OXFORD Bus Company has warned that the city’s proposed zero emissions zone (ZEZ) could cost it tens of millions of pounds and risk a reduction in bus services of 80 per cent.

Quoting a recent national academic study, the organisation’s finance and commercial director told a low carbon conference at St Anne’s College last week that the uncertainty surrounding the zone has led to a lack of investment.

The Oxford Times:

A map of the planned ZEZ 

Luke Marion said there was a limit to what the company could do to comply with the proposals ‘without going bankrupt’.

He said: “I obviously support the idea [of the ZEZ] it’s a very bold objective, but the funding for people like us is key to see how it is going to be delivered. (Professor) David Begg has done a report that said that 80 per cent of bus services would be lost if you put in a ZEZ.

“The challenge is, as a bus operator, how you make that step to remove all your assets and which technology you go for – is it hydrogen, is it battery electric, is it a combination and what sort of funding is available?”

The proposed scheme - which aims to combat illegal levels of air pollution in the city centre by banning diesel and petrol vehicles from Oxford city centre - could be the world’s first ZEZ.

It would begin in 2020, with all polluting vehicles set to be removed by 2035, cutting nitrogen dioxide levels in George Street by 74 per cent.

But Mr Marion questioned its practicalities, adding: “We did some basic maths and we are talking about tens of millions to convert the fleet. Central government funding is not going to be enough.

“We don’t want the emission zone to be a thing that’s going to lead to a period of stasis, where we don’t invest in any vehicles because we don’t know what’s going on, and as a result everything gets worse. Clarity on funding is a priority.”

Oxford Bus Company boss Phil Southall has previously voiced ‘practical concerns’ about the scheme, while trialling an electric bus in August.

The organisation currently own 230 buses, 96 of which are lower polluting Euro 6 models. That will rise to 157 by April, alongside five electric buses, leaving 68 Euro 5 buses to be ‘replaced or upgraded’.

In July, it emerged that the county council owned no electric vehicles.

City councillor Tom Hayes, Board Member for A Safer and Greener Environment, stressed that cleaner air was a priority but that the unprecedented nature of the scheme meant it required ‘heavy consultation’.

He said: “We’re securing government funding to support the bus companies whenever we can. In February we secured £1.7m to introduce the first five fully electric double-decker buses to Oxford. This will also see 78 local buses retrofitted to a very clean engine.

“Every business, public transport provider, and group we’ve talked to about the ZEZ agree with it in principle and back an aim of protecting our citizens and ourselves against dirty air. We’re now engaged in working together to make this world first a success for our city, worth emulating worldwide.”

Mr Hayes added that ‘the writing is on the wall for polluting vehicles’, and that more government support was needed for bus fleets to transition to zero emissions.

Stagecoach Oxfordshire’s managing director Chris Coleman said the high cost of replacing diesel buses and introducing new infrastructure needed to be considered, but labelled the ZEZ ‘a great idea’.