FirstGroup is the UK’s largest surface transportation company, with a turnover of £3 billion a year and around 74,000 employees across the UK and North America.
It is the UK’s largest rail operator, with four passenger rail franchises and one open access operator. It runs nearly one-quarter of the UK passenger rail network, with a balanced portfolio of intercity, commuter and regional rail operations. It also provides freight services through GB Railfreight. The company has a strong track record of delivery and investing in improved services such as new rolling stock and customer facilities across its rail operations.
FirstGroup is also the largest bus operator in the UK, running more than 1 in 5 of all local bus services. A fleet of some 9,300 buses carries 2.8 million passengers every day in over 40 major UK towns and cities. The majority of its operations are in urban areas where the bus is the most effective means of tackling traffic congestion. The bus division alone employs over 25,500 people. FirstGroup is working in partnership with local authorities and other stakeholders to provide cost effective transport solutions that improve services and offer more choice for passengers.
FirstGroup’s vision is to transform travel by providing public transport services that are safe, reliable, high quality, personal and accessible. This means finding clever, yet practical, solutions to everyday transport issues.
This case study focuses on the introduction and trial of three hydrogen fuel cell buses in London.
FirstGroup works closely with Government and local authorities to develop buses as an integral part of their sustainable transport policy and to create a new vision for bus transport across the UK. It has already taken measures to reduce carbon emissions, in the form of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, which contribute to climate change. These measures include using ultra low sulphur diesel across the entire bus fleet. FirstGroup has made an investment of £66m in new bus vehicles in the last 12 months fitting all new vehicles with either catalytic exhaust or a particulate trap and are fitted with Euro III engines which have a lower emission specification. These engines now constitute 25% of its total vehicle fleet.
During 2004 and early 2005 Mercedes Benz Citaro fuel cell buses entered service in nine European cities. They were introduced as part of the CUTE (Clean Urban Transport for Europe) project to test the vehicles and the hydrogen production infrastructure in cities of different climates and operating conditions. FirstGroup was attracted by the innovation opportunities the project presented.
The project was partly EU-funded, and the idea that London should participate came from London Buses, part of Transport for London. Other partners of the project in the UK were BP (supplier of the hydrogen), Daimler Chrysler (builder of the buses) and The Energy Savings Trust. FirstGroup operated the vehicles. Due to the congested traffic in London and the very low average speed, London plays a major role in the field trial. There is currently very little experience of how the fuel cell propulsion system will work under such conditions.
The new zero-emission buses are powered by hydrogen stored in tanks on the roof. The only by-product is water and this is discharged as vapour. The electricity produced by combining hydrogen with oxygen powers an electric motor to provide a very quiet and smooth-riding bus.
The original intention was for the vehicles to operate for two years under an extensive evaluation process, making it the largest project of its type anywhere in the world and an important step in the ongoing development of clean urban transport, combining energy efficiency with cost effectiveness.
FirstGroup launched a trio of zero-emission Mercedes Benz Citaro buses into service as extras on route 25 (Ilford – Oxford Circus), selected because it is a high frequency bus route. If there was a problem with one of the hydrogen buses, a replacement bus would already be on the route. Initially, due to the trial status of the new buses, they were introduced as additional to the number of buses using the route. Nine months later, after proving their reliability, they were integrated as an essential part of the timetable on route RV1 (Tower Bridge – Covent Garden, via the South Bank).
The bus drivers were selected for their driving record, attendance records and general performance. They were given specific training on driving the new vehicles and received inductions on the safety operations and features of the buses. This included familiarisation of the buses intricate computerised warning system that alerts the driver through coloured dashboard lights of technical problems and what options are available to the driver if certain warning lights come on.
