Electric buses could be on Cambridge streets in next few years says Stagecoach East boss Andy Campbell
In an exclusive interview with the Cambridge Independent, the bus boss reaffirmed his commitment to greener, smarter travel
Electric buses could be operating on Cambridge city roads within a few years, according to Stagecoach East’s managing director, Andy Campbell.
In an exclusive interview with the Cambridge Independent, the bus boss reaffirmed his commitment to greener, smarter travel, revealing that he is considering introducing electric, gas or hybrid buses in a further bid to help improve air quality within the city centre.
Stagecoach East has already made a significant contribution towards reducing nitrous oxide emissions this year, investing £4.7million in a fleet of 22 ‘greener’ Park & Ride buses – all fitted with the very latest stop-start technology which prevents buses from ticking over at bus stops.
Mr Campbell explains: “According to a recent report by tracking firm Satrak, Cambridge is the slowest moving city in the UK with traffic crawling along at an average speed of 13.73mph. And that’s disastrous news in terms of our air quality as contamination is caused by emissions from stationary vehicles ticking over for long periods, especially in traffic queues; cars as well as buses – and all cars, not just diesel ones.
“So, if we could only keep the traffic flowing and the vehicles moving, that alone would dramatically improve air quality. However, the ultimate is for Stagecoach East to eventually be running pure electric buses. Gas would, currently, be my second preferred option in terms of improving air quality. The third would be a hybrid, part-electric, part-diesel engine.
“Clearly, we are reviewing all three options because we want to improve air quality in the cities where we operate and we want to stay ahead of the game. But it has to be done in a cost-effective manner so that we are not passing on significant cost increases to our customers.”
There are, however, a few issues to overcome before realising the pure electric dream.
Mr Campbell says: “Electric cars, never mind electric buses, still have a very limited range without being recharged. That is, they can only do so many miles before they need recharging.
“In Cambridge, a standard bus is required to operate in the region of 250 miles a day. Currently, the best pure electric double-decker bus on the market only does about 80 miles. On that basis, we would need to be recharging these buses at least three times a day and using additional buses while they are off the road recharging – which all leads to significantly increased running costs and, in turn, increased fares.
“Electric single-deckers do go further - but the best ones on the market would still require recharging once. Replacing a double decker with two single-deckers, however, is never a sensible/financial option. Not only are you having to buy two vehicles instead of one, you also have two operating costs through the day and two drivers to pay – and a driver’s salary makes up 40 per cent of the operating cost.
“On a more positive note, battery technology is improving – and it may be that, in a few years’ time, these range issues could be resolved.
“The other main issue with using pure electric buses in Cambridge is the actual grid capacity within the city and the cost of increasing that grid capacity to be able to support the charging a significant number of vehicles. As it stands, the electricity grid system within the city doesn’t have enough capacity to allow everyone to watch TV, boil their kettles and charge up electric buses – so this is something that urgently needs to be addressed before electric buses can be introduced.
“And, even with an improved grid capacity, we would also require some matched funding to purchase pure electric vehicles as an electric bus is twice as expensive as a standard bus. We have tried to do this already with a view to improving air quality – but, so far, we have been unsuccessful.
“Only last year, we made a joint bid with the city and county councils to the government’s Low Emission Bus Scheme, which encourages a move towards a more sustainable public transport. We were seeking a grant of £5.8million to work with a company called GKN on developing flywheel technology, which stores electric energy into a battery and produces zero emissions. The technology was originally developed by the Williams Formula One team but European bus makers such as MAN and Mercedes-Benz have been experimenting with flywheel technology since the 1950s.
“Very disappointingly, we were unsuccessful in that bid – but, if it had moved forwards, we were prepared to invest a further £23million on replacing our fleet with it.
“But while technology is moving closer to realising everybody’s dream of pure electric vehicles, it’s not going to be properly happening for a few years yet. It’s difficult to predict exactly when it is likely to happen in Cambridge; I’d like to think it will be happening by 2022.”
We would require some matched funding to purchase pure electric vehicles as an electric bus is twice as expensive as a standard bus
Gas or hybrid buses, meanwhile, are proving an encouraging alternative.
“Reading is already using gas buses – but it’s still very new technology, and I’d like to see how successful it is before making a significant investment ourselves. Trials of bio-methane gas, however, have been very positive with minimal emissions,” says Mr Campbell.
Hybrid buses are also becoming more and more widely available, and Stagecoach operates a number of these in the UK, with the latest version up and running in Dundee, Scotland.
“If we’re going to move down the ‘electric’ route in the near future, then hybrid buses would seem to be the best available solution at the moment. Part-electric, part-diesel engines – these buses use the engine to recharge the batteries on the move,” adds Mr Campbell.
“Historically, you couldn’t distinguish where the electric was going to kick in; it just happened when it had enough power. But what they are currently working on is something called geo-fencing – which allows the operator to set the parameters of where you want the vehicle to operate on electric and where you want the engine to kick in.
“So, in Cambridge, for instance, you would be able to set these parameters to determine that the bus operated on pure electric through the core area and then drove on diesel and recharged outside of the city centre.”
Looking very much to the future, Mr Campbell doesn’t rule out one day operating autonomous vehicles and, only last month, met with developers to discuss the possibilities.
“Autonomous vehicles would be the most exciting development if it can be achieved,” he suggests. “We had a meeting about this last month – but, while this is something we’d look to do in the future, the technology doesn’t currently work with buses and there are restrictions on where you can run. You’re not allowed to operate on the public highway and all of our services operate on the public highway at some point.
“However, if autonomous vehicles are proven to be successful operating away from the public highway, then it’s inevitable that they will eventually be trialled on the public highway; initially with cars before moving to larger vehicles. While there would be costs involved in the technology, the operating costs would significantly reduce once you get to the point where you don’t need a driver, although I will be retired before this is introduced to buses.
“We have already been looking at using autonomous vehicles on the Guided Busway but unfortunately, the technology for the electronic steering box doesn’t work on conventional guideways. A guided bus has guide wheels that push into a steering box – but the electronic steering box has to be free from forces pushing against it.”
Stagecoach East, however, is committed to delivering greener, smarter travel where it can.
Mr Campbell says: “We have, in the past, used 100 per cent bio-fuel from waste products such as old chip fat, animal carcasses and anything with a fat content – and we deliberately avoided using bio-diesel from rapeseed oil, which, at the time, was heavily criticised for encouraging farmers to grow rapeseed over crops as it delivered a better return.
“The problem with 100 per cent bio-fuel is that, when it’s cold, it turns back into fat, and that’s difficult to run an engine on. But we have persevered with blends and discovered that 30 per cent bio-fuel doesn’t have such issues when cold – and so we have that blended specially and it is used across the whole Stagecoach East fleet.
“Looking after the environment is an important consideration for us. We have frequent bus services running every 10 minutes, and so we actively work at reducing our environmental impact wherever possible. And by continually striving to improve the fleet with almost every future enhancement available, we aim to deliver the highest standards of public transport in our city, both now and in the future.”
Stagecoach East at a glance
• Stagecoach East is part of the Stagecoach Group, one of the largest bus operators in the UK.
• In 2015-16, over 40.4 million passengers travelled on 436 Stagecoach East buses, on routes covering 21.4 million miles.
• Stagecoach East has 1,078 employees.
• Operating at over 90% reliability, the company invested £4.5m in new buses last year and the service receives just one customer complaint for every 7,919 miles.
• Visit www.stagecoachbus.com