Transportation

The bus industry has urged the UK government to move more quickly on zero-emission vehicles.

The British bus industry has accused the UK government of insufficient clarity and urgency over plans to fund 4,000 zero emission vehicles, amid concerns about the pace of action to meet decarbonisation goals.

Prime minister Boris Johnson in February 2020 promised funding support over five years for English operators to move to electric and hydrogen buses. But the government so far has released funds for only 900 vehicles and just 100 have actually hit the roads.

The bus industry body, leading manufacturers and trade unions jointly wrote last week to the Department for Transport and Treasury demanding a clearer funding timetable be laid out in the UK government’s autumn spending review.

The funding scheme “should deliver significantly more buses on an accelerated timetable than we have seen to date”, they wrote in the letter.

“Without this road map we risk a situation where the prime minister’s pledge will be extremely challenging to meet and the wider transition to zero emission buses more problematic,” they wrote.

The Department for Transport said it would soon announce winning bids for funding for a further 500 buses, taking the total to 1,400. “Work is well under way to meet the PM’s pledge of 4,000 zero-emission buses by 2025,” it said.

The bus sector’s complaints reflect broader discontent in industry over what some say is the UK government’s failure to set out detailed plans and stump up enough money to meet ambitious decarbonisation goals.

Bus operators, manufacturers and charging providers say they need time to get supply chains and infrastructure ready before funds are allocated. The lack of clarity risks pushing up the price to consumers of achieving net zero emissions of climate change gases, they say.

“Continuing to fund zero emission buses via sporadic funding pots, which local authorities have to waste time and resources competing for, is yesterday’s solution to an urgent problem of today,” said Jonathan Bray, director of Urban Transport Group, which represents English city regions’ transport authorities.

The whole industry is struggling to recover from the pandemic and operators say they cannot afford electric buses, which cost twice as much upfront as diesel ones, without government support.

Paul Davies, president and managing director of Alexander Dennis, the UK’s largest bus manufacturer, said the firm had cut its headcount by 25 per cent last year because of the pandemic.

Davies said the company was finding it difficult to rebuild its workforce and supply chains because it did not know when new orders would flow in.

“Capacity from the established bus manufacturers has been reduced significantly. It’s important we have visibility of a runway that sustains us,” he said.

Along with others in the industry, Davies said the Scottish government — which has devolved power over transport policy — had done a much better job of quickly providing funding for clean buses than had the UK government in England.

Pushing back orders to future years would mean “you get to the point where you’re trying to squeeze two pints into a one pint pot”, he added.

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