CPT Coach Conference discusses sector’s issues

In a rapidly evolving coach industry, communication is crucial. That was one of the key strands that tied together presentations from a varied line-up of speakers at the 2019 Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) National Coach Conference.

Under the microscope were Brexit and the industry’s continuing relationship with Europe; CPT’s forthcoming Coach Strategy; developments in technology from one major manufacturer; and how Directors should ensure that businesses are run in a compliant manner.

What is clear is that the challenges surrounding the operation of coaches will not ease in the medium term. CPT expects more Clean Air Zones (CAZs) and that the focus on emissions will grow to capture the sector’s carbon impact.

Additionally, a new immigration system could prove awkward for those operators that rely on labour from the European Union (EU).

To help ensure that the industry’s needs are recognised, CPT will soon start writing the Coach Strategy. The basic planks of it are already formed, but last week’s event was used to add further meat to the bones.

Coach Conference European questions: Still no certainty

CPT International Manager Steven Salmon’s expertise was called upon at the Coach Conference to deliver an informed opinion on what the future could hold for the industry should the UK leave the EU. Although Mr Salmon is a font of knowledge, he cautions that even now, much is still uncertain.

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CPT’s Steven Salmon: ‘Difficult to find benefits for coach sector in Brexit’

“It is very difficult to find any benefits to Brexit for our sector,” he says. That is principally because regardless of whether a departure involves a deal or not, each avenue will likely lead to the Interbus Agreement. Interbus will then govern how UK operators work abroad.

Should a deal be reached with the EU, then during the ensuing transitional period UK operators will carry on as they do now. The likelihood of a road transport-specific, long-term trade agreement being negotiated before that period ends is low, says Mr Salmon. If one is not reached, Interbus will be invoked.

“Interbus represents a baseline. The government has only a finite number of negotiators. It is unrealistic to assume that they will have the capacity to work on a deal that includes the coach industry before the transitionary period ends.”

The UK is currently part of Interbus through its membership of the EU. The government has already indicated that the country will become a member in its own right post-Brexit.

What is clear is that after Brexit, UK coach operators will not enjoy the same freedoms in Europe as they do now.

Even if a trade agreement involving coaches is reached, the UK industry is likely to be worse off. Mr Salmon notes that currently no other arrangements are in place that give coaches from countries outside the EU the same rights to work within it as those enjoyed by operators from member states.

Is it all about Interbus?

Interbus covers occasional services. It could capture regular services too, but it does not do so yet, Mr Salmon explains.

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As a condition of a nation’s membership, operators venturing abroad must have an international O-Licence and follow EU rules on drivers’ hours and tachograph usage. An Interbus waybill is required on relevant journeys. However, a notable omission is of the need for Driver CPC qualifications.

What Interbus does not permit is cabotage. It treats the EU as a single country, and thus UK-based operators would not be permitted to carry out cabotage anywhere within that area.

A further potential difficulty under Interbus would be Switzerland, says Mr Salmon. While it would still be possible to visit Switzerland with a coach, it could not be the ultimate destination. Instead, another country would need to be.

Future powertrains examined

What comes next for coach powertrains was examined at the Coach Conference by Julie Hartley, Sales Director of Irizar UK. Although Euro VII has been mooted, the Spanish manufacturer believes that the focus beyond Euro VI will be on carbon rather than NOx.

That’s for a reason; Euro VI “leaves nowhere to go with emissions,” and it will be a major challenge to reduce them further. But the amount of carbon produced is directly proportional to fuel usage, and hence that is where Irizar’s future priorities lie for its integral range.

Subject to a 2022 review, the Vehicle Energy Consumption Calculator Tool (VECTO) scheme will target a 30% reduction in energy use over 2019 levels for coaches and buses.

Such a change “cannot be achieved [solely] with an internal combustion engine,” says Mrs Hartley, although Irizar’s continued work on removing weight and reducing drag by replacing mirrors with cameras both contribute to a reduction in energy consumption.

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Hybrid powertrains will be required for zero emission operation, says Irizar

Irizar has introduced a hybrid variant of its i4 integral, the i4H. The next stage of the diesel-electric package in its integral coaches will utilise greater battery capacity, and potentially plug-in and opportunity charging to allow extended zero-emission operation in geofenced areas.

The manufacturer believes that long-distance operation on batteries alone is not feasible. “The range required is currently far from what can be delivered,” she adds. In addition to hybrid, hydrogen fuel cells, hydrotreated vegetable oil and natural gas are other possibilities.

CPT’s Coach strategy under discussion

Centrepiece of what CPT is doing for coaches is the Coach Strategy. It is currently under final discussion and publication is expected in Spring 2020.

Thus far identified as key points for inclusion are:

  • Improving the sector’s image
  • Providing better data on the industry
  • Gaining improved drop-off, parking and other facilities
  • ‘Greening’ fleets
  • Obtaining government support for driver recruitment.

Each area is important, says Policy Manager Alison Edwards.

CPT wants to see the planning process for developments that generate coach movements be mandated to make concessions for drop-off facilities and parking areas. ‘Greening’ the national fleet will include a request for assistance for operators to transition to low- and zero-emission vehicles.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the points above relates to data. Ms Edwards, whose background is in government, stresses that being able to provide verifiable data relating to the industry will be imperative when it comes to seeking external support.

“If we ask for coach friendly policies, we will need to provide evidence to support our request,” she says. Gathering data on coaches is difficult, but CPT is looking for volunteer operators that will be able to provide such information via the Distinctive Systems Coach Manager portal.

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CPT needs data from operators to back up its requests to government

As an indication of how valuable data could be for illustrating the industry’s efforts to reduce its environmental impact, one operator has already harvested figures from its fleet management system.

They demonstrate that while Euro VI coaches make up only 16% of its fleet strength, those vehicles cover 42% of mileage operated. Such data will be invaluable when the time comes to present the industry’s case to government.

Change continues elsewhere in the industry

With much else under discussion, Clean Air Zones, and Low Emission Zones in Scotland, formed a relatively low-key part of the conference. So too did PSVAR, although both topics were mentioned briefly during a question and answer session at the Coach Conference.

The idea of coaches becoming obsolete before life expiry is something that operators will need to accept as part and parcel of the current pace of change, the panel agreed.

While there may be an opportunity to dispose of some of those vehicles abroad, there is no guarantee of that. Coaching Manager Andy Warrender notes that such markets are generally limited to some African nations, Cyprus and Malta, which are unable to accept high volumes.

“There has to be a recognition that in some cases, coaches will not have the residual value that the buyer thought when purchasing them,” says Mr Warrender. Indeed, there is already evidence of some operators biting the bullet and writing vehicles down.

“As emission control zones grow, it will become difficult to send any coach that is not Euro VI anywhere [without attracting charges].”

On PSVAR, CPT continues to solicit evidence from operators concerning services that are subject to the Regulations, but which are not eligible for the recently revealed exemption. It is also examining the ease of converting non-compliant coaches.

“The government believes that conversion forms part of the solution to PSVAR,” says Operations Director Keith McNally. However, the difficulty of carrying out such work on some models is seen as something that will help to convince the powers that be to look again at exemptions.

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It’s becoming ever clearer that big change is in the wind for coaching. But it’s change that, in some cases, operators have already prepared for, albeit at considerable expense.

And although change may prove troublesome for some to get to grips with, the government has indicated that it may extend an olive branch of support to the industry.

The revitalised CPT must now grab that with both hands. It must do what is needed to wring every drop of cooperation out of government. If it does not do so, serious problems are ahead. But to be successful at that, CPT requires assistance from its members in the coaching world.

As outlined at the Coach Conference, it needs access to data to help build its case for the policies in its Coach Strategy. It needs help to present a case for further PSVAR exemptions. Communication is key – and that extends to operators.