Bus Back Better: Integrating zero emission buses

We’ll be seeing lots of shiny new zero emission buses on English roads over the next three years. Bus Back Better, the National Bus Strategy for England, supports the introduction of at least 4,000 new zero emission buses – more than a tenth of the national fleet.

In the third part of a series on how the National Bus Strategy can be successfully delivered (read parts 1 and 2), James McCarthy, Head of Operations at CitySwift, considers the challenge of integrating 4,000 zero emission buses into networks.

The commitment to support the introduction of these new vehicles comes from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. In his foreword to Bus Back Better, he writes: “We want 4,000 new green buses, and many others, running faster and more reliably in special lanes.”

 “We want 4,000 new green buses, and many others, running faster and more reliably in special lanes.”

The strategy rightly hails this as an “unprecedented investment”, “the single biggest of its kind for zero emission buses”. Electric and hydrogen buses will no longer be curiosities – they will become mainstays of bus fleets across England.

Buses already have a great story to tell in terms of per passenger emissions – but this investment will make it even better. The popular image of the dirty bus, belching out fumes, was always an unfair one. Soon it will be laid to rest.

Close collaboration between bus operators and local transport authorities (LTAs) is perhaps the key theme of the National Bus Strategy and that extends to the roll-out of zero emission buses. Decisions on local transition to zero emission fleets are to be taken collaboratively through local bus partnerships.

The government does not have a preference for battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell buses, acknowledging that both technologies have strengths in different circumstances. It states: “On current technology, battery-electric is a more efficient user of energy, but hydrogen can lend itself better to longer journeys in rural areas”.

This is the direction of travel and there is no going back. The bus strategy states that government will set a legal end date for the sale of new diesel buses, and set an expectation for when the entire bus fleet will be zero emission. It will consult on potential dates later this year.

Two tranches of funding have recently been announced, accounting for around a fifth of the promised 4,000 zero emission buses:

• After winning the government’s first All Electric Bus City competition, Coventry will receive £50m to help it acquire 297 all-electric buses and the associated charging infrastructure. Every bus in Coventry will be electric-powered by 2025.

• The £120m Zero Emission Buses Regional Area (ZEBRA) scheme will support the purchase of up to 500 zero emission buses. The deadline for bids is June 25, 2021.

Of course, it’s not as straightforward as swapping a zero emission vehicle for a diesel one and sending it out on the road. Bus operators and LTAs have an enormous amount of work to do in a very short space of time.

Diesel is a technology that has served the bus industry well for decades, but it will now be phased out in just a few years. Bus operators will have to select the most appropriate technology - electric or hydrogen - for each depot or route and then consider the required charging infrastructure.

The switch to zero emission buses is a process that will involve the analysis of huge amounts of data – and that’s where CitySwift can contribute something to the process. We believe that the transition to zero emission buses starts by scrutinising the network and crunching the data about what can be achieved.

During the transition, bus operators will have to grapple with new technologies they may have not had experience of before. What changes to the network will be required to facilitate their introduction? What infrastructure will be required? How, where and when will vehicles be plugged into the grid to recharge or have their hydrogen tanks topped up? 

At CitySwift, we can provide some of those answers – and also suggest which parts of a network will be most appropriate for early conversion to zero emission buses. We can then help bus operators scale things up from a single route to a wider network; from 5% of the network to 40%, 60% and then - the big goal - of 100%.

Of course, zero emission buses do come at a cost premium, for now at least, but we believe there are opportunities beyond the obvious benefits to passengers and communities - opportunities to make savings - and our bus data engine can help identify them.

We believe there are opportunities beyond the obvious benefits to passengers and communities - opportunities to make savings - and our bus data engine can help identify them.

Here’s an example: Electric vehicles offer much faster acceleration than their conventionally-powered brethren. We’ve all seen the incredible acceleration that can be achieved by the very latest electric cars – and it’s the same for electric buses. This means that, all things being equal, an electric bus will get from Stop A to Stop B potentially more quickly than the diesel bus it replaces. 

On the face of it, the time saved may not be significant – a second here or there, maybe a minute or so per trip. But even a two or three percent improvement in average bus speed can realise significant cost savings, particularly if that cost saving is compounded over two, three, five or even ten years. And that saving can be realised from something as simple as an electric bus departing from a bus stop or traffic light quicker than a diesel bus. Incredible isn’t it?! 

But this shows how important it is for bus operators to have a technical, data-driven approach that can help not only to ensure a smooth rollout but also to help identify the opportunities that open up with the switch to zero emission buses. Those opportunities will also feed into other elements of Bus Back Better. But it’s important to remember that every network is different.

Operators will need to look closely at their networks to see what is achievable – factors like topography, trip length and network scope will all need to be closely examined. Each and every bus network is different, but we believe that by combining the vast local knowledge of the bus operator’s network planners with our cutting-edge technology, we can deliver a compelling solution that will help with the nationwide roll-out of zero emission buses and put the wider bus industry into the fast lane for a greener future.

James McCarthy is Head of Operations at CitySwift. Read part 4 of his series on the National Bus Strategy.

Learn more about CitySwift’s specialist bus data engine, request a demo or contact us to discover how CitySwift can help you Bus Back Better.