Interview: Harrogate bus boss on zero carbon future and why buses need priority over cars to make it happen

The boss of Harrogate Bus Company has revealed his strategy for making progress on a  zero carbon future as the firm bounces back from the decimating impact of  lockdown on public transport.

Friday, 27th August 2021, 2:10 pm
Harrogate Bus Company's chief executive Alex Hornby said it has been tough sitting there while bus use was “stigmatised” during Covid lockdowns.

Although chief executive Alex Hornby said Harrogate’s leading bus operator was delighted to see passengers numbers hit 70% of normal levels after a lowpoint of just five per cent, he told the Harrogate Advertiser of his frustration that the pace of change towards giving priority in Harrogate to sustainable transport had been, in his opinion, far too slow so far.

As he unveiled his plans for making Harrogate Bus Company, Mr Hornby also argued, if the town was serious about embracing sustainable transport, some priority needed to be given to bus transport over cars on the town's roads.

Speaking from the Transdev offices in Starbeck overlooking the assembled bus fleet below, he said: “Harrogate Bus Company were early pioneers zero emissions buses; we’ve punched above our weight.

“Every survey carried out in the Harrogate area by local authorities showed a general acceptance that something had to be done on sustainable transport.

“To be fair, the local authority leaders have not been afraid to say something in public that changes are needed.

“The frustration for me in Harrogate is, after all the investment over the years, we don’t have one dedicated bus lane. Something needs to change.”

Harrogate Bus Company is keen to do its bit on the climate emergency as the world - and its business - return to normality after the restrictions of the Covid pandemic.

The bus operator’s full timetable returns this month for the first time in 16 months, including the night buses supporting nightlife in the Harrogate district.

After becoming the first operator in Britain to introduce ‘opportunity charged’, pioneering ‘Harrogate Electrics’ buses in 2018, Alex Hornby said he had strong hopes of his fleet becoming all electric before the end of the decade.

With the local transport authority North Yorkshire County Council making a £20 million bid to the Government to help achieve that ambition, the bus company boss is confident this is a pledge that can be met.

Mr Hornby said: “We currently have eight electric buses which we introduced with great success on our Bilton, Jennyfield and Pannal Ash routes.

“That means 15% of our fleet is zero emissions while the rest are low emissions vehicles.

“The next stage is to add another 50 electric buses.

“We liaise closely with the Department of Transport; they are aware of Harrogate, and we understand Boris Johnson is a bus fan.

“If the bidding process for the funds progresses as is expected, we could be going all-electric in four or five years time.”

After the dark days for buses when the Government advice was for passengers to avoid public transport as the country grappled with the pandemic, the mood music at Harrogate Bus Company has lightened.

Mr Hornby said to was tough sitting there while bus use was “stigmatised”.

“At the beginning of Covid, we were absolutely decimated by lockdown.

I didn’t like buses being stigmatised when I knew all the evidence showed our efforts were making them safe places to travel.

“But there has been a dramatic turnaround since July 19 and the Government’s end of lockdown.

“None of us knew at the beginning how dangerous Covid was but our staff kept coming to work and our brilliant drivers kept taking people to work who needed to go, workers in essential services and the NHS.

“It reminded me how vital buses are to our lives.”

Mr Hornby moved to Bilton six years ago with his family when he took up his CEO role at Harrogate Bus Company after a lifetime in the industry which began as a small boy in Liverpool before getting his bus driving licence and ending up as the commercial director of a family bus company in Nottingham.

Mr Hornby said he is looking forward to operating commercially on a normal basis once more at Harrogate Bus Company, though a measure of day-to-day Government financial support will continue until next year.

Buses are in his blood; he is proud of his drivers and proud of the high quality of training they all receive at the Transdev Academy.

If there’s one thing, the boss of Harrogate Bus Company could change it’s the reluctance to make what he says are the changes necessary on the balance between buses and cars on our roads.

Without that, the introduction of electric vehicles will, in itself, he argued, not be sufficient to hit emissions targets.

Mr Hornby: “My first rule is the service we offer to passengers has to be good. It isn’t just about going electric, it’s about giving people reasons to choose buses over cars.

"On our popular luxury no 36 flagship service, 65% of passengers said they have access to a car but choose to go by bus.

“But our commitment to a high quality bus service is not enough if buses are not being given priority on Harrogate’s roads.

"Buses needs some level of priority over cars to give us a chance.

"There has to be a viable choice between buses and cars, it has to be more than "we've got electric buses!

"It’s hard to hit timetables in this scenario, something customers demand.

“Yes, we need park and rides but general road space has to be allocated more fairly.

“I can show you cities in the UK such as Oxford and Brighton where car use is restricted and the place is booming.

“Or I can show you Harrogate where this hasn’t happened yet and our major roads are at a standstill."

Inside view by Harrogate Bus Company boss

On bus industry’s future:

“The current Government grant for the buses comes to an end at the end of this month.

As an industry, we’re keen to return to commercial operations as normal, though it will still be linked to ‘mileage-linked recovery support mechanism’ until next Easter thanks to the Government.

“Then we will enter a formalised ‘enhanced partnership’ with local authorities as part of the Government’s national bus strategy to encourage bus use and support it financially.

“As an industry, buses are an important part of Transport for the North’s strategy but the rail industry, in particular, is so complex, it can slow down the rate of delivery of important projects to boost bus use.

“The bus industry still wants to contribute to TfN but, where it is practical, we aim to do it ourselves.

“When it comes to multi-operator, multi-modal ticketing, we are doing it ourselves, nationally.”

– Alex Hornby, Harrogate Bus Company CEO

On customer service:

“If you give people a good choice, they will use the bus. Buses have to be an attractive idea to people.

“We decided to make double glazing standard on our buses, which is not an industry thing at all, partly because of the cost.

“We do it because we don’t want out windows to mist up because we know passengers like to look out the window on their journey.

“We like going on the bus to be a civilised experience.

“But one thing customers demand is that we run on time, which is hard when roads are blocked by traffic.

“I’m not difficult to find and I’m known for being approachable. like to think we are good at communicating with passengers on a daily or even hourly basis on Twitter and social media.

“If someone asks me an awkward question, I’d try and rather answer them.

“I’d rather tell people what’s gone wrong and why rather than just saying everything’s brilliant.”

- Alex Hornby, Harrogate Bus Company CEO