Over the past five years, bus operators in the UK have invested more than GBP1.3 billion in clean buses. With the Government of UK looking to introduce restrictions on the use of diesel engine vehicles to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, operators have begun acting to future proof their business models and to improve profitability. They have been entering into partnerships with the government, local authorities, manufacturers, and research institutes to develop innovative technology and to plan their transition to zero-emission fleets.

Stagecoach, First Bus, National Express, Arriva, and Go-Ahead Group are the five major bus operators in the UK. Figure 1 provides information on their respective market shares in the regional bus market in the UK in 2020.

UK operators are actively working towards introducing clean technology in their fleets, with all operators developing their own strategy and roadmap for achieving their targets.

Arriva Bus UK

Arriva Bus UK (Arriva) currently operates a fleet of approximately 5,900 buses in Yorkshire; the Midlands; North East, North West, and South East of England; and Wales under the Arriva-brand networks. It also operates locally branded networks such as Hinkley Bus, Wardle Transport, Yorkshire Tiger, Network Colchester, and Green Line.

Arriva’s primary approach to reducing carbon emissions has been through the development of innovative technology. In 2013, the company acquired a majority stake in Zeta Automotive Limited, which designed and manufactured Econospeed. This dynamic acceleration control system was installed on 3,500 buses owned by Arriva, which enabled the operator to generate fuel savings worth GBP4 million and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 37,500 tonnes. In May 2022, the Arriva Group established its Zero Emission Institute to accelerate the rollout of alternative zero-emission fuels. Through the institute, the company plans to partner with green energy companies, academic institutions, technological innovators, engineers, vehicle designers, and manufacturers to build its existing database on zero-emission technologies.

First Bus

First Bus operates services in Scotland and England through its local companies such as First Aberdeen, First Glasgow, First Scotland East, First Berkshire & The Thames Valley, First Eastern Counties, First Essex, First Greater Manchester, First Hampshire & Dorset, First South Yorkshire & Midlands, First South West, First West of England, First West Yorkshire, and First South & West Wales.

The operator has committed to operating a fully zero-emission bus (ZEB) fleet by 2035, with a pledge to stop acquiring diesel buses from December 2022 onwards. It will have science-based targets (SBTs), verified by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), to clearly define a pathway for First Bus to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, ensure sustainable business growth, and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Additionally, First Bus has been modernising its current fleet with clean technology. In January 2021, First Bus completed a GBP16 million retrofitting programme wherein 20 per cent of its fleet (1,000 buses) were refitted with new exhaust systems and e-fans to comply with Euro VI emission requirements. Retrofitting is considered an attractive option for operators since it offers potential value for money, reduces life-cycle carbon emissions, and addresses the challenge of operating an ageing diesel fleet.

Go-Ahead Group

The Go-Ahead Group (Go-Ahead) operates services under its subsidiaries Brighton & Hove, Go-Ahead London, Go North East, Go North West, Go South Coast, Go South West, Go East Anglia, and Oxford Bus Group.

The company currently deploys approximately 300 electric buses in London, Oxford, Salisbury, and Newcastle. In accordance with its Climate Change Strategy, the company aims to have a fully ZEB fleet by 2035. By 2025, Go-Ahead plans to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 17 per cent, hydrocarbon emissions by 49 per cent, nitrogen oxide emissions by 63 per cent, and particle matter emissions by 55 per cent. The measures included in the strategy are:

  • Improving its bus fleet by procuring electric vehicles
  • Purchasing new buses that meet the latest emissions standards
  • Removing vehicles from the fleet that conform to the older lower emissions standards
  • Working on bus-priority solutions with local authorities

Go-Ahead introduced geo-fencing technology in the UK with the launch of 30 double-decker electric buses in Brighton in October 2019. The technology enabled the buses to recharge their batteries using a small built-in Euro VI diesel generator, which allowed the vehicles to travel longer distances. Additionally, the geo-fencing system automatically deactivated the generator and switched to zero-emissions mode when the buses entered an Ultra-Low Emission Zone. The total cost of the buses was GBP10 million. As of 2022, the operator is deploying a fleet of 54 electric buses equipped with geo-fencing technology in Brighton.

National Express

National Express primarily operates buses in Birmingham and in the West Midlands, as well as intercity and inter-regional bus services through National Express Coaches.

