactless cards, Metro-bus (fingers crossed it is positive) and yes, less air pollution due to cleaner, greener busses. So, even though I sometimes find myself tweeting First to complain, now I know that James and his team are listening, I will also let them know when I have had a good experience; we all like to get some positive feedback to help us through another difficult day. Good public transport can be transformative and the UK is decades behind the rest of Europe, so I hope we can continue to put pressure on the government and local authorities to help reverse their car obsessed transport strategies.
p.s. really looking forward to seeing the new double-decker ‘poo bus’ due to arrive in a few weeks time. If you would like to know more, there is open day at the Lawrence Hill Depot from 11am to 3pm on August 19th.