Award-winning Harrogate Bus Company on critical new challenges facing industry as Omicron impacts

The boss of award-winning Harrogate Bus Company has spoken about the challenges ahead for public transport as we enter a period of fresh restrictions on daily life.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 24th December 2021, 9:46 am
Updated Friday, 24th December 2021, 9:50 am
Chief executive of Harrogate Bus Company, Alex Hornby, says there could be difficult times ahead for the public transport sector due to Coronavirus.
Chief executive of Harrogate Bus Company, Alex Hornby, says there could be difficult times ahead for the public transport sector due to Coronavirus.

Even before Omicron turned from a distant threat to an all-present reality, chief executive Alex Hornby was concerned about what was on the horizon.

Passenger numbers had just started getting closer to returning to normal on trains and buses before the arrival of Omicron - to the point where traffic congestion was once again proving troublesome for the bus timetable.

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In early December, Harrogate Bus Company reported they were back to around 82% of what they were in 2019 before the long hammerblow of the pandemic.

But, even then, Mr Hornby could hear alarm bells ringing for the industry.

He said: “We always do our best to provide the best service we can in the circumstances and our operations in Harrogate have become less dependent on public funding in recent years.

“However, the reduction in customer numbers - which plummeted to 6% of usual numbers at the height of the pandemic in 2020 - has been extremely difficult to manage financially.”

Now the arrival of the fast-spreading Omicron Covid variant is set to pile on the pressure for public transport, in general, and buses, in particular, warns Mr Hornby.

“Financial support for our industry at both local and national levels hasn’t been near what we all expected to enable us to set about a faster reintroduction of full timetables and expansion of new initiatives to help drive further increases in bus usage,” he said.

As a company which prides itself on its high standards - reflected in a long list of national awards - it has been keen not only to adapt to customers’ travel patterns brought about by the global pandemic but also plan ahead for a sustained long-term recovery in the years ahead.

In recent weeks, Mr Hornby has warned that bus operators face four major challenges even without further restrictions in the face of the latest variant of the Covid virus.

Challenges facing Harrogate Bus Company:

Rising Costs in all aspects of the business in the face of inflation, fuel prices, staffing shortages and supply chain issues;

Government reductions in financial support for the bus industry;

The return of traffic congestion on Harrogate’s roads, which makes running a reliable bus operation and timetable very difficult;

The negative impact of the mandatory wearing of face coverings on buses.

Mr Hornby said: “We were already expecting to be dependent on public funding for at least the next six to eight months before Omicron as customer numbers are still down by around 15-20%.

“Now the situation has changed again because of the Omicron variant and new guidance and restrictions on daily life.

“This should have been our busiest time of year; a time when - more than any other - people use buses for many things they often don’t: Christmas shopping, going out for a tipple or two, and meeting friends and family.”

There were dire predictions in the autumn from some when the Government announced a lower level of ‘recovery funding’ for the bus industry than expected for the period of September 2021 through to April 2022.

Harrogate Bus Company had remained confident it could still cope and not follow the example of Transport for London which has been threatening to make huge service cuts across 70 bus routes because of the funding crisis it now finds itself in.

But doubt is growing.

The industry as a whole sometimes feels hard done to when it comes to transport investment. In the North East, bus operators are warning the industry could fall off a financial “cliff edge” in the coming months unless the Government provides an urgent bailout.

Nothing so dramatic is expected in the Harrogate district where passengers have come to expect an award-winning service on a daily basis - traffic congestion permitting.

But, to the boss of Harrogate Bus Company, this is about more than helping passengers get to their destination.

Mr Hornby points to the fact that the current financial pressures on bus operators are at odds with the critical decarbonisation policy on climate change that the Government has publically committed itself to.

Mr Hornby said: “We are in a queue alongside other industries knocking on the door of the Treasury, but public transport’s positive impact of helping other agendas should not be overlooked.

“If anything has the capability to reduce emissions and congestion it is the humble bus.”

Playing its part: Harrogate Bus Company’s all-electric future

In March of this year when hopes for a return to normality were rising again, Harrogate Bus Company began a programme of trials using a variety of battery-powered demonstration vehicles, to help inform its own future investment plans.

The aim was to enable the firm to switch fully to an all-electric operation across its network before 2030.

The bus company had already become the first in the country to introduce fume-free Harrogate Electrics buses in 2018 when it became the first operator in Yorkshire to win funding of £2.25 million from the Government to create Britain’s first Low Emission Bus Town.

Its eight sparkling red Harrogate Electrics buses have since become a familiar sight on the town’s streets, particularly in Bilton.

Harrogate's green future: A lot more work needed says bus company

While agreeing that current policies are an improvement on where the town was on the journey to sustainable transport, Harrogate Bus Company argues there is a ‘mismatch’ between its own zero carbon efforts and the district’s.

Chief executive Alex Hornby said: “It certainly could be a lot better.

“I really believe as a private company we are doing our bit.

“The fact we have not an inch of bus lane, yet we have a zero emission fleet of buses on our town network and one of the most flagship bus products in the country with our 36 shows how things don’t quite match up in terms of infrastructure and road space.”

It’s not the first time Mr Hornby has made such remarks.

In March this year he pointed out that one of the aims of the Gateway project was to encourage more people to use public transport rather than cars.

But that required major changes with priority given to buses.

He said: “While we see the Station Gateway proposals as a positive step towards our shared aim of a low emission town, we must go further for Harrogate’s future by making the most of this tremendous opportunity.

“It’s about giving effective road space and priority to buses.

“Alongside a Park & Ride facility and better waiting facilities for customers, this will in turn drive a positive cycle of increased usage and investment in improving the frequency and quality of bus transport.”

Mr Hornby is a supporter of the idea of a ‘low emission zone’.

He said this would mean access to Lower Station Parade and the bus station would still be available to the least polluting vehicles, such as hybrid and all-electric cars and vans, and The Harrogate Bus Company’s buses - all of which meet zero or very low (Euro 6) emission standards - while making the area safer for pedestrians as well as vehicles by reducing overall traffic levels.

Mr Hornby said: “We know there are many in Harrogate who would normally not use buses but are proud of our services and we want to create more believers.”