First: Delivering on its promise

For the third year running, First has announced a major order for new buses, as it continues to deliver on its investment promises made three years ago in its transformation plan. And, its first USB sockets are a pioneering move for the PLC. Mel Holley reports.

Placing orders for 385 new buses, worth 77.7m, for delivery in the current financial year, First has also entered the history book with the largest-ever order by a UK firm for buses with Euro 6 engines. These account for 355 buses (73m), which leaves just 10% of the order for Euro 5.

Also, 99% of the order has Low Carbon Emission Bus Certification (LCEBC). Adding these to the 273 LCEBC Wrightbus StreetLites bought in 2014, First will be saving 9,500 tonnes of CO2 per year. The 2015/16 investment will bring the company’s LCEBC fleet to more than 750, thought to be the largest in the UK.

Overall, this will make a positive impact on air quality in town and city centres across the UK. Not only do Euro 6 buses produce up to eight times less nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) emissions than Euro 5, but the order will also allow a roughly equivalent number of older buses – around 15-20 years old – to be removed from the fleet.

The good news continues, as all the new buses will be fitted with free Wi-Fi and there will also be trial USB charging points on some. Also, 97% of the order will be manufactured in the UK.


Order detail

First says that the order “underlines its commitment to provide high quality bus services for its customers and stakeholder partners, and reflects increasing passenger and revenue growth across its operations.”

It brings its investment to nearly 385m over five years, enabling the replacement of some 2,200 vehicles, around a third of its fleet.

It will also enable First to meet DDA rules for all single-deckers that apply from 31 December, while accelerating the programme for double-decker replacement ready for DDA compliance from 31 December 2016. It will leave only a “small number” of non-compliant double-deckers, planned for replacement in the next financial year.

In line with existing policy, all new vehicles will also have leather seats plus an extra space for buggies in addition to the wheelchair space.

Ballymena-based Wrightbus will build 248 buses (65 StreetDeck, 183 StreetLite); Falkirk’s ADL has secured an order for 117 (63 Enviro200 MMC, 54 Enviro400 MMC); while Volvo has won a contract to build 20 B5LH hybrid double-decker chassis in Sweden, with bodies by Wrightbus. The latter are for a yet-to-be-announced route. In total, the 77.7m order includes around 3m worth of funding from the Scottish Government’s Green Bus Fund (SGBF), Bristol City Council, Transport for Greater Manchester and the Department for Transport.

The ADL double-decker order also includes five Enviro400 MMCs fitted with GKN flywheel technology, developed from Formula 1 and designed to recapture energy that would otherwise be lost during braking, so it can be used to help accelerate the bus and save fuel. They will be used in a route in Stirling, thanks to SGBF.

Part of First’s support for Bristol’s Green Capital status will be the delivery of two ‘virtual electric’ (part hybrid, part electric) Enviro400 MMCs, entering service in December.

Last year, First spent 70m on 425 new buses, of which 60 were double-deckers. This year, 77m only buys 385 buses. Mainly, this reflects the changed mix, now with 139 double-deckers included, but also the higher capital cost of Euro 6 and premium for Wrights’ micro-hybrid solution, plus other green buses.

Says First Bus MD Giles Fearnley: “Micro-hybrid – which is a ‘no-brainer’ for us – and Euro 6 will pay for themselves, thanks to better fuel consumption, but there is an up-front cost.

“It is absolutely the right thing to do, for environmental reasons and fuel economy.

“The increased double-decker mix also reflects patronage growth, such as in Bristol where we now need double-deckers rather than singles and is a change from where we were in February, hence the delay in announcing the order.”

First now likes to split its order, so the manufacturer mix is also deliberate, although this year Optare has failed to win any orders from First.

It has a policy of trying, where possible, to concentrate vehicle types at depots for consistency, and previous Optare orders were to meet needs for service increases on specific routes, already running those vehicles.


Euro 6 trials

Mr Fearnley says last year’s trials with Euro 6 buses went well. “This time last year, manufacturers would have struggled if we had said we wanted all buses as Euro 6. The consequence would have been we would have taken most of our deliveries towards the tail end of the year, but we wanted to accelerate them into the business, so that’s why we went almost entirely for Euro 5.

“We’ve worked closely with manufacturers, the trial went well and it’s been very worthwhile. We are now very comfortable with Euro 6 and are seeing fuel economy improvements, but the trials to date were not of sufficient scale to give us absolute numbers.”

Naturally, outcomes of trials may not always be reflected in real-life conditions with variations in routes and duty cycles, so you’d expect some differences.

“We have selected the vehicle orders on the basis of manufacturers’ claims. We will be monitoring fuel consumption very carefully – as it’s massively important – and holding the manufacturers to account for their claims.”

The order for GKN flywheel buses is for Stirling as this is a “high-profile location and we could make a business case for a route in the city,” says Mr Fearnley. “Stirling is a growth area for us, and emission levels are important in the historic city.”


Plug and play

The first route to be selected for new buses with USB points is the renowned X78 Sheffield-Rotherham-Doncaster, which runs at least every 10 minutes.

“It’s a long-distance service,” says Mr Fearnley. “People tend to be on the bus for more than the average time, so we thought it would be a great route to try this out. We really are wanting to move with the times; Wi-Fi is on all new vehicles and we’ve done retrofitting so now a third of the fleet has free Wi-Fi. It’s increasingly popular and the right thing to offer.

“We want to see what passenger reaction is to USB sockets. Is it attractive to enough people to make it a worthwhile commercial venture?

“I can’t see there’s a business case for short-distance town routes, but on longer distance routes I can see that it’s clearly part of people’s expectations.”


Growth is growing

Despite the recession, First is sticking to its guns. “This order is a further demonstration of the group and our shareholders’ commitment to the Bus Division,” says Mr Fearnley. “The investment we’re seeing now was laid out in our transformation plan launched over three years ago. We remain absolutely focused to the plan we set in train.”

That plan has delivered passenger growth. In Bristol, fare-paying passenger volumes have grown by “over 20%” since November 2013’s fares review. A fares review in the wider West of England area (Bath, Wells, Chipping Sodbury, Weston-Super-Mare) in July 2014 has generated “double-digit growth.” In both areas passenger volumes are still growing.

“In Bristol we have put in additional resources, such as new double-decks instead of single decks, which brings a cost in terms of capital and fuel, plus additional vehicles to maintain schedules as loading times are longer.

“These are great problems to have, yet there is a cost, but on the growth levels we are seeing we are absolutely satisfied that we did the right thing. And, 18 months on, the Bristol market is still increasing.”

He admits that it is still economically tough in some regions that First serves. “We see very variable economic conditions around our networks from the extremes of Bristol on the very positive side, to the very difficult economic challenges that south Wales and some of the northern cities face, but it’s not exclusive to those areas, and we have to continually review our networks.”

In South Wales where “some areas are desperately depressed,” First allocated some resources from its traditional town networks that were insufficiently supported to develop the new inter-urban Clipper network, which has “grown very fast, and we’ve seen growth on a number of corridors.”