London looks to hybrids at Euro Bus Expo

By Doug Jack

Euro Bus Expo 2008 held in Birmingham, England in November was somewhat misleading as nearly all the exhibits targeted the British market.

The argument for hybrid buses in Europe grew strong last summer when the price of oil peaked at $147 per barrel. Most manufacturers claimed the higher initial cost would be recovered through savings in fuel consumption over a five to six year period. While the price has come down to $47 per barrel, knocking that argument firmly on the head, the price of oil will inevitably rise over the longer term. It makes sense for bus fleets in the U.K. to gain experience in running hybrid vehicles.

The previous mayor of London introduced many measures to support public transport, and gave strong backing to the introduction of hybrid buses. His plan called for approximately 800 hybrid buses or one-tenth of the fleet to be operational by the Olympic Games in 2012.

The current mayor has shown interest in public transport, but not in the same positive light as his successor. He has pledged to take out of service all the articulated buses currently working in the capital. Though they are very effective at moving large numbers of people over relatively short distances, a popular belief is they contribute to congestion.

He wants to replace them with a modern version of the traditional London double deck bus. His critics point out that these vehicles will require a driver and conductor, which will mean a subsequent increase in labor costs. They also see the open rear platform on the double decks as a safety hazard. A recent competition invited designs and the industry is waiting to see what happens next.

The mayor also has pledged to continue with hybrid buses but in lesser numbers. Still this comes as a great relief to several manufacturers, who have spent considerable time, effort and money in developing hybrid products; several of which they launched at the Euro Expo.

One of the unknown factors is the cost and life expectancy of batteries. Most hybrid systems in Europe now use lithium-ion batteries that are relatively light and compact, yet hold a powerful electric charge. The general view is that the price of these batteries will come down as volume increases. Alexander Dennis was able to announce that its battery packs had a five-year warranty, a great benefit to an operator quoting for a typical five-year contract in London.

At the time of the show 13 Wrightbus hybrid vehicles were running in London, including the first hybrid double deck bus. The company showed another Gemini 2HEV double deck bus with a 2.4-litre Ford diesel engine, Siemens hybrid drive and lithium-ion batteries; one of five destined for service at the start of 2009.

During the exhibition FirstGroup placed an order with Wrightbus for 10 similar vehicles that will be the first hybrid vehicles in service outside London. Five will go to Manchester and five to Glasgow, Scotland.

The Wrightbus hybrid RTV vehicle headed for Las Vegas generated a lot of interest, as a number of British cities are looking at investment in high quality transport schemes using similar vehicles.

Less public funding available

In these difficult times with less public funding available for new trams, the Las Vegas vehicles are a very attractive and much less expensive alternative.

Alexander Dennis has teamed up with BAE Systems to employ second-generation hybrid drive. Five single deck Enviro200 midi-buses and 30 Enviro400 double deck buses will soon enter into service in London. Both models incorporate a 4.5-litre Cummins engine, which in early trials with Transport for London have demonstrated fuel savings of up to 40 percent.

Among the major European manufacturers, Volvo is probably furthest ahead on hybrid development with its integrated starter alternator motor (ISAM) system that can be used across the complete product range.

This system employs a 5-litre engine mounted offset and in line at the rear. Unusually, the power is transmitted to an automated manual gearbox.

The ISAM system lends itself very well to 40-ft single deck city buses, but the rear overhang was longer than normally expected on a more compact double deck vehicle.

Optare showed a Tempo low-floor bus that employs a Cummins engine and Allison hybrid drive system. In the summer of 2008 a group that manufactures electrically powered vehicles and now owns East Lancs purchased Optare and kept the name for all its bus-building activities.

The East Lancs operation has since moved to a new facility in the town of Blackburn in northwest England where it builds all the models in the combined range except the popular Solo midibus, which remains in the Leeds area.

The battery-powered Solo midibus with Enova electrical systems is a new product said to have a range of 100 miles on a complete charge; most likely insufficient for the vast majority of bus fleets. But if batteries of a greater range are available, the Solo concept could take off.

Optare also showed the Rapta, a new double deck bus available either as a conventional diesel vehicle or hybrid. Production commences in mid 2009.

Scania brought across a hybrid bus it first launched in 2008 at the UITP conference and exhibition in Helsinki. The bus uses a 9-litre engine, the smallest in the Scania range that can use diesel, gasoline or ethanol.

An intriguing situation

Since the project started, Volkswagen has built up a majority shareholding in Scania. In turn Porsche has acquired nearly 50 percent of the shares in Volkswagen and recently announced that it had secured the rights to buy a further 25 percent. The Swedish Financial Authority has said that if the Porsche stake in Volkswagen exceeds 50 percent Porsche must make an offer for all the shares in Scania; an intriguing situation that would give Scania access to smaller diesel engines.

For its hybrid vehicle, Scania, like MAN, has opted for super-capacitors instead of batteries for energy storage. They are relatively light in weight and are expected to last the lifetime of a vehicle.

The British coach market has some keen competition from several continental suppliers. Neoplan showed the first Starliner to be built with right-hand drive.

In addition to the new hybrid buses, the show also featured many conventional diesel-powered buses and coaches. The star was the new flagship coach body from Plaxton called the Elite.

Plaxton has a reputation for rather conservative styling but excellent product quality. Visually attractive without being flashy, the new Elite breaks the mold. The front windshield is divided horizontally with the upper section continuing high into the roofline. This feature offers excellent visibility for passengers, especially those sitting on the gently ramped front three rows. With the first orders for the Elite taken at the Euro Bus exhibition, production begins early this year.

Generally, intercity and express coaches are fairly resilient to recessions when people economize on travel. The future for the touring coach industry is not so predictable. The weakness of our currency against the Euro will probably mean fewer excursions into continental Europe. On the other hand, we might expect to see a rise in inbound tourists especially from North America.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.