In February 2020, National Express announced its zero-emission vision wherein it pledged to:

  • End the procurement of diesel buses for its UK operations
  • Have a fully ZEB and coach fleet by 2030 and 2035, respectively
  • Make a sustained investment in Euro VI vehicles

The operator plans to achieve these targets by:

  • Placing an order for electric buses to add to its first zero-emission fleet in the West Midlands
  • Selecting partners to develop a zero-emission vehicle suitable for all long-distance coach routes

Further, National Express plans to develop the UK’s first all-electric bus city in Coventry in partnership with Transport for West Midlands (TfWM). In February 2022, Zenobe entered a partnership with National Express to provide 130 electric buses for Coventry through its Electric Transportation as a Service (ETaaS) model. Zenobe will retain ownership of the buses as well as finance and manage the full turnkey solution, including the on-board battery replacement, charging and grid infrastructure, a second-life battery system at the depot, spare parts, operational support, and the software for optimising charging. The agreement will enable National Express to operate the buses without the risks associated with ownership and help maintain low competitive prices. Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) and Build Your Dream (BYD) will manufacture the electric buses. The buses are expected to enter service in early 2023.

Stagecoach Group

Stagecoach Group (Stagecoach) has operations in more than 100 towns and cities, with major operations in London, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Hull, Sheffield, Oxford, and Cambridge.

In August 2021, Stagecoach launched its long-term sustainability strategy called Driving Net Zero: Better Places to Live and Work. The strategy laid down plans to invest in zero-emissions fleets and other clean technologies over the next 15 years. The operator aims to have a fully zero-emission fleet in the UK by 2035.

As of 2022, Stagecoach has converted 1,058 buses to meet Euro VI emissions standards. Further, the operator partnered with Ricardo to develop a retrofit hydrogen fuel cell bus in August 2021. The companies will develop a scalable, modular solution that can be installed with minimal adaption in single-decker and double-decker buses. The technology is also expected to enable manufacturers to develop fuel cell buses by fitting their coach built body on a rolling chassis by using the fuel cell module solution. The project has received funding from the Government of UK’s Hydrogen Transport Hub Demonstration.

Box 1 provides details on Stagecoach’s research report on the transition to ZEBs.

RATP Dev Transit London

In September 2021, RATP Dev UK and Tower Transit formed a joint venture (JV) called RATP Dev Transit London to operate services in London. RATP Dev will operate as the majority partner. The JV operates 115 routes in West London.

To support Transport for London’s (TfL’s) plan for the electrification of its bus network, RATP Dev Transit London has committed to having a fully ZEB fleet by 2037. In July 2021, ADL and BYD secured a contract from the JV to supply 195 electric single-decker and double-decker buses. Additionally, in March 2022, Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited (HSBC) granted a GBP30 million green package fund for the procurement of 75 electric buses, including 54 double-decker buses and 21 single-decker buses. The loan is part of HSBC’s commitment to grant between USD750 billion and USD1 trillion of sustainable financing by 2025.

Looking ahead

Despite the progress in introducing clean technology, bus operators in the UK still face challenges such as:

  • Higher overall investment: The procurement of ZEBs requires a significant amount of investment in terms of the capital for vehicle purchase, infrastructure, and operating costs.
  • Determining of whole-life costs: The whole-life cost of the vehicles is also difficult to model because of uncertainty as to how often the batteries will require replacing during the life cycle of the vehicle.
  • Capacity of local power supply networks: The cost of electrifying depots depends on the availability of power in the locality. Operators will need to cooperate with power companies and planning authorities to manage resources and enable more depots to be converted to supply clean energy.
  • Higher operating costs: Operators will need to deploy more buses and drivers on routes because of the time required for battery charging electric vehicles. The issue will be more evident on routes with hilly topography, heavy passenger volumes, and poor weather conditions.

Measures taken by First Bus and National Express to adopt clean buses highlight the potential to overcome some challenges. Retrofitting is a lower-cost alternative for operators that can increase the lifetime of a vehicle and reduce life-cycle carbon emissions. Kleanbus, a UK-based company founded in 2021, offers a solution that repowers old diesel models by replacing the engine with a zero-emission fully electric powertrain at a fifth of the cost of buying a new electric bus. Leasing models can also reduce the costs of operating clean buses by eliminating costs linked with ownership. With the uncertainty surrounding battery replacement, transitioning to a battery-leasing model with warranty support from suppliers can help avoid or reduce unexpected costs.

The deployment of clean buses in the UK will require careful planning by operators to manage costs. They will also need to build a flexible business model to respond to local authority demands as well as maintain customer satisfaction.

(1 GBP [Great British Pound] = USD1.22)