Electrifying Cambridge

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There seems to be no shortage of news stories these days which publicise the launch of an electric bus service or electric vehicle design. However, the introduction by Stagecoach of new electric double-deckers in Cambridge was different, not least because of the scale of the launch and also the manufacturers involved, with a new vehicle design. Martin Curtis was in attendance at the launch event

This launch, organised by Stagecoach and Volvo, showcased the introduction of an initial batch of 30 new 100% electric, zero-emission Volvo BZL double deckers, with more to follow, and occurred on 12 May at the Trumpington park & ride site in Cambridge.

In a cordoned-off area, several of the new buses were assembled where they could be inspected by invited guests and dignitaries together with press and TV crews. However, the existing park & ride service was attracting long queues of waiting passengers on the opposite side of the site and many gazed across asking what the new buses were about and the purpose of their presence. The nearsides of the vehicles carry legends extolling their zero-emission credentials so it was apparent something significant was about to become part of the services on which these passengers travelled. By the time they viewed social media later that day or local TV evening news, they would know the answer.

After gathering the considerable number of invited guests and officials, the buses transported everyone to the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, the former RAF airfield which now houses a large aviation collection, and familiar to so many in the bus business as the location for many years of Showbus. The journey demonstrated the smooth and quiet running of the buses with performance easily matching that of a conventional diesel bus.


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Seating is provided for 61 passengers and up to 20 standees, with this number slightly reduced if accommodation for one or two wheelchair users is required. The interior itself is spacious, with leather-effect seating, while a laminated floor of wooden appearance in included. A straight, forward-ascending staircase offers access to the top deck. Interior displays provide location and route information together with audible announcements.

Of note during the relatively short journey was the reaction of some of the passengers who were impressed by the quiet operation, but several were clearly not regular bus passengers, including some of the news and media crews. If this were a London launch such a reaction would probably not apply but in the Provinces, travel by bus is a habit lost for much of the population, and this project is designed to tempt such people back to public transport. The nearby Cambridge Busway for example has done exactly that, as have park & ride services.

Inside the Duxford hanger where the reception was held. MARTIN CURTIS

Duxford unveiling

On arrival at Duxford airfield, more of the electric double-deckers were positioned outside a hanger, and an impressive line-up was forming. Everyone was then invited to stand facing the huge hanger doors and these then slowly opened to reveal still more electric buses and a reception area where the next stages of the launch would follow.

Whilst the figure “30” had been prominent throughout, the revealing in stages of more and more of this batch was well planned and impressed upon those gathered that this was no small-scale project, and a major transformation was to occur with the introduction of these buses. Full introduction of the vehicles in service was arranged from Sunday 14 May.

The vehicles

As already mentioned, the buses are Volvo BZL double-deckers, ZEBRA-funded vehicles for the Zero Emission Bus Regional Area. The cost of each bus was stated to be close to £500,000. Other than a demonstrator, they are the first double deck versions of this model although single-deck equivalent buses have recently been introduced by Stagecoach in Scotland. Chassis building is undertaken at Volvo’s Swedish facility in Borås, near Gothenburg.

Stylish bodywork to a high quality is provided by MCV (Manufacturing Commercial Vehicles), built in Cairo, Egypt; the company conveniently having its UK base at nearby Ely in Cambridgeshire.

The chassis features five battery packs powering 200kW low-loss electric motors. A two-stage automated gearbox is included which increases wheel torque at low speed and evens out current peaks, to reduce energy use and driveline wear. The batteries are produced in Germany, which is a variation on those sourced from China which have so far dominated battery power from other manufacturers.


Fifteen 150kW DC chargers, each capable of dealing with two buses simultaneously, have been installed at Stagecoach’s Cambridge depot. These have been provided by Zenobē and are designed not to over-charge for sustainability reasons. The ability to expand the charging infrastructure in future has also been taken into account. The re-charging process takes four to five hours and a range of 160 to 200 miles is allowed for, although this is a conservative figure and a greater range is expected. The climate, temperature, and time of year all affect range but as experience grows this figure is expected to increase.

At 10.9m long, each bus weighs 13,680kg, which the operator considers to be a high weight, although some diesel double-deckers produced in recent years are only slightly lighter than this.

Digital cameras are employed instead of wing mirrors to provide drivers with a rear view. This is claimed to improve driver visibility and reduce blind spots. While this may be the case, conversely in rural situations with narrow hedge-lined roads and lanes, drivers have been heard to remark that the ‘ting-ting’ of their mirrors against the foliage is a reassuring reminder of their position. Something that would not apply in urban environments!

Interior heating is provided by heat pumps, which absorb warmth from the air, amplify it and then circulate this within the vehicle in a more efficient way than conventional electric heating.

The BZLs use regenerative braking, which charges the batteries every time the bus slows down. The motors used to drive the vehicle then act as generators to charge the batteries.

Owing to the quiet running of the vehicles, two external speakers are provided at the front of each bus to produce a noise in order to make other road users aware of their presence.

Stagecoach has allocated fleet numbers 86001-30 and with Volvo’s UK base near Coventry, they have been allocated Birmingham area registrations rather than those from the area where they will operate. Accordingly they are in the BV23 series with NPZ, NRE-Z, NSE-Z, and NYG-N identifiers thereafter. Nineteen of these buses had been delivered in time for the launch and were ready for service with the remainder planned to be in service by mid-June.

