Smaller operators and the road to net zero

This month, UKCOA Managing Director Peter Bradley covers an important issue set to affect the coach Industry over the next decade

Since April, coach operators up and down the country have been busy; for some, they have had even more work than before the pandemic. Many proprietors and management staff have been at the depot seven days a week, fitting in their responsibilities around driving, to ensure that after these past 30 months, the cash flow starts to reinvigorate their businesses. Now that the schools have broken up, a few have gone on holiday for a week or two (and one at least for the whole month of August!) but are ready to come back and start it all again on 1 September.

However, nagging at the back of many coach operators’ minds is that the way they currently run their businesses is likely to change significantly in the next few years.
For the majority, I suspect, the fact that the end result is not yet known gives them some comfort, albeit an uneasy one. One member has already confided in me that it will cease trading around 2030, and I wonder if some others are considering doing the same.

I am of course talking about the road towards net zero. Much has already been said about this, and whether the solution is to be battery-electric, hydrogen fuel cell-electric, a combination of both, or something completely different for the longer distance coach.

Some of the larger operators and groups have already embraced the challenge and are developing their businesses accordingly. However, for the smaller, family-owned businesses, those that make up the bread and butter of the coach industry across the UK,
this challenge has far greater
implications.

The UK Coach Operators Association is fortunate to have two members that already have experience of running electric coaches (Westway Coaches, run by David West, and Wattsway Travel, with Mark Watts at the helm) and their shared experience has already proved beneficial. They have spoken about the advantages of running these vehicles in terms of maintenance and charging costs, which is good news for those considering investing in these vehicles. David West has also pointed out that 90% of the journeys he undertakes do not require the coach to have a second charge before returning to the depot at night.

However, the challenge that most operators face when looking into battery-electric coaches is the cost of the power supply required in their depots. Many have been quoted eye-watering amounts, or have even been told that a power supply of the wattage required is not possible. One member is trying to find a piece of land located by a redundant electricity substation as a way of minimising costs in setting up an electric operation.

We don’t have the experience of a hydrogen fuel cell-electric coach within the Association as yet. But what I do understand is that the chances of many operators setting up a hydrogen refuelling plant within their yards and depots are likely to be slim, even if they can afford it and the surrounding landowners and local authorities give permission.

None of these issues should stop us in our tracks. The extreme heat that most of us experienced last month is a warning that decarbonisation is an essential part of our future. However, we as an industry need to continue to highlight these issues with a growing urgency, otherwise we will suddenly find that we will get caught out.

The call for evidence by the Department for Transport for zero-emission coaches and minibuses earlier in the year was welcome and I know that we and our fellow trade bodies made appropriate representations. However, we need to keep this high on our agenda so that the operators we represent feel it is a challenge they can face, rather than having more coach business closures in the years ahead.