Government grant to trigger £22 million investment programme in Ballymena bus-maker says Bamford

Wrightbus chief executive Buta Atwal (left) and Chairman Jo Bamford (right) with the first hydrogen fuel cell electric powered zero emissions bus to come off the production line last July. Picture by Alan Lewis.
Ryan McAleer

NEW Wrightbus owner Jo Bamford has said the Ballymena bus-making operation will undergo a £22 million investment programme over the next two years, despite the grim state of the Covid-hit transport market.

An £11.2m UK Government grant to develop and manufacture low-cost hydrogen fuel cell technology for buses will be matched by the JCB heir as the revived Co Antrim firm continues its transition to a green energy business.

It’s expected to lead to significant job creation over the next decade, perhaps adding as many as 3,000 new jobs to the Co Antrim engineering hub.

Speaking to The Irish News 18 months after buying the business out of administration, Mr Bamford said the major transformation programme is continuing at full steam despite a lull in new orders.

Around 1,200 people lost their jobs when Wrightbus collapsed. Just 60 staff were left on the books at the time of the October 2019 sale.

By the outset of the pandemic in March 2020, the workforce was back up to around 800.

But Mr Bamford, whose grandfather launched the JCB empire, admitted the pandemic had resulted in the order book going quiet, with the company resorting to utilizing the government furlough scheme for some workers.

“The market today is pretty grim, because nobody is sitting on buses.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but the reality is, we’re trying to prepare for the future. We’re hoping there’s going to be a market in the future.

“We open and closed the business twice during Covid, we worked to keep the business alive and functioning and we’re investing into the future.”

While some staff remain on furlough, the efforts to radically transform Wrightbus into a world-leading hydrogen bus operation has meant the recruitment process has continued.

“We’ve added a lot of engineers and higher skilled people.

“We’re desperately chasing getting this zero emission range out there as quickly as possible.”

The company has already launched the world's first zero-emission hydrogen double decker bus and is building some hydrogen-powered buses for Translink.

The next phase will be backed by the £11.2m from the UK Government’s Advanced Propulsion Centre (APC).

According to the APC, the programme will enable higher volume production at lower cost and create a centre of excellence for zero emissions hydrogen technology to upskill and share knowledge in the UK.

“The funding is match funding for what we will be spending ourselves on the future and the future is going to be zero emission green buses,” said the Wrightbus chairman.

“Everyone wants to go to zero emissions as quickly as possible. In some respects, the world wants to go quicker than we can design the products.

“Because the money we announced today, we probably won’t have a product out for 18 months. No matter how much money you put into it, you still have to design it and have it working on the road.

“The world wanted it yesterday, so it’s a wonderful opportunity in some respects.”

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