Open Top Views

Open top tourist buses are a familiar sight on the streets of many of the world’s biggest cities – and that includes our World Heritage city where the Bath Bus Company carry around a quarter of a million people every year.

However, though they may give our much-needed visitors a comfortable and enjoyable way of taking in the sites – not everyone – it seems – is happy about their presence on our streets.

I am going to let one resident have his say and give the Bath Bus Company the right of reply. There are also comments from our MP Wera Hobhouse and Cllr Joanna Wright who is Joint Cabinet member for Transport Issues with B&NES.

Out of this exchange of views comes news of trials with an electric tourist bus in London. They are also running in Paris. While there is – apparently l am told – enough power to get up a hill, the current weight of the vehicle might be an issue passing over Bath’s many cellars.

So, here we go. All views expressed here are not mine but those of the people who have contributed to this article.

Let’s start with George Feiger – who lives in the midst of several of the major tourist attractions the buses connect with on the slopes of Lansdown.

He writes:

‘Richard, I recently sent you a picture of our banner – opposite the bus stop at the end of Brock Street – asking to ban the open-topped bus because of the pollution that vehicles like this emit. The banner points to or, which have some research material on this.

Image supplied by George Feiger.

I have a portable pollution meter that tells me how much comes out of the bus exhaust – both gases and micro-particles.

The bus company makes the nonsensical argument that, as the buses are “Euro6 compliant”, they aren’t a problem. There are many holes in this. First, even if they are Euro6 compliant, is that enough to limit pollution? Bath is in a bowl so pollutants linger. A vehicle that might not be a problem on a windswept plain is a major problem in a bowl.

Second, are the buses compliant now, on the street? They are old and, as you know, all the manufacturers of vehicles have systemically gamed the pollution tests and simply lied. They should be randomly tested on the road, which will reveal a very different story.

Library shot.

In addition to core pollution issue, the vehicles cause congestion and occasional damage, when manoeuvring through our narrow Georgian streets. There is a series of pictures (included) that illustrate this.

But you can see these things all the time, for example as the buses exit Victoria Park and try to enter George Street at the junction with Gay Street. The blockage and congestion these bus movements cause then back traffic up and idling vehicles emit much more pollution than running vehicles. So the buses amplify the pollution situation, as well as being direct contributors.

We need smaller, electric buses that could manoeuvre through our streets as well as not polluting them. That is the way to make public transport, and particularly tourist transport, compatible with our beautiful City and the local topography. It would also keep many more people alive and not suffering with asthma and other cardiovascular problems.’

Library image.

I contacted the Bath Bus Company for comment. They are the local operators of the City Sightseeing franchise in Bath and Cardiff. They also operate the A4 Air Decker service which is the only direct link from Bath to Bristol Airport.

The Company’s Managing Director is Martin Curtis who told Bath Newseum:

“Tourists’ contribution to the local economy is colossal, of course, and Tour buses allow visitors to move around the city very efficiently, and with the hop-on, hop-off facility, it is used as the main tourist transport during their stay.  Tour buses connect almost all the locations of interest, while every top deck bus load would require some thirty cars or taxis to make the same journeys – adding to pollution and congestion.

The tourist industry is the main economy in the city, employing hundreds of individuals and creating wealth locally. It is recognised that tour buses provide a highly efficient method of linking tourist locations while providing unrivalled views of the city.

The Company’s website.

The Traffic Regulation Condition (TRC) covering tour buses defines exactly how long waiting may occur at every stop in the city. This determines  whether the bus engine should be turned off as occurs in the city centre and is followed exactly by Bath Bus Company.

Heavy vehicles like buses don’t work in quite the same way as a car: the engine powers the suspension, brakes, destination displays, and commentary systems – so restarting and building pressure can take more energy than remaining running for very brief stops.

In Brock Street for example, only passenger numbers boarding and traffic conditions would cause a delay beyond seconds. The manoeuvre in Gay Street and several other situations in the city are not as difficult as they may look.

A recent photo.

We carry over 250,000 passengers a year. The Traffic Commissioners office accepts an open tour bus to be full when the top deck is occupied –as that is the point of such vehicles. However, people board and alight continually, so loadings vary in waves or surges.

The frequency is adjusted at different times of year but the current capacity is set by normal levels of previous years. Of course there are times when buses are not full, but regularly we have to hold passengers for a following bus or occasionally provide extras when large groups arrive from coaches or an excursion train. This is the reasoning behind the size of vehicles used.

The current regulations require Bath tour buses to be Euro 3 standard. Bath Bus Company has taken this far further – to Euro 5+ and 6 – having invested £millions in the process.

The Tour bus routes around Bath.

Currently the group of which we are a member  is working with manufacturers to develop an electric tour bus which will benefit Bath in due course. These measures are of major importance for the future.

Furthermore, electric buses are extremely heavy owing to the batteries carried – which currently would cause damage if operated over Bath’s vaults below roadways. In due course the weight issue will be overcome.

Government funding is currently being processed by B&NES to upgrade all buses locally to Euro 6 standard where that is not already the case.

Bath MP, Wera Hobhouse.

In the meantime the MP for Bath, Wera Hobhouse has sent the following response.

“I am always pleased to see the community organising around our commitment to climate action. However, this is a complicated issue and at the moment there is no alternative to diesel tour buses.

Although electric buses have been trialled, they are unable to climb our city’s steep hills when loaded with people and this makes them inappropriate for Bath. The other alternative is hydrogen buses, but these are prohibitively expensive and require extensive new infrastructure.

I am extremely keen to promote Euro 6 compliance to ensure that the buses already in circulation are as green and efficient as possible.

Furthermore, at this especially challenging time, it is important to encourage visitors to safely enjoy Bath. Tourism brings a huge amount to our local economy by benefiting local businesses and helping to fund our essential services.”

Cllr Joanna Wright

I also contacted Cllr Joanna Wright who is Joint Cabinet Member for Transport Issues at Bath and North East Somerset Council. She told me:

“The health of residents is central to the work we are undertaking to improve air quality. We are working with all Bus Companies, including Bath Bus Company who run the tour buses, to ensure that all buses within the city are as a minimum Euro 6 standard as part of the Clean Air Zone proposals that will be live early in 2021.

The chargeable Clean Air Zone is expected to be the first in the country to be live and will help, along with a number of other policies such as the Liveable Neighbourhoods proposals, ensure that the air within the city is improved in line with national and EU limit values.”

There we are. They say there are two sides to every argument. What do others think? Should we be pushing for electric buses too? Do them me know how you feel.