After a three-year hiatus in coach and bus industry trade shows at the NEC Birmingham, Euro Bus Expo returns shortly at a time of great anticipation. Since the last Euro Bus Expo, much has changed, from COVID-19 to the National Bus Strategy (NBS) for England, and everything in between.
As 2019 approached, the general mood among operators and manufacturers alike was gloomy, against a backdrop of falling patronage and declining vehicle registrations. Pro-bus Boris Johnson’s election as Prime Minister later that year brought a glimmer of hope, with pledges of funding and levelling up – until the pandemic hit, and the travelling public were ordered to stay at home.
With 2020 written off under the shadow of COVID-19, 2021 delivered optimism about emerging from paralysis, boosted by the long-awaited NBS, Bus Back Better, and £3bn of funding.
With it also came the promise of Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIPs) to deliver better services and simpler fares, alongside further devolution and franchising to facilitate London-style bus services across England.
Emerging from the reaches of COVID-19 as the year progressed, the government continued to step in with much-needed lifelines for bus operators across England through the COVID-19 Bus Service Support Grant and subsequently Bus Recovery Grant, which to date have collectively provided over £2bn.
The NBS also pledged significant funding towards the deployment of zero-emission buses (ZEBs) through the Zero Emission Bus Regional Areas scheme in England, backed by an initial £120m (subsequently increased to £270m), a significant step towards the target of 4,000 ZEBs in service by 2025. Transport Scotland introduced the Scottish Zero Emission Bus challenge fund phase one in the same year, supported by £62m.
As of 2022, the respective schemes have funded over 1,500 ZEBs and accompanying infrastructure – a welcome boost to order books. Indeed, the operation of ZEBs was yet further supported this summer through the introduction of the BSOG ZEB uplift in England.
While new capital funding announcements grabbed headlines, vehicles funded through previous ultra-low emission schemes in England and Scotland also continued to come to fruition, so much so that in 2021, ZEBs accounted for over 50% of new bus registrations in the UK – a significant milestone, albeit in the context of a depleted market.
The mass rollout of ZEBs in London continues at pace too, with targets set by Transport for London to reach a 10% zero-emission fleet by spring 2023.
As Euro Bus Expo approaches, there is lots to look back on, but also much anticipation about what is to come. With over £250m worth of ZEB grant funding in England and Scotland still due, and significant ZEB projects beginning to take shape across the nation, mood music among manufacturers supplying the UK is more encouraging, a fact perhaps illustrated by the number of new models entering the market.
In the case of operators and local transport authorities, work on BSIPs and franchising continues in earnest with the hope of improving journeys for passengers sooner rather than later.
While it would be naïve to suggest that challenges don’t remain for the bus industry – damaged by COVID-19 and battling inflation – buses certainly have a renewed energy and sense of optimism since the last time we visited the NEC Birmingham for Euro Bus Expo.
Euro Bus Expo website and registration portal here.