Delivering a decarbonised De Lijn

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VDL products make up a large proportion of the fleet, including extended-range e-hybrids. DE LIJN












Jonathan Welch speaks to De Lijn Director General Ann Schoubs about making the Flemish state operator fit for the future

In recent weeks and months we have devoted much space in CBW to coverage of electric and hydrogen coaches and buses and the wider decarbonising of the UK’s transport network. It goes without saying that similar processes are happening across the world, as towns, cities, regions and countries look to make their transport systems fit for the future.

De Lijn is a name that may be familiar to many readers, either for its extensive bus network just across the Channel or for its famous coastal tram system. Vlaamse Vervoersmaatschappij De Lijn, or ‘Flemish Transport Company De Lijn’ to give it its full name, is the external autonomous agency within the Flemish government’s mobility domain in Belgium, and operates a fleet of over 2,200 mainly VDL and Van Hool buses and almost 400 trams on its extensive network of routes across Flanders, the Dutch-speaking northern part of the country. Besides the coastal route which covers the entire Belgian coast from De Panne to Knokke, its fleet of trams operates on networks in Antwerp and Ghent, whilst its bus fleet covers all local, regional and inter-city services in the region. Pre-pandemic, the operator carried more than 500m passengers per year.

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De Lijn (pronounced [də lεin] or ‘de layne’ for those who don’t speak Dutch!) can trace its routes back to the 19th century with the inauguration of the first Flemish horse tram line between Antwerp and Berchem on 25 May 1873. By the time of the outbreak of the First World War, the region’s tramways and railways had started to play a major part in its transport system, but the war years saw material requisitioned and the network shrink.

By 1923, entrepreneurs had started to realise that the buses would provide a better service, and were soon regulated by means of licences. Nonetheless, by the eve of World War II the region’s tramway network stretched to some 4,756km, and despite contraction and transfer of material elsewhere during that time, continued to provide a vital service during the 1939-1945 period.

In common with the UK, by the 1950s the tram had begun to have its day, and a conversion to bus was on the horizon. At the end of 1969, there were just under 1,000km of tram lines remaining.

1958, the year of the World Fair in Brussels, saw the bus operators’ federation create the National Company of Belgian Autobuses and Autocars, which grew and developed through different incarnations in the intervening years, until the founding on 31 July 1990 of the Vlaamse Vervoermaatschappij (VVM). With the expiry of licences held by railway and tramway companies, the STI, STIB and the Flemish part of the local railway operations merged in 1990 into the VVM, which took on the trading name of De Lijn, and held a monopoly on city and regional transport services in Flanders.

In 2001 at its conference in Bern, UITP (Union Internationale des Transports Publics) presented its first UITP Regional Transport Award to De Lijn, whilst May of the same year saw the official opening of the Flemish Tram and Bus Museum in the listed Groenenhoek tram depot in Antwerp-Berchem.

One of De Lijn’s 12-metre e-hybrid VDL Citeas. DE LIJN

Clean air journey

Looking to replace diesel as a source of fuel and reduce its carbon footprint, in September 2005 De Lijn undertook a successful trial with a bus running on pure vegetable oil, leading to a plan to run twenty buses on the fuel in 2005 and fifty in 2006. Vehicles running on pure vegetable oil do not release any additional CO2 into the atmosphere.

The operator continued to make early improvements to its fleet, and along with the purchase of new Euro IV buses, early 2006 found a further 92 buses equipped with particulate filters, increasing the number of buses so fitted to 579. The operator achieved a world first in March 2007, introducing to service a bus running on hydrogen, whilst the same year saw the roll-out of mobile ticketing, De Lijn being one of the early adopters in Europe. A year later and for the first time in its history, the company transported over 500million passengers in a single year.

In January 2010, Director General Roger Kesteloot commented on the celebrations to mark the coastal tram’s 125th anniversary, highlighting the major part that De Lijn has played, and will continue to play, in the region’s economy: “Without the coastal tram, the coast would undoubtedly look completely different. How, we will never know. What we do know for sure is that the arrival of the streetcar meant an acceleration in the development of the coast. The same will be true for the future. Our work is not yet finished. And that is precisely what makes it fascinating. In the past, De Lijn’s employees have played a major role in the development of the streetcar and the coast. Our staff are also ready to help ensure the continued progress of the streetcar along a livable coast in the future.”
From the start of December 2014, five more 94-passenger capacity hydrogen buses took to the roads in the north of Antwerp, with a range of 350km.

By 2016, the Flemish government had given the green light for a €27 million investment in 131 new buses from VDL, though still with Euro VI diesel engines. Their delivery meant that the full fleet was fitted with particulate filters, and they would prove to be among the last pure diesel buses for De Lijn following a decision that from 2019 it would only purchase buses with an alternative drive, including hybrid, hydrogen and battery-electric. The plan was to accelerate the greening of the fleet and ensure that by 2025, only true green buses will be operating in urban environments.

