Written evidence submitted by National Express West Midlands (BUS0003)
National Express West Midlands operates over 90% of the buses in the metropolitan West Midlands - the cities/boroughs of Birmingham, Solihull, Coventry, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Dudley. Before the pandemic, we would be carrying nearly a million customers every weekday to work, school, college, to the shops and to see their friends and family.
National Express West Midlands recognises the National Bus Strategy as probably the most pro-bus strategy ever produced by a British government, championed by the most pro-bus Prime Minister in years.
We share Boris Johnson’s openly declared love of buses. Buses get people to work, to interviews, to school and to college. They get people to the shops, to the cinema, the zoo and the library. And most importantly, after the two years we’ve just had, they take people to see their family and friends.
It’s absolutely true that “in congested areas, substantial modal shift away from the car will soon be needed if clean air targets and the Government’s broader climate goals are to be met. The only mode capable of sufficient expansion in the time available is the bus.”
National Express West Midlands particularly welcomes the National Bus Strategy’s commitment to biannual reporting on targets for bus journey times, reliability improvements, passenger growth and customer satisfaction.
Everyone who works in public transport in the West Midlands recognised and welcomed the Strategy’s partnership approach - local authorities and bus operators working together, each bringing their resources, their skillsets and their powers to put passengers first.
There's only one region where operators work in true partnership with local authorities - the West Midlands. Since we formed our Bus Alliance in 2015, we have combined our investment powers - National Express buying top-spec vehicles and local authorities (including TfWM) bringing bus priority - to speed up journey times and increase patronage. So, although the National Bus Strategy is only a year old and some of the measures in it are still being implemented, in the West Midlands, we are already achieving the ambitions in the NBS by working as the strategy envisages.
Innovation and decarbonisation
National Express bought our last diesel bus in 2019. We have pledged that the entire 1,600 fleet will be zero-emission by 2030. (And we’re aiming for 2035 for our coach fleet.)
National Express West Midlands has been operating 19 fully electric British-built double deckers on our 6 route between Birmingham and Solihull since July 2020. And we have 10 running on the 9 from Coventry city centre to the university and the hospital. These buses charge up within 4 hours and can do 200km before they need charging again.
We have trained our drivers to drive these buses differently because they behave differently to combustion engine-driven buses. Bus drivers learn to preserve the fuel cell charge for as long as possible to extend how far the vehicle can go before needing recharging.
In 2021, National Express’ 29 electric buses saved 1,920 tonnes of carbon from coming out of the tailpipe - that would have been enough gas to fill the Empire State Building.
In January 2022, National Express Coventry put in an order for 130 zero-emission double decker buses to be introduced in 2023 as part of a £140 million project to make Coventry the UK’s first All Electric Bus City.
In December 2021, National Express West Midlands started operating Birmingham City Council’s 20 hydrogen buses on route 51 to Walsall. Outside London, these are the only hydrogen buses operating in England. Hydrogen buses can be fully refuelled in 7-10 minutes and will run for 300km on a single tank.
These 20 hydrogen buses will save 631kg of poisonous NOx emissions per year. They will also prevent 1,560 tonnes of carbon from going out into the atmosphere.
It’s not just our zero-emission vehicles that are innovative. National Express has led the way on decarbonising our fleet by being agile about how these buses - and the charging infrastructure that goes with them - are funded.
● The first 29 electric buses were partly funded by a £3 million OLEV grant from 2016 - which paid the difference between a normal bus and an electric bus. On top of that, National Express invested £11 million of our own money.
● The 130 buses for Coventry All Electric Bus City are being purchased via Zenobē’s Electric Transportation as a Service (ETaaS). The risk-free availability model provides reliability and flexibility for the operator
● Birmingham City Council’s 20 hydrogen buses were purchased as part of the Council’s Clean Air Hydrogen Bus Pilot. The project is funded through OLEV, Greater Birmingham & Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, Birmingham City Council and JIVE project funding from the European Funding from the Fuel Cell Hydrogen Joint Undertaking. The FCH JU receives support from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, Hydrogen Europe and Hydrogen Europe Research.
National Express would like to see the funding for hydrogen buses assessed in the round. Its strategic importance should be given due weight so critical mass can be achieved as quickly as possible. We agree with the Prime Minister’s statement in March 2022 that hydrogen is "the low carbon fuel that has perhaps the greatest potential of all".
Innovation in fares and marketing
Bus Back Better calls for simple, cheap flat fares to meet the ambition to get overall patronage back to its pre-Covid level, and then to exceed it.
While the cost of living is skyrocketing, National Express has kept its bus fares the same since 2017. Until summer 2021, when we cut fares to help get our region moving again. Half of our bus customers now pay less than they did a year ago - and nobody pays more. Travelling all day now costs less than a burger. And the average commuter is saving over £130 a year.
At the same time as cutting fares, National Express introduced contactless weekly bus ticket capping. So customers can travel as much as they like - they just show a contactless bank card (or the banking app on their phone) to the ticket machine each time they get on. At the end of seven days, they are charged no more than the cost of a weekly ticket - however many journeys they made. National Express West Midlands was the first company outside London to offer this kind of ease and flexibility to customers. We also offer the same capping arrangement for 3 days - we think we are the first operator to do this.
We also - slightly counterintuitively - invested in our biggest ever marketing campaign.
These three initiatives resulted in 6% faster growth than we would expect, based upon our demographics.
Innovation on routes
Via our award-winning West Midlands Bus Alliance, National Express is working with TfWM and Birmingham Council to open up the city centre so our long bus routes can join up and carry customers across the city. This will drive modal shift as people will be able to get closer to their actual destinations without having to walk as far across town as they do now.
From next year, National Express West Midlands will start running the first cross-city services linking Walsall and Solihull along the Sprint corridor - the A34 and the A45 - using zero-emission hydrogen buses.
Challenges facing the sector as it recovers from the pandemic
National Express welcomes the government’s decision in March 2022 to provide £150 million to support vital bus services. Bus patronage in the West Midlands has consistently recovered faster than the national average, even after the Omicron outbreak temporarily suppressed growth.
This funding will provide the certainty operators need to run an extensive network of services over the coming months as we all adjust to life after the pandemic.