VDL leads European electric charge

By Doug Jack

Currently, VDL Bus & Coach has delivered and taken orders for more electric buses than any other European manufacturer.

Headquartered in Eindhoven the Netherlands, The VDL Groep (Van Der Leegte Groep) can trace its history back to 1953 when the grandfather of the current president and chairman, Willem Van Der Leegte, established a metal working business.

Over the years, the company has expanded and now has more than 70 subsidiaries broadly spread over four main activities. Last year the Groep turnover was around $3.6 billion, with nearly 15,000 employees in around 20 countries. The Groep remains privately owned.

The main automotive activities are the manufacturing of buses and coaches in VDL Bus & Coach, and the contract assembly of a range of small cars for BMW of Germany. VDL took over a former Mitsubishi factory in the south of the Netherlands and completely re-equipped it.

The transit bus range is known as the Citea and is available in lengths of 32 feet and up to 61 feet articulated. They all have steel underframes and structures, but, unusually, a very high content of composite materials for flooring, roofs and all external panels. These offer total resistance to corrosion and help to save weight, and therefore fuel consumption. Many of the shorter models use Cummins engines.

A 32-foot electric midibus running in Venlo in the Netherlands.

Like most European manufacturers, VDL Bus & Coach started development of hybrid buses about eight years ago. At that time, manufacturers and fleets saw hybrid buses as offering superior fuel consumption and lower emissions in urban centers. It was only more recently that many them recognized hybrid buses as a crucial step toward the development of all-electric vehicles. This was relevant to VDL, partly because Eindhoven is an important industrial city and home to Philips, a European lighting and electronics giant.

Four years ago, at the UITP Congress and Exhibition in Geneva, Switzerland, VDL Bus & Coach launched the 40-foot-long Citea SLF Electric. (SLF stood for super low-floor, which was about 14 inches above the ground from front to rear.)

Customers were offered a variety of electric drive and battery options to best suit their requirements, such as daily range and recharging. The Citea Electric was notable for having all the batteries and electrical equipment located in a full height compartment inside the offside rear of the bus, occupying the space of two double seats. All the equipment was easily accessible.

A 40-foot Citea Electric on trial in Maastrich.

VDL Bus & Coach opted to use electric wheel-hub motors developed by the German company Ziehl-Abegg. These were located within the rear wheels which had super-single tires instead of the more usual twin tires. From the outset, customers could opt for sufficient batteries for a full day’s operation, or for fast opportunity charging, during service, and normally at one or both ends of a route.

Later in the same year, VDL Bus & Coach launched articulated versions of the Citea and said from the outset that they would also be available with the option of electric drive. The company continued to offer hybrid versions of the Citea, with De Lijn, a major Belgian customer, taking 105 in 2014.

There was, and still is, strong political and public pressure in the Netherlands for buses with low or zero emissions. A small number of customers specified compressed natural gas but VDL resisted that option very strongly. They argued that, although tail-pipe emissions were lower than diesel, a gas bus typically consumed about 1.7 times more fuel per mile than a diesel bus and that had to be considered when measuring emissions.

One of the early 40-foot Citea Hybrid buses.

Other authorities in the Netherlands preferred the all-electric option. One of the first was the province of North Brabant and the Brabant Development Agency. In 2014, they decided to run a pilot project with 15 Citea Electric buses. Around the same time, KVB, the transit authority in the German city of Koln (Cologne) signed a contract for eight articulated Citea Electric buses designed for fast charging at each end of a route.

A major boost came from the province of North Brabant towards the end of 2015 when it decided that Eindhoven should have zero-emission public transport by 2020 and backed this with an order for 43 articulated Citea Electric buses that have subsequently entered service.

Arriva Netherlands, which runs a number of bus concessions, placed orders for a large number of Citea buses last autumn, including 30 Electric models of three different sizes, mainly for routes in the south of the country. This spring Connexxion, another major company, ordered 100 articulated Citea Electric buses. At the time, this was the largest electric bus order placed anywhere in Europe. Each of the buses will run more than 70,000 miles per annum, making a major contribution to reductions in emissions.

A Citea Electric showing the overhead gantry for conductive charging.

VDL Bus & Coach has factories in the Netherlands and its Jonckheere subsidiary at Roeselare in Belgium. The main Citea plant is in the town of Heerenveen, in the north of the Netherlands, but the Jonckheere factory can also build the range. Labor costs are high in the Netherlands and Belgium, but the VDL Groep is committed to its home country and has encouraged flexible working to keep costs competitive.

When producing single and double-decker luxury coaches, VDL manages peak demand for deliveries in the first half of each year, while demand for transit buses falls later in the year. The factories have sufficient flexibility that they can help each other to cope with peaks and troughs in production.

In May this year, the company held a series of press and customer events in Eindhoven to talk about its experience to date with electric buses. The shortest model in the range is 32 feet long and can carry 55-65 passengers, including standing. The 40-foot Citea Electric can carry 80-100 passengers while the articulated model is normally designed for 140-150 passengers.

Raised platforms at bus stops make it easy for passengers to get on and off.

Interestingly, authorities are trying to take older diesel buses out of service, replacing them with the latest and cleanest models. There will not be the same pressure with zero-emission electric buses. If performing correctly, they will be capable of a longer operational life. In turn, other factors may determine when they must be replaced.

Hermes talked about its experience with the 43 articulated Citea Electric buses in Eindhoven. There had been intensive training of drivers and maintenance staff in the early days, but that is now running smoothly. The company opted for overhead conductive charging for the buses. Ten fast chargers of 300kW and 22 overnight slow-chargers of 30kW were installed. There were also two mobile chargers in the workshop.

High-quality bus lanes were installed on the routes used by electric buses, and only zero-emission buses were permitted to use them. Timetables had been adjusted to increase frequencies, but also to allow time for fast charging during service. This presented some logistical challenges, including changes of vehicles and drivers to maximize the use of buses and charging facilities. The increase in frequencies

The stylish Futura FDD2 double-decker coach.

and recharging led to the recruitment of about 10 percent more staff.

VDL Bus & Coach is working closely with its customers and public authorities to share knowledge on the operation of electric buses and to monitor the total cost of ownership. The challenge is to raise demand for public transport and to attract new passengers who previously used their own cars. It appears to be working well in Eindhoven and that bodes well for the future of electric buses.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.