Why Harrogate is blazing a trail for electric buses

Thomas Barrett visits the North Yorkshire spa town Harrogate to find out how residents have welcomed the new, award-winning and fully electric Volva 7900E buses.

Harrogate Bus Company staff with local MP, Andrew Jones

Passenger numbers have risen by 70% since Harrogate Bus Company introduced their fleet of electric buses and an innovative sponsorship model has ensured free travel for all passengers on Sundays.

They want to go further and make Harrogate, which has a population of around 75,000, the UK’s first ‘low emission bus town’.

Harrogate Bus Company’s chief executive, Alex Hornby, says residents are proud of their electric buses and he believes they are becoming a feature of the town like Betty’s tea shop or the Stray.

Above each stand at Harrogate Bus Station is a pantograph that connects to a bus and charges it whilst customers get off and on.

It lengthens the life of the vehicles during the day and means they don’t need trips to the depot for charging. It gives the buses enough of a boost for their 30 to 45 minutes local routes.

Hornby says the technology has resonated with people in the town. But he says the buses would need to be more than just zero-emission to get customers excited. The seats are wider, there are more tables and there are Wi-Fi and wireless charging points available. 

‘The population of Harrogate tends to be interested in clever things,’ he says.

‘This is how we’ll get people to move out of their cars. I’m quite proud to use this because it’s a nice experience. I don’t feel ashamed to tell people I use the bus when it’s as good as this.

‘This is removing silly car journeys off the road. They cripple certain roads in Harrogate.’

All aboard

Harrogate Bus Company won £2.25m from the Department for Transport (DfT) from its Low Emission Bus Fund which was matched by £1.7m from the company to help pay for the 8 electric eight fully electric Volvo 7900E buses that currently hum around the town, and Hornby believes they are ‘pioneers’ for this type of technology for a town of this size.

Their ‘Sunday Freeway’ promotion came about after the company looked for ways to remove barriers that people to take the bus, namely – cost.

Harrogate brands have jumped aboard including Harrogate Spring Water, Slingsby’s Gin and Harrogate Business Improvement District (BID), who have all had spells sponsoring the buses.

The idea is to develop a fully Harrogate-owned product that is sponsored by the community and Hornby believes it’s the first model of its kind in the country.

‘The businesses want to give back to the town and trade-off the name Harrogate and they want the community to know that.’

‘Harrogate Bus Company is not just a name,’ he adds. ‘We really want people to feel that it’s the town’s bus company and for the town to be proud of it.

‘What better to support a flagship project for Harrogate and get people into the town centre and spending money in Harrogate.’

Free parking

Harrogate has not been immune from the turmoil in the retail sector, and it’s once-prestigious high street now features several boarded-up units. 

Businesses in the town are conflicted on how best to bring people back into the town to spend money, with some suggesting that car parking should be free.

For those working to get people onto public transport in the town, it could be a damaging solution and make air quality worse and undo the good work that Harrogate Bus Company are doing with its electric buses.

‘I don’t get why free parking is a good idea,’ says Hornby. ‘My brain can’t deal with it.’

‘We want to improve air quality how does free parking solve any of that?’

Hornby says bus passengers are ‘fiercely loyal’ and spend more money in the town centre than car users as they will spend longer in town shopping, having a coffee or beer or a glass of wine.

‘The thing that really baffles me is the high-value businesses are campaigning for free parking,’ he says. ‘Are they suggesting their customers who spend several thousand pounds in jewellers are put off by £3 car parking? Get real!’

Re-regulation

Another hot button issue for bus companies looking to introduce more electric buses is re-regulation. Manchester looks set to be the first big city outside of London to take back control of its buses which is being closely watched by other northern cities.

The thought is making private bus companies anxious, with some suggesting that it could mean innovations such as electric buses would be slower to come to market.

‘From our position, we’re good at making the best use of deregulation,’ says Hornby. ‘We’re innovative and entrepreneurial – and we’d really miss that in the UK if we couldn’t be entrepreneurial. It works for the customers. Go on our electric buses and see what we’re doing.’

‘Our concern is if the control gets taken away – what’s the impact on customers?

‘Do we want a town centre that we can walk around, with zero-emission buses, or do you want to cross narrow streets with cars flying around, with no restrictions on pollution?’

‘There are more people travelling zero-emission by bus than any other mode of transport. We should be proud as an industry, country and as a town that it is buses are leading the way.’

Photo Credit – Harrogate Bus Company

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Electric vehicles and sponsorship from the gin shop might appear quaint, but these hardly compensate for the pathetically short bus routes, or the incredibly high fares outside Sundays. If you’re not on ENCTS, it’s easier and cheaper to walk or get a taxi instead, and with Harrogate being a largely rural area many people don’t live near a bus stop so have to drive.