Sustainability

Exclusive: A look at electric buses in London, the UK

Posted on March 9, 2017

As outlined in an earlier article, air pollution is quickly rising up the agenda as a topic of concern across European metropoles. This is as a result of greater concerns about personal health, the actual standards of industry in emitting pollution, and much greater coverage from the media about the issue and its impacts, as well as the resulting focus from local politicians.

In late January, the London Mayor issued yet another high pollution alert as a result of stagnant winter air. While the city is not facing the industry shutdowns or bans of vehicular travel being implemented in other global cities, including some of our European neighbors, pressure exists to implement long-term measures to improve the quality of the air.

London’s bus network is a liability, as well as a tremendous asset, to be managed in this debate. Transport for London (TfL) operates in excess of 8,000 buses across the urban area carrying over six million daily passengers. The majority of the fleet, which are privately owned and operated but to a public tender, operates at Euro VI emission standards — the latest European standards for diesel vehicles. The size of fleet and the dominance of public transport — buses as well as rail in delivering mobility in the city — means that public transport has a significant impact on local air quality. In particular, it is a huge opportunity to enable clean air via the use of new technologies. A range of fuels have already been tested including: low sulfur diesels, diesel hybrids (over 1,500 vehicles), CNG, hydrogen (eight vehicles), and fully-electric (50 vehicles)

All photos courtesy Giles Bailey.
All photos courtesy Giles Bailey.

In addition, lighter and more fuel efficient vehicles are regularly being developed and deployed. While lower emission vehicles address many of the environmental concerns including lower CO2 emissions regarding global warming, an ultimate goal must remain the complete elimination of particulates and noxious gas emissions from the thousands of buses in the city. Many alternative vehicle propulsion systems are a staging route to this goal. These new buses also offer reduced street noise and a generally more attractive passenger environment, which are also priority policy goals.

There are various national policy levers to support the roll out of electric buses across the UK, but the London context is primarily being driven by the need for air quality improvements.

London tends to test its latest fuel technologies in various parts of the capital, but in particular on one of a series of routes across central London linking commuters to the main railway stations as well as a popular route connecting tourist sites along the Thames — the 507/521 as well as the RV1. These routes cover a range of demand levels and are high profile for key stakeholders in center of the city.

The RV1 route is currently served using eight hydrogen fuel-cell buses. These vehicles have been in service since 2011. This test is part of the Clean Hydrogen in European Cities project that is looking to lead to the full commercial operation of this technology based on a range of deployments in five European cities. It is also supported by the EU’s Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking and has 23 industrial partners across the continent.

The latest initiatives see the 507 and 521 now running solely with a fleet of 50 electric vehicles. Two electric vehicles from global electric bus leader BYD were previously tested in 2013. The contracted operator is using BYD vehicles with an Alexander Dennis Enviro 200 shell. These buses are approximately 40-feet in length and use lithium iron-phosphate batteries. This is one of the largest deployments of electric buses in Europe and quite an achievement for BYD. They have also agreed with TfL to develop and test five electric double-deck buses, amongst the other vehicles serving route 98 in north-central London. The vehicles were put into service in April 2016 and evaluation continues.

In all of the above cases, London is using plug-in recharging facilities at the bus depots, rather than en-route top up or fast recharges at the bus terminal loop.

A small trial of inductive charging technology has been underway in East London — route 69 — using three modified Alexander Dennis Enviro400H double-deck buses. These buses receive a charge for the traction batteries via an inductive loop while at the terminals of the route. Inductive loops are also being tested elsewhere in Europe.

London is sharing its experience and learning from its European neighbors via the ZeEUS Consortia (Zero Emission Urban Bus System) — an EU supported grouping of cities looking at zero emission technology. The ZeEUS program includes industrial partners from throughout the zero emission supply chain including the public transport association, UITP.

Across Europe most of the bus vehicle manufacturers are offering some form of fully-electric bus system, as well as hybrid system, using proprietary technology, or in partnership with another part of the supply chain. However, 98% of the global market for fully-electric buses remains within China, and thus, the global industry is currently dominated by Chinese products. Of the approximately 1,300 electric buses in Europe about one-fifth are in the UK. As well as London, Nottingham in the East Midlands of the UK has a fleet of 45 pure-electric buses, with a dozen more due shortly. These tend to be 10 million vehicles from Optare — Optare Solo10EV and Optare Versa EV.

London already operates a “Low Emission Zone” covering most of the urban area and restricts use of particularly polluting vehicles. As part of the deployment of an “Ultra Low Emissions Zone,” which would start by covering central London, but is likely to be progressively extended and will have the most stringent restrictions on the use of polluting vehicles, TfL is committed to having the bus fleet within this area be fully zero emissions (electric or hydrogen powered) by 20208. These proposals continue to evolve.

By comparison, Paris is also committed to a fully zero-emission fleet by 2025, via its “bus2025” program, which will mean that all of the region’s buses will be powered by electricity or biogas.

Over the last few years, TfL has been focused on delivering bus services using the London bespoke “New Routemasters.” These vehicles are three-doored, double-deckers with facilities for a driver, as well as a conductor. Over 1,000 vehicles, all diesel-electric hybrid, will be in service by 2017, although the roll out program has been suspended. While an exciting design, these costly vehicles have not assisted in delivering air cleaner than the existing modern buses on the market, or elsewhere in service in London.

Why hasn’t London moved faster to put in service clean bus technology? The air pollution crisis isn’t sudden and has been widely predicted and observed for many years. If anything, the public concern is only now catching up to the earlier professional awareness. Clearly, there are huge cost and resource complexities in delivering a very large and heavily used bus network within a constrained budget, and London absolutely depends on its bus network delivering mobility for its six million daily users.

The scale of the operation has allowed some of the largest European fully-electric bus trials to be implemented, but nevertheless, the vast majority of the fleet uses otherwise quite contemporary diesel and diesel-electric technology. While new technologies need to be evaluated, in such a large and wealthy city this rate of roll out is surprising. The diversion of resources to the New Routemaster could be the reason more wasn’t done in delivering zero emission technology sooner, and thus, only now a more concerted political focus is being given to this issue.

The publically managed bus fleet provides one of the ideal routes for managing air pollution issues. Nevertheless, air pollution has now become a political, economic as well as a personal issue in London, and there is a growing sense that more must be done promptly to address it.

Giles K. Bailey is a director at Stratageeb Ltd., a London based consultancy assisting businesses think about their strategic vision and innovation.

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