David Brown: It's exciting to have a PM who 'gets buses'

David Brown, Group Chief Executive of the Go-Ahead Group, writes for the UK Bus Summit review 2020. 

Boris Johnson is back in No.10 and faces an in-tray that will be over-flowing after the General Election campaign.

Knowing the Prime Minister – having worked for him at TfL on projects such as the ‘Boris Bike’ – he will be very clear in his mind about what he wants to do next.

One area in urgent need of attention across the country is public transport.

In the past, buses haven’t often grabbed the headlines despite being the backbone of Britain’s public transport network.

Some 3.5 million people still go to work by bus, and 73 per cent of all bus journeys are taken by people in the bottom half of the income bracket.

Buses can also empower local communities and provide a vital link for rural towns and villages.

Yet passenger numbers have fallen across the country in the past decade under the pressure of funding cuts.

These issues are now getting more media and political attention than before, providing a real opportunity for positive change. 

Boris Johnson seems to have forever been linked with buses – from the New Routemaster in London to the more controversial bright red Brexit one in the 2016 Referendum campaign.

He even used to paint buses from old wine crates.

But now we need the Prime Minister to follow through and deliver a National Bus Strategy in 2020.

The Department for Transport already has clear strategies for rail, aviation, roads, cycling and walking. 

And Go-Ahead believes that a national strategy for buses is vital to maximize the benefits bus travel can bring, to the economy, to society and also the environment.  The affordable, inclusive and accessible transport provided by buses can form an integral part of tackling challenges such as loneliness, obesity, air pollution, social exclusion and sustainable growth.  We want to see a cross Government approach, embracing the opportunity to save public costs elsewhere in areas like health and social care.

Councils and operators should be set challenging targets for passenger numbers, punctuality and journey times. Congestion in the UK’s largest cities is nearly 15 per cent worse than it was five years ago, and local authorities need to be encouraged to use the powers they already have to tackle it.

And Government funding is needed to accelerate the move to decarbonise fleets, delivering the PM’s vision of a ‘clean, green’ bus fleet connecting the country.

We at Go-Ahead pride ourselves on having one of the cleanest, greenest fleets in the country.

We have invested in hybrid ‘geo-fencing’ electric buses in Brighton – buses that can be set to run on ‘zero emissions’ mode every time they enter the town centre or pass a school, improving air quality.

We are also looking at further rolling out the ‘Air Filtering Bus’ – which removes pollutant ‘PM10’ particles from the air as it moves - across the UK after its successful piloting in Southampton.

And we’ll soon be introducing electric buses in the North-East and in Crawley and Gatwick – adding to the fleet we operate in London, powered by our fully-electric bus depot in Waterloo.

But if we as a nation want to achieve the targets we have set on tackling carbon and switching to greener fuels, the Government needs to deliver its side of the bargain.

While around a third of Go-Ahead’s fleet is the cleanest form of diesel around – Euro VI - only around 700 of Britain’s 35,000 buses are electric.

And so far there has been little detail from the Government on how it plans to shift people away from petrol and diesel power and accelerate the green agenda on our roads.

We want to move to a position where bus is seen as the first choice for local travel. We remain focused on customer service and continually strive to make bus travel easier and more convenient for passengers.

We have found through our work with local authorities in Brighton that partnerships work best in determining policies and investment.

I know how passionate Boris Johnson is about public transport. It is exciting to have someone who ‘gets buses’ in power.

But it’s vital now that Government works with business and local authorities to deliver the framework we all need to get Britain on the right road ahead.


- David Brown was Chief Executive of The Go-Ahead Group from 2011 to 2021