Bus firm failure to cut toxic fumes branded ‘disgrace’

Glasgow’s biggest bus company is ignoring an £8 million Scottish Government fund to stop toxic exhaust fumes polluting city streets.

First Bus has failed to apply for grants from the fund to clean up bus exhausts despite the lethal dangers that air pollution poses to public health.

Environmentalists say it’s “a disgrace”, accusing the company of putting profits before lives and failing to reduce the risks of asthma, strokes and heart attacks. They fear funding may be lost.

First Bus, however, complains that the grants only fund a proportion of the costs of upgrading exhausts and are lower than in England. It says funding should be increased.

The government’s Transport Scotland invited bus companies to apply for a Bus Emission Abatement Retrofit fund of £7.89 million in October 2018. The deadline for applications is 12 noon on Friday 8 March.

The funding is the second phase of a scheme designed to progressively cut emissions from buses so they meet tighter safety limits. It is meant to help Glasgow – Scotland’s most polluted city – achieve a ‘low emission zone’ by 2022, followed by Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee.

The Ferret reported in January 2019 that busy streets in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee were being polluted by exhaust fumes in breach of legal safety limits introduced in 2010. Air pollution is blamed for 2,500 premature deaths every year in Scotland.

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But First Bus, which runs over 100 routes in Greater Glasgow, revealed that it has not applied for the latest funding to clean up exhausts – provoking condemnation from Friends of the Earth Scotland. “This is a disgrace,” said the environmental group’s air pollution campaigner, Gavin Thomson.

“Glasgow’s major bus company is clearly more interested in profit than in saving lives. Public money has been available for five months to improve air quality on our streets, but it’s not being used.”

Thomson accused the company of profiting from older buses that continue to belch out toxic fumes. “There’s been no improvement to air quality, and no change to the huge health impacts suffered from air pollution,” he argued.

“Idling from the bus company means there has been five months of preventable emissions from buses, of higher levels of pollution than there should be, of more children with asthma, more strokes and heart attacks.”

Thomson estimated that the £7.89 million fund was enough to retrofit cleaner exhaust systems on 450 buses. “Bus companies need to use this money now to clean up their fleet and improve air quality in Scotland’s cities,” he added.

“The real fear is that the money that has been made available will not be rolled over or go into another fund.”

Ellie Harrison from the Get Glasgow Moving campaign described the bus company’s behaviour as “outrageous”. She wants buses to be publicly owned.

“It’s disgusting that they would delay improving their vehicles, even though the taxpayer is paying for it,” she said.

“Unfortunately, this sort of irresponsible behaviour is what we’d expect from an industry that changes routes, hikes up fares, and cuts off working-class communities without any notice.”

According to First Bus, the grants only covered 40 per cent of the costs of upgrading exhausts. The remainder would have to be passed on to customers, the company said.

“First Glasgow are actively engaging with the Scottish Government at the moment to share our concerns over the viability of the scheme especially given comparative retrofit schemes in England and Germany,” said Andrew Jarvis, managing director for First Bus in Scotland.

Higher grants in England meant the company had already retrofitted 500 buses there, and was bidding to retrofit a further 500. Only nine buses had been retrofitted under a previous scheme in Scotland.

“The uncertainty and gap in funding has undoubtedly impacted on our retrofit programme,” Jarvis stated. “We need the Scottish Government to support us in this process with full funding in order to meet the criteria and deadlines of their low emissions zones.”

He added: “It is crucial that we all continue to work together in partnership to come up with a solution to this issue which is in the best interests of all involved.

“As a business, we are committed to investing in vehicles with ultra-low emissions that assist with improving air quality. Bus is a big part of the solution to air quality, as well as being a source of some of the emissions.”

McGill’s Buses, which runs services in Glasgow and elsewhere, did not respond to requests to comment. National Express, which runs Xplore Dundee buses, declined to say whether it was applying for funding.

A small company based in Campbeltown, West Coast Motors, told The Ferret that it had applied for funding in the last few days. It runs 10 sight-seeing tourist buses and eight other Glasgow Citybus services.

The funding application had been delayed because an exhaust retrofitting firm had gone into administration, said the bus company’s commercial manager, Sharon Morrison. “We’re fully compliant. We want cleaner, greener cities.”

A spokesperson for Lothian Buses, which runs most services in Edinburgh, said: “We will be applying for funding under the scheme before the deadline on Friday 8 March.”

Official analyses suggest that Glasgow’s buses are significantly more polluting than buses in Edinburgh. Only 15 per cent of buses in Glasgow comply with the strictest Euro 6 emission limits, compared to 40 per cent of Lothian buses.

How polluting are buses in Glasgow and Edinburgh?

AreaEuro 2Euro 3Euro 4Euro 5Euro 6
Lothian Buses0%16%0%43%40%
Glasgow buses1%31%7%45%15%
Bus exhaust emissions are measured by a series of increasingly tough European standards dating back more than 20 years. The weakest that currently applies is Euro 2, while the strongest, Euro 6, is suitable in low emission zones. Sources: Lothian Buses and Transport Scotland.

The Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) in Scotland, which represents bus companies, stressed that firms were committed to improving air quality. They were investing in new vehicles, and had taken advantage of previous grants for cleaner buses.

CPT was working with Transport Scotland to “review” current funding, according to deputy director, Paul White. “Air quality issues cannot be solved by improving engine technology alone,” he said.

“One bus can take up to 75 cars off the road so making the practical changes needed to encourage more people on to buses will help reduce congestion and protect the environment.”

The latest transport statistics for 2018 show that the number of bus passengers in Scotland has fallen 7.6 per cent over the last five years, from 420 million in 2012-13 to 388 million in 2017-18. Car traffic has risen by 7.2 per cent over the same period.

Scottish Labour transport spokesperson, Colin Smyth MSP, plans to question ministers about funding problems for cleaner buses. He pointed out that companies had failed to make use of a £10 million loan scheme for greener buses in 2018.

“This isn’t the first time the SNP government has made funding available for buses but the rules have made it unattractive,” he told The Ferret.

“You could be forgiven for thinking this was deliberate to save them having to pay out. If the scheme in England is proving more popular, then the Scottish Government need to take a long had look at the rules they have set and change them.”

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The Scottish Greens transport spokesman, John Finnie MSP, thought it would be a “travesty” if action to curb pollution was delayed because of a “stand-off” between the Scottish Government and the bus industry.

“People are dying prematurely because of toxic air and it’s children and the most vulnerable who suffer the most,” he said.

“We need urgent action to clean up bus emissions and private operators shouldn’t be holding anyone to ransom on this.”

Transport Scotland pointed out that the grants were significantly more than 40 per cent for medium and small bus operators, and could amount to 100 per cent in some circumstances. Funding had been designed to comply with European Union rules on state aid.

Previous funding schemes had helped introduce 475 cleaner buses to Scotland and upgrade exhausts on 47 buses, said a Transport Scotland spokesman.

The Scottish Government was committed to introducing low emission zones into Scotland’s four biggest cities, he stressed. “Glasgow is the first city to implement a zone, working with the bus industry to respond to the particular air quality challenges within their city centre.”

The latest grants “offered the maximum amount of funding to the Scottish bus sector within state aid rules and we would encourage bus operators to bid for funding by the 8 March deadline,” he added.

“It would be inappropriate to comment on the numbers of applicants before this phase closes.”

Photo thanks to Les Chatfield, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons. This story is being published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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