For the second year running the Go-Ahead Group has won the ILT's Environmental Improvement Award. Peter McCrum finds out whyThe business of providing public transport involves an inevitable and significant environmental impact. Each year more than 650m passengers use services provided by companies owned by the Go-Ahead Group, which has a 6% share of the UK's public transport market, including 20% of London's buses - so its environmental footprint is larger than most organisations of a similar size. However, the group has been awarded the national Environmental Improvement Award for the second year running by the Institute of Logistics and Transport, demonstrating an admirable environmental commitment. The Go-Ahead Group, a devolved company with £1.2bn per annum turnover, was created following the liberalisation of the UK's train and bus industries and is now a major provider of public transport. There is a team of only about 15 at head office - the rest of its staff is devolved to local subsidiaries. The view is that public transport is a local service, so the senior management teams run their companies autonomously.
The group has bus operations in Oxford, Brighton, London and the North East and major commuter train services serving the capital - Thameslink and South Central. It has also added aviation ground-handling to its business through the acquisition of GHI, Reed Aviation, Midland Airport Services and the ground handling activities of British Midland Airways, which were merged to form aviance UK. An integrated service
The Go-Ahead Group has also moved into parking management, reflecting the group's attempts to develop an integrated transport service. It is already responsible for around 124 rail station carparks and a number of park and ride sites. However, this was significantly enhanced by the acquisition of Meteor Parking. On-line bookings, via Meteor's e-parking, allows passengers to combine season parking and rail travel tickets.
Stephen Weldon started as a management trainee in 1995 and is now the group's commercial manager. He is in charge of environmental and social reporting, but the day-to-day environmental management is dealt with by local subsidiaries, each of which is expected to monitor its own environmental impact.
So what prompted the group to take its environmental reporting so seriously? "Nearly all the decisions that we take are based on a business imperative," says Weldon. "To some extent our objective is to try to look at synergies where both business and the environment will benefit, so it's not true altruism. There has to be some payback or benefit for the group for us to get involved in environmental or social issues.
"It's one of the millstones we have round our necks being a plc, in the sense that we are always accountable to both the city and to shareholders. Although we are probably one of the best transport providers on reporting environmental data in the country, I must admit we tend to be business driven as opposed to CSR-driven." So why bother with environmental reports, if providing public transport and not the environment is, understandably, the group's main concern? "What we've often found is that people won't necessarily make an effort to get in touch with us because we are publishing this information, but they certainly will if we don't. The kudos or benefit of producing an environmental report is lost after the first is published, but if you stop publishing one, people will get on your case and ask you why." But surely the environmental data is useful to financial and business analysts? "Mainstream analysts are just interested in bottom line performance," says Weldon. "But there are some ethical investment agencies who we meet two or three times a year and they monitor our reporting very closely."Reducing the group's footprint
Providing data is one thing, but actually reducing the environmental footprint of an organisation that by its very nature is inherently environmentally damaging is more of a challenge. So what, practical terms, can the group do to limit its impacts?
"We can get involved in trying to reduce the emissions of our buses," says Weldon. "We've been able to do a lot of work on reducing vehicle emissions with the buses on a roadside level and we've been investigating electric buses and LPG buses. We've also trailed hybrid buses and bio-diesel engines. What we eventually found was that the most workable solution, both in cost and for delivering something that didn't involve a complete overhaul of the fleet, was the use of continuously regenerating particulate traps (CRTs)."
CRT is an exhaust treatment - a ceramic honeycomb filter which removes a lot of pollutants, such as black smoke, the particulate matter that can cause asthma, some carbon monoxide, sulphur and a range of other bad pollutants which affect human health at a roadside level. This is combined with ultra-low sulphur diesel and fleet renewal - new vehicles have improved engines, delivering better environmental performance.
"Since 1998 there have been constant reductions in emissions, and from a business perspective it provides real benefits because a more attractive fleet attracts customers," Weldon says. This is an instance of the synergy he talks about - providing a positive outcome for both business and environmental concerns. The problem with new fuels is that they don't have the operational range of diesel. Normally a bus will go out at about 4:00am until 11-12pm and can run for a full day without having to return to the depot. That's not achievable with electric, LPG, or - research suggests - hybrid fuels.
To have to bring back a bus halfway through the day to re-fuel is inefficient. Ultra-low sulphur diesel and CRTs reduces emissions and maintains standards of service. The hydrogen fuel cell will be the way of the future, according to experts, but they are not yet commercially available at an affordable price - hydrogen fuel buses cost about £1m each.The downside of social provisions
"Another issue we've found is that when we try to reduce the harmful emissions from our vehicles, especially diesel engines, some of the social provisions our passengers demand such as low floor buses, newer engines, air conditioning - things that the passengers want to enhance the level of service - all tend to have a downside, usually increased CO2 production," Weldon says.Understanding the trade-off
It is this paradox at the heart of the group's operations that most challenges its green credentials, but in a way provides the best justification for its detailed environmental reporting. "We try to tackle it in every edition of the report," says Weldon. "There needs to an understanding of the trade-off between public and private transport. The average bus is more polluting than your average car. What we try to put across to people is that a bus - even if it's only two thirds full - will take 20-30 cars off the road.
"We will continue to pump out greenhouse gases. What we have to do is manage that process as tightly as possible and to educate people that these issues are here to stay and that using buses can help reduce pollution in city centres."
Weldon, and the report, offers assurances that the group is committed to establishing environmentally responsible operating procedures, but with the proviso that it is also good for business. And that is essentially the message. It's refreshingly honest, and delivers results.