Livery and branding

The buses will initially be introduced on Cambridge park & ride services and thereafter on the Citi 2 service. Once fully introduced, 31% of the Stagecoach Cambridge fleet will be electric. The park & ride services had been route branded with individual colour buses on each service. As operators will know, maintaining the correct colour buses on such services can sometimes present problems as vehicle availability affects allocations, so the new buses are all finished in a new scheme to distinguish them as zero-emission electric vehicles, consisting of white with green and blue segments arranged around various areas of lettering.

The route colour associated with each service will not be lost however, since the destination displays from Hanover will change colour depending on which service is operated. This new innovation will maintain route colour identification without constricting which buses should be allocated where.


As clearly displayed on each bus, the buses are funded by the Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority, Greater Cambridge Partnership (CGP), Stagecoach East and the Department for Transport, which follows a successful bid to the Zero Emissions Bus Regional Areas scheme. There is an on-going rolling bus replacement programme which plans to replace 30 vehicles a year across the Combined Authority area, with the ambition to convert the entire region’s bus fleet to zero emissions by 2030.

The cab area of a Volvo BZL with electronic rear-view camera displays. MARTIN CURTIS

Cake and champagne

Visitors were greeted inside the Duxford hanger by further displays, banners, champagne and an impressive cake decorated with representations of buses and the 30 electric vehicles theme.

Speeches then followed, hosted enthusiastically by Darren Roe, Managing Director of Stagecoach East. Rupert Cox, Regional Director at Stagecoach for South & East of England, was the first to speak. He stressed how the introduction of the 30 new buses had been achieved through the partners involved in the project. It was the reality of everyone in the room working together in order to deliver this project.

He added: “These fully 100% electric vehicles are the biggest single investment in the region this year worth £17m as a result of the partnership, and it isn’t just the buses but also the infrastructure and for us is such a significant milestone on our journey to be fully emission free by 2035, and whilst that may seem a long way off, we have 8,000 vehicles across Stagecoach.”

Mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Nik Johnson said on behalf of the Combined Authority: “It is fantastic to be in Duxford and witness the launch of our electric buses and to have been on a first trip.”

He then added, “When we talk about large numbers of vehicles like this and what they are about to give us – it is transformative. This is a real moment for transport in Cambridge and one of the biggest investments in the bus network for a decade and we should be proud of that today.

“They are going to play a very big part of our future transport network for the region.” He went on to describe plans for a new Peterborough depot with more floor space for electric buses. Nik also emphasised the health benefits of reduced noise and air pollution and that they would assist the broader issue of climate change.

For the Greater Cambridge partnership, Councillor Elisa Meschini took to the podium. She reminded everyone that “it is such an important day today. Buses are the absolute backbone of every movement and every bit of transport in the entire region. Nobody can move about, whether in their car, in trains, anywhere, if the bus network isn’t there. It is so important.

“We hope these cleaner, greener vehicles will encourage more people to get out of their car and take the bus to work, school or to see friends. They will help cut congestion and improve air quality to make our city a better place to live, work and visit.”

Representatives’ commentaries

In addition to the partners and local authority representatives present, a number of personnel from the both operator and manufacturers were on hand to answer further questions about the services to be run and the vehicles themselves.

Managing Director of MCV Bus & Coach Ashraf Fawzi explained how the Cambridge vehicles were in fact part of a major order for BZL buses from Stagecoach, and it so happened that the first delivery was 25 single-decks which had commenced operation in Kilmarnock and the Cambridge batch were the first double-deckers, with more BZLs to follow throughout the group.

The top deck looking towards the rear, and the rear of the upper saloon with the area enclosing part of the power pack. MARTIN CURTIS

Volvo’s Regional Sales Director Daniel Barwick had responsibility for gaining the chassis order and confirmed the electric technology was of Volvo design with batteries produced in Germany. He was optimistic that more orders would follow and said: “You’ll have seen recently we announced an order delivering single-deck EVs to London with Stagecoach which will commence delivery from late this year into 2024, and a further recent order has been placed for Stockport of 170 vehicles which will be a mixture of double- and single-deck. 150 of these will be double-deck with 20 12m long single-deckers, all with the same technology as the Cambridge vehicles.

Daniel added, “The single-decks we are delivering into London are to be 10.8m long.”

Finally, Terry Absalom, Engineering Director for Stagecoach East, enthusiastically added more detail and felt among the advantages of buying BZL buses was the fact that it presented ‘one shop window’ with Volvo and MCV acting as one supplier for the whole vehicle. He added, “I know there can be difficulties when you get a different manufacturer of the chassis to the body. MCV and Volvo have a really good working relationship which will ease any issues for engineering managers having only one point of contact. I can ring Volvo up and they will fix either body or the chassis, it’s that simple.”

With regard to charging, Terry explained there are 15 charging points, so 30 buses can be charged at any one time. He went on to explain: “The Zenobē chargers are spot chargers so take account of what charge remains when a bus comes in, what time it is scheduled out next morning and calculate whether it needs say, two hours’ charge or five hours’ charge, therefore they will not overcharge the vehicles. By only charging what is needed, it is very good for sustainability as power isn’t used if not needed.”

Entry into service.

At the end of the proceedings the buses were ready to enter passenger-carrying service on park & ride routes.

The Volvo BZLs will join two further double-deck BYD buses wearing a similar livery which have also been allocated to Cambridge, and looking ahead to the future, there is a possibility as more zero-emission vehicles arrive for older examples to be relocated in the longer term to lower mileage activities if it is found battery life is reduced after several years in service.

In Cambridge, not only are zero-emission buses going to make an impact immediately therefore, but consideration has been given to the longer term as Stagecoach transforms its fleet to fully electric operation.