Electric take off

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Birmingham Airport has launched a pantograph-charged fleet of Volvo 7900e buses as it begins its quest to become net carbon neutral. James Day reports

Birmingham Airport has officially launched a fleet of six Volvo 7900e electric buses, which will provide transit from all of the airport’s landside car parking facilities to the main terminal building.

The vehicles, which represent an investment of £3.2m of which £1.4m was provided through the Department for Transport’s Ultra Low Emission Bus fund, will be opportunity charged through pantographs while in service. Charging takes six minutes to complete, and the airport expects this to allow 24-hour operation of the service.

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Two pantographs, Heavy Vehicle Chargers supplied by Volvo’s infrastructure partner ABB, have been installed outside the airport terminal at stops two and four. The vehicles can also be charged by two 100kW CCS combo 2 chargers located at the coach park. These allow vehicles to be charged during break periods, as well as providing facilities for other companies to use the network.

The buses will operate on all car park routes, including a 7.5km (4.7 miles) route which operates out to the car park at Elmdon. They are expected to clock up an annual mileage of approximately 30,000km (around 18,600 miles).

Going electric

Pantograph charging was chosen by the airport because it allows 24 hour operation

Birmingham Airport identified back in 2016 that a reduction in carbon and improvements in air quality would be key components in its long term strategy. One of the first parts of its carbon reduction strategy to be agreed was to convert the land side bus fleet from diesel to full electric operation.

During the early part of 2018, a market evaluation took place after which a tender process was initiated. In parallel to the tender, the airport sought to gain funding from the Government’s Ultra Low Emission Bus scheme and in May 2018 an application was made. In September 2018, the Airport decided that opportunity charging was the preferred technology, allowing for 24-hour operations and allowing the airport to expand its route network without the need for further vehicles or infrastructure. Volvo Bus was selected as the preferred supplier in November 2018, with final contracts exchanged in February 2019.

The project is the first of its type in the UK, where Volvo Bus has acted as the prime contractor supplying the vehicles as well as sourcing the infrastructure and the enabling works required to install it. Volvo is also providing driver training and as well as battery and vehicle maintenance packages which will be tailored to the airport’s needs over the 15 year life of the project.

The scope of the projects included an improvement in customer experience. The airport expects the vehicles to be quiet and comfortable, with improved safety for both visitors to the airport and employees through features such as zone management. A telematics system on board the vehicles will allow the driver and passenger loading to be monitored at any time. The vehicles are also equipped with location-based passenger updates as well as USB charging built into every seat.

Project planning began in January 2019 with an outline plan submitted as part of the Ultra Low Emission Bus funding application. The main plan was agreed in February 2019 after which internal and external steering group meetings were scheduled to ensure that the project was completed on schedule for a December 2019 delivery.

Next steps
The Airport is looking to provide further expansion to its existing routes. HS2 is expected to link to the airport, with a need for additional bus services to both support and add frequency to the light rail system which will be provided.

Following the launch, the project will look to capture information on a number of key elements, which include:

  • Driver feedback;
  • Passenger feedback;
  • Operational benefits;
  • Energy consumption;
  • Passenger loading;
  • Emissions benefits; and
  • Uptime.

Volvo Bus will use a number of reports to provide information to both Birmingham Airport and the Department for Transport as part of the requirements of the Ultra Low Emission Bus scheme.

Ambitious targets

Nick Barton, CEO of Birmingham Airport, explained that the new buses are part of the airport’s strategy to be net carbon neutral by 2033

The airport held a launch event for the new vehicles, at which Nick Barton, CEO of Birmingham Airport, said he was extremely proud that Birmingham is the first UK airport to implement a fully electric landside bus service with an opportunity charging pantograph system.

He explained: “On 4 November this year, we made an announcement as an airport with regards to our carbon target, which as an airport is fundamental to our future. We have absolutely taken the view that recently the game has changed in this regard.

“We announced that our new net zero carbon target would be 2033. We don’t yet know how we’re going to achieve that, but we have taken the view that it is fundamental to not only us, but our stakeholder community, that we show leadership and commitment. Airports have an integral link with the carbon debate and we need to make sure we are doing our bit.

“We’re also assuming we as a business will grow by 40%, which creates a double challenge. The six new electric buses are an important first step.”