A year later, tests were underway with opportunity-charged electric buses in Antwerp and Leuven, whilst 2019 saw a significant order for 200 green buses, almost 10% of the fleet strength, from VDL. With the 2020 renewal of its management agreement to operate bus and tram services in Flanders, the company was able to look further to the future.

Fit for the 2020s

In line with its role as a major part of the Flemish economy, De Lijn takes its responsibility to decarbonise seriously. By 2025 it is looking to reduce particle and nitrogen oxide emissions by 75%, increasing to 89% by 2026.

We spoke to current Director General Ann Schoubs about the company’s plans for the future, which besides changes to its fleet will see the transition to a much more commercially-driven model focusing on aligning more closely with demand and improving efficiency.
“De Lijn is an external independent agency of the Flemish Government,” Ann explained. “We receive yearly funding from the government to cover daily operations and investment. We’re currently negotiating our contract with the government for the next five years, and setting out what we will offer: how many kilometres we will operate; what services we will run; accessibility. What has changed is that in the past, our offer was not driven by demand. It was based on what had been set out at one point in time, and did not reflect current demands of mobility. The system was set to go demand-driven in 2021 but this has been rescheduled for 2023. This government policy, called Basic Reachability, is a big change for us as a company in the way we function. We currently have two main operations: the main regional and urban buses, and an offer which is more ‘on demand’ for those people who live in more rural areas. That will change in the future, and De Lijn will be limited to the main routes and regional lines but no longer on-demand routes. These routes will be given by public tender to private companies by the Department of Mobility and Public Works. It’s a big change and has an impact on the operations of De Lijn.”

De Lijn operates three tramway systems as well as urban and regional bus services. YINKA JAN SOJINU












Impressive stats

“At present we have around 8,000 employees, and work with subcontractors who operate their own buses to De Lijn standards and employ another 2,400 people. Around 50% of our vehicle kilometres are done by subcontractors and 50% by De Lijn. As a whole we run around 170m kilometres by buses and 16m kilometres with trams annually. We have around 2,250 buses, a mix of Euro III, IV, V and VI plus some electric and hybrid buses and around 350 trams. We have 51 depots, and our contractors have 86 – too many! When you compare this with other countries, you can see we have fewer buses per depot. Certainly when it comes to the electrification exercise, we have a lot to do. De Lijn is a combined public transport authority and public transport operator. Besides our owjn operations, we have lots of small companies as subcontractors. Lots of those carry out other activities too, such as coaching work, although their buses carry De Lijn colours. There are also buses which go across the frontier into Brussels and Wallonia.”

Ann went on to explain that the decision to move the demand-responsive transport into private hands was a political decision. “I think it could be good,” she said, “as there are lots of companies who can specialise in that kind of transport. I think it’s an opportunity to bring in the flexibility of the private sector, but it’s important to remember that the last mile segment is only a small part of the market. It doesn’t make sense for us to keep using large 12 or 18-metre buses on those services, and the lower cost of the smaller buses can be carried easily by smaller private operators.

“I’m looking forward to seeing how it will function. It looks good and interesting but we still have to see how it will work in reality. There are some people who worry that they won’t have a bus stop nearby. It is always a difficult balance between cost and offering a regular service. It needs a more dynamic way of operating, and De Lijn is not at that stage at the moment. We come from a background where we have always operated fixed routes. We don’t have the flexibility to respond to that new trend, but it’s something that we need to adopt as an organisation. I think partnerships with smaller operators are crucial to have a good combined offering in the future.”

I suggested that from a UK perspective, we often see the integrated European networks as a holy grail of public transport, so it comes as a surprise to see some services being taken away from the state operator and placed into the hands of smaller operators. “I think there needs to be a balance,” Ann said. “If the service were all commercial, the operator only thinks of their bottom line and whether there is a profit in it. It needs a mix of both systems.”


“Electrification has taken some time to get things in place, it has been a complicated project. We had some trials in the past but there were various issues. Transport Minister Lydia Peeters has asked us to put things in place for electric buses, and we published a tender to see what was available in the market. We looked at what other countries have done and are doing. We don’t want to re-invent the wheel. We visited a lot of other transport companies that are investing in e-buses, and have seen what lessons have been learned so we know what to do and not to do in the future. Based on that, we put out a tender and we are analysing the offers. We want to replace our entire fleet with green buses. At the moment we are going forward with battery electric, but in the future there might be other options, and we will decide if we stay with e-buses or whether we consider hydrogen or alternative technology.

“Right now, hydrogen buses are still very expensive and a lot of hydrogen production is not climate-neutral. If in the future there are other sources of hydrogen we may use it. But we also have to consider that at the moment we can’t source enough electricity to supply all the fleet if we replace everything with electric buses. There’s not enough green electricity to charge everything.”

Ann noted, though, that the supply of electricity was beyond the scope of De Lijn, and its mandate is to be zero-emission at the point of use by 2035, meaning no exhaust gases from the vehicles themselves. Nonetheless, solutions such as fitting solar panels are being used, though they would only go towards office use.









Long-term plan

“We have a plan and a strategy to get there,” Ann continued. “We have a three-pillar strategy. At the moment we’re looking at our own 12-metre buses because the range available corresponds well with our network.
“We look for a daily range on a single overnight charge of at least 220km. We plan on 95% of charging taking place overnight. We tried opportunity charging in two projects In Leuven and Antwerp but we found that it wasn’t effective. Every 50km or so they have to stop for 20 minutes. It interrupts the network too much. That is why we are focussing on standard buses at the moment. Once range and battery capacity increase on small buses and articulated buses, we’ll start tendering for those as well. We just approved a first group of 60 12-metre buses to be spread over three depots, and the selected manufacturers, Van Hool and VDL, promised us a range of over 400km. Once we see how these buses perform in the field, we will continue to purchase at a rate of around 150 per year until we have our whole fleet zero-emission. We have a couple of daily services which go above 500km which are still difficult for battery electric buses, especially in winter, and we may have to look at other options. Technology is developing so quickly, we’re giving ourselves a bit of time to make the right decision.”


“We still have hundreds of buses in our fleet that are Euro III or Euro IV. The second pillar of our strategy is that we want to have them replaced as quickly as possible. It’s much quicker to introduce hybrids into our fleet, with an extended-range battery pack. We call them e-hybrids, and we use geofencing so they operate 100% emission free, by preference in urban areas. We charge them overnight in the depot where possible, or they charge from the Euro VI diesel engine when on the road. They can cover up to 98km on a single zero-emissions mode cycle, and they can perform multiple cycles each day. Many of these are articulated buses which we use on intercity routes. The third pillar is our subcontractors. They are independent, they select their own buses and depots, but we work alongside them.

We’ve done a lot of research and spoken to many other cities, including London, Paris and Marseille, and we have a lot of knowledge of the issues. We are on the late side in terms of introducing electric buses but it means we have been able to learn from others. We can help our subcontractors to get up to speed and make the right choices, but their fleet will probably be different to ours as their wider fleet requirements are different to ours. They also have the advantage that they can buy directly without having to put out a tender.”

An artist’s impression of a new Van Hool battery-electric bus in De Lijn colours. DE LIJN











Moving forwards

As with operators elsewhere, De Lijn is also aware that it is not just about the bus, but that there needs to be a whole shift of mindset to accompany the new technology. “You can’t just go and refuel. Now you have to plan the charging and make sure the bus is charged enough to complete the journey. For a driver too, it’s a big change as they have to change the way they drive. They need to make sure they have enough power. I think we were realistic in demanding at least 220km, and the successful candidates delivered on the safeguards in the tender to reward those who offered more. If we want to get cars off the road we have to offer the best product, the bus has to be sexy. The comfort is important, as are digital features; giving information and making it possible to charge our clients’ smartphone. We have to compete with the car. We have to look at what we offer to our customers.”

De Lijn plans to have introduced around 1,090 e-buses and the necessary related infrastructure by 2026, both under its own operations and via subcontractors. In addition to the hybrids already ordered, the operator needs an additional 330 additional e-hybrid buses, of which so far 44 articulated e-hybrid buses have been confirmed. A further 280 hybrids in the fleet or on order will undergo an upgrade that extends their emission-free service in urban areas.

The total investment needed to reach its 2035 zero-emission target for both the fleet and its infrastructure amounts to between €3.9 and €5.2 billion, depending on yet to be determined conversion work to be carried out at its many depots, which represents an additional financial burden of €1.75 billion compared to replacement of vehicles on a like-for-like basis.

“From our side, the biggest problem at the moment is funding,” added Ann. “We have a plan, but it is still unclear how the government will come up with the money.” Looking at the wider picture, Ann commented that it was also important to think about how new depots might fit into the plans, and how those depots could serve other EV users in the community. She raised the interesting point that whereas bus depots are often seen as noisy now, and unpopular in towns and cities, an e-bus depot could be not just a better neighbour but a welcome and valuable asset for the community. “This also presents an opportunity to consolidate the historic depots we have at the moment. Some people believe that with the development of electric cars and autonomous vehicles we won’t need public transport any more. But that still won’t solve the congestion or the charging problems. Switching to e-buses and facilitating the modal shift that is necessary will help us to cope with future problems. It remains important to have a modern, efficient public transport system that is attractive to our customers.”