There are around 32,000 buses in the UK – and they need to go electric. With cities shifting away from petrol and diesel to electric vehicles in order to reduce air pollution and meet carbon neutral goals, electric buses are the future of local mass transport.
“Corporate requirements and government regulations mean bus operators are going to have to decarbonise,” says Mike Nugent, head of intelligent fleet decarbonisation, Hitachi Europe.
But there’s more to the challenge than swapping diesel-chugging buses for battery-operated alternatives. The pandemic has disrupted commutes, slashing the fares collected on routes that are contractually obligated to run, even when empty of passengers, leaving public transport authorities’ budgets tighter than ever. Batteries don’t necessarily lend themselves to all-day driving, and end-of-life disposal remains a challenge, while electrification has serious impacts on management of depots and the skills required from staff.
Hitachi believes it has a solution, one borrowed from its famous train and rail division. Hitachi Rail offers trains as a service, rather than selling locomotives and carriages directly to train operating companies. For a set fee, Hitachi supplies the train, the maintenance, the cleaning and more. “Hitachi ensures that trains are maintained, clean and ready for service at the beginning of each shift or journey,” he says. “And you, the company, can then worry about using the trains and serving customers.”
That could work for electric buses, Nugent argues – and, rather handily, the UK’s train operating companies also often run bus services, so it’s a model that will be familiar to them. Right now, bus operating companies are well-accustomed to storing fuel, maintaining a diesel-powered engine, and everything else that comes with that well-understood system. But switching over depots and maintenance yards – and the staff that work in them – from combustion engines and diesel to an entirely new technology is a big leap.
“Traditionally, they don’t have to worry about complications when filling buses with fuel — it’s not been a concern. It’s diesel or biofuels and away you go,” he says. “But now they’re being asked to become experts in the whole electrification process.” And that’s no mean feat when a bus company operates thousands of vehicles across multiple depots, he adds.
There’s a lot to consider, from choosing the right bus and chassis, to selecting a battery that will last through a day of routes and managing how to keep it charged. “There’s a whole set of new questions to which nobody has a very clear answer,” Nugent says.
Of course, bus companies have run pilots and trials on electric buses, which has helped the industry learn what’s necessary to make this massive leap in technology. “Now we’re moving from that infant stage of the market to the teenager and adult stage,” he says. “But how do you ensure you’re making the right decisions now, and not being locked into bad decisions in the long term?” says Nugent.
That’s particularly true given the fast pace of technological development in electric vehicles. Fast-charging batteries, for example, could disrupt how a bus depot operates. Working with a partner who also benefits from investing in new technology can help mitigate those risks. “The decisions you make today will be very different to the decisions you will make in five years or ten years — you have to look at this as a set of strategic rolling decisions,” he says. “Our whole approach to this is that we want to work at a strategic level to help make those decisions. You need to have a partner with the ability to deliver scale operations, access to low-cost finance, the ability to flex commercial models and approaches to service delivery, and the capability to scan the horizon to think about future opportunities. We need to build flexibility into contracts that allow changes in tactics and approach to electrification as new technologies and solutions become available.”
Looking at electric buses as a service could help that risk, he explains. “Our ultimate aim is that we should be putting our bus operating partners into a position where all they’re worried about is the utilisation of their buses and collection of fares from customers — not that the buses are fit and ready for service,” he says. “Their drivers just need to turn up and get in the bus.”
This massive shift in the bus industry isn’t just about risks and costs, Nugent adds, but opportunity. Depots are often in prime locations in city centres, necessary to act as transport hubs. With buses out on routes, charging points could be opened up to electric cars, such as fleets of taxis. Drivers waiting for their vehicles to recharge will want a place to pick up a coffee and a sandwich, so it could be worth letting space to retail. “There is an opportunity for bus depots to be looked at as profit centres,” he says.
Plus, if the bus depot has room for battery storage, the company can draw down power to recharge all day long, reducing the load on local grids. And, if solar panels or wind generators are installed on-site or locally (subject to the appropriate planning permissions), the depot could end up selling sustainable power back to the grid. “I’ve got free energy coming in and a new revenue stream that we want to manage and share with the bus companies,” says Nugent.
And the answer to that could be electric buses, helping people get to work in a convenient way while also driving decarbonisation efforts. “The real challenge is you can’t sit on your hands,” says Nugent. “The clock is ticking and now is the time to decarbonise bus fleets.”
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