Nick accepted that not all of the energy generated to power the buses is renewable, but said the vehicles represent an 80% carbon reduction. The two pantographs will allow charging when passengers get on and off the bus without them even noticing. It is a fundamental game-changer.

“I’d like to thank Volvo Bus UK for supplying the new electric buses and look forward to a greener future at Birmingham Airport.”

Midlands leadership

Nick Barton seen with Volvo’s Nick Page at the handover

Andy Street, Mayor of the West Midlands, also attended the launch. He said: “The European target is for all airports to be net carbon neutral by 2050, so Birmingham is leading the way by 17 years. To set out with confidence to be a real leader is appropriate.

“The West Midlands has accepted that the issue of climate change is probably the single biggest issue facing us all. It has perhaps not had the billing I thought it would have in the general election campaign.

“At the end of July we took the step of inviting the youth climate strikers into our board meetings to talk about what is at stake. People said to me that I must be mad, but my approach was to engage with the people who had brought this issue to the front in such an effective way. We did engage, it was a really respectful conversation and it lead to the combined authority declaring a climate emergency and setting our own target of 2041 as the regional target for net carbon neutrality. That’s nine years ahead of the national target.

“We don’t know exactly how we’re going to achieve that. At our next board meeting in January, we will put forward our green paper to look at all the different ways we will achieve this neutrality.

“We know about a third of carbon emissions are transport linked. We know the transport part is critical. The good news is we are making progress. In 2017, our emissions were down 4% at a time the economy grew 3.5% – the fastest growth of any region outside London. Over a five year period, we’ve grown by 20% and carbon emissions have fallen by 20%. We’re on the right trajectory, but we’ve got to quicken that trajectory substantially.

“Across the region we’ve got a commitment to change. We have 2,000 buses across the West Midlands, and we’ve given a clear commitment that the whole fleet will be clean by 2021 – meaning Euro VI, achieving a 95% reduction on unreformed vehicles. It will be a public and private collaboration, with huge investment coming from National Express West Midlands. I have to pay full credit to them as a private operator for making that commitment with us.”

Modal shift
CBW asked Andy what the plan is to encourage modal shift, since almost all of the passengers on the electric buses will have travelled to the airport by car. He responded: “We’re trying to make the airport even better connected. We’re looking to extend the Metro and invest in the Sprint bus rapid transit network, and HS2 is on the way. Birmingham will have the best connected airport in the country via public transport.”

Also questioned was James Hills, Sustainable Transport Coordinator at Birmingham Airport, who said: “Currently, around 50% of air passengers travel to the airport by car, which we’re looking to get down to 45% by 2023.

“With staff, it’s currently a 70/30 split in favour of driving compared to using public transport, though 10% of those driving are car sharing. We do have a staff travel plan and are working to convince rail operators to provide earlier trains.

“One of the biggest challenges is that we’re a 24-hour airport with shifts throughout each day, but there is not a 24-hour public transport network to support it. We’re working to show a business case to operators.”

A collaborative approach

West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, was present for the launch

Nick Page, Managing Director of Volvo Bus UK & Ireland, described the project as a great collaboration between key stakeholders: “This is the new way. It’s no longer about a vehicle, but a complete transport system which includes the charging, the infrastructure, and nobody has all that expertise in one pot. You need close collaboration with key expects to deliver the overall solution.

“The 7900e has been tried and tested here and throughout Europe, including Sweden, Germany and Luxembourg. As well as a UK wide demonstration tour, there are eight 7900es deployed in Harrogate where it is operating a full town service. In all instances, it has demonstrated the contribution that can be made to improve air quality where it is in service.

“Our ongoing vision and goal is to develop a range of vehicles and technologies which include hybrids, and fully electric vehicles, that will lead to better air quality for people living, working and visiting our towns and cities across the UK. These vehicles not only provide well to wheel greenhouse gas emissions benefits but also deliver zero tailpipe emissions at the airport.”

Electric opportunity
CBW had the opportunity to speak with Andy McDarmaid, Fleet Manager at Birmingham Airport and project manager for delivering the buses. He explained why the Volvo 7900e was selected after the airport went to market and received bids from several manufacturers.

“Volvo offered pantograph charging, which eliminates a lot of the health and safety issues with running electric buses,” Andy said. “They also took a battery maintenance approach, rather than stating their batteries would last a set number of years and then be very expensive to replace.

“While we applied for funding to support the acquisition of the fleet, the project was approved with or without it. We need to show leadership.”