With such new technology being trialled, there were, as expected, a myriad of teething problems. However, unlike other initiatives, there were no immediate answers or foresight as to where the problems would occur – the exact reason for the trial. The safety aspect of having a flammable substance on board was one of the most obvious areas of concern. A mixture of 4% hydrogen to air combined with an ignition source can lead to an explosion. Ignition sources vary and include microwaves, static electricity and dust particles rubbing together. FirstGroup had to ensure they adhered to The Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) and that they had carried out a comprehensive risk assessment, not only on the vehicle but also on the route. For example, tunnels, bridges and even canopies created by trees in full summer bloom could pose particular difficulties if there is a stationary bus that develops a hydrogen leak, as the hydrogen rises and it may become trapped, causing a safety hazard.
A workshop was arranged to discuss regulations and the additional costs incurred to ensure the safety of the garage housing the vehicles. The infrastructure for supplying the hydrogen also had to be designed and built. This was important as a normal bus can run 16-20 hours per day. However, due to the storage capacity of the hydrogen fuel cell buses, after 7-8.5 hours they must be taken back to the dedicated refuelling site. Other problems have been encountered. The buses cannot be subject to an annual MOT as the infrastructure – for example gas detection equipment – is not available. So alternative arrangements have been made whereby regular independent inspections are made by the Department of Transport’s Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA).
Another substantial issue was cost. At the outset it was impossible to understand and predict the additional costs of engineers, cleaners, vehicle recovery and so forth. This was covered by Transport for London, compensated in part by the EU. However the main unpaid cost has undoubtedly been management time.
The buses were very popular with passengers, who showed an interest in the technology. Leaflets were available on the bus to provide more information about the trial and drivers were able to answer additional queries. There was also intense media interest and the buses were showcased at events up and down the country.
Alan Coney, Technical and Quality Director at FirstGroup in London believes that the whole process is a ‘genesis’. It is currently too expensive to operate, but as the only emission is water it is potentially a factor in addressing the issues of climate change and the decreasing supplies and increasing costs of fossil fuel. Provided that the hydrogen can be produced from renewable energy sources, this technology could present a ‘no emissions’ option for the future. Currently, however, the production of hydrogen is more resource demanding than diesel and so alternative methods of hydrogen production are being trialled as part of the project.
The business benefits
To be involved in a project using innovation and new technology to combat one of the biggest threats in the world today is good for business, whilst at the same time being socially responsible. It has enhanced FirstGroup’s reputation and is in line with its vision to ‘transform travel’. It has also boosted staff morale as the drivers and other staff members were proud to be involved.
The project has increased FirstGroup’s network within government circles. The buses have been used by politicians at high profile events such as the International Olympic Committee’s visit in February 2005, providing excellent advertising and marketing for the company.
Transport for London has pledged that by 2008 there will be 70 vehicles of various modes of transport (taxis, vans, cars and buses) powered by hydrogen. Of these 70, twelve will be buses for route RV1. FirstGroup is exploring with Transport for London the feasibility of introducing the 12 buses in time for 2008. This has potential business benefits as the company will have the experience (technical and logistical) to win future contracts to deliver hydrogen fuel transport to the public.
The project has ignited media interest and introduced the British public to the potential fuel of the future.
Why is it CSR?
This project contributes to FirstGroup’s CSR and sustainable development strategy. It demonstrates the company’s recognition of the part it plays in the issues relating to carbon emissions and how it is tackling the problem.
The reliability of the technology, despite some anticipated teething problems, has proven to be better than expected. The trials indicated that hydrogen fuel cells could offer an alternative to diesel in the future, although the high cost of the vehicles is the major barrier at the moment.
The project was concluded in December 2005. It has been deemed sufficiently successful for FirstGroup in London, along with six other European cities, to continue the trial for a third year.
For more information on First Group, please contact Steve McPhail by email email@example.com or Alan Coney by email firstname.lastname@example.org
© Article 13 and CBI – CSR Case Study Series, June 2006
Do you have any comments on this profile? Would you like your organisation to be profiled? For further information, please contact Article 13 on 020 8840 4450 or email@example.com.
Other CSR case studies: