Electrifying Harrogate

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It has been a sometimes challenging journey, but the Harrogate electric bus project is now fully operational. Transdev Blazefield’s Alex Hornby, Gordon Irvine and Ben Mansfield talk to Andy Izatt about what is a pioneering project

Harrogate Bus Company’s eight Volvo 7900 Electrics are now opportunity charging using pantographs in Harrogate bus station – the first time this technology has been deployed by the bus industry anywhere in the UK.

There has been a lot of interest from decision makers in the Harrogate Volvo Electrics project. JOHN PENN

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Power to the three pantographs that have been erected was turned on in late January and that means the vehicles’ batteries can be topped up through rapid charging every time they layover between departures. Six of the eight are required to cover the PVR (Peak Vehicle Requirement) on the Transdev Blazefield-owned operator’s town services, the 2A (Dene Park & Bilton circular), 2B (Bilton & New Park circular), 3 (Jennyfield) and 6 (Pannal Ash). For operational reasons they also run to Knaresborough on route 1 on Sunday evenings.

Transdev Blazefield Chief Executive Alex Hornby and Engineering Director Gordon Irvine are delighted with how the Volvo Electrics are performing. ANDY IZATT

“Since the pantographs have been working as they should and we have been drawing power off the grid, we have delivered electric buses 100% of the time on the routes to which they’re allocated,” explained Alex Hornby, Transdev Blazefield Chief Executive Officer. “In fact, they have become our best services for correct vehicle allocation and optimisation. This has convinced us that this is a solution that works very effectively and more so compared to other zero emission options.”

Highest on-road reliability

“To put that level of reliability into context, the most intensive of those local routes in Harrogate goes into the bus station 65 times a day,” pointed out Transdev Blazefield Engineering Director Gordon Irvine. “The pantographs are charging 1,100 times a week. Over the initial two week period, we had 2,242 charges and only once did we have a failure where the charger didn’t connect to the bus first time because a parameter wasn’t met. We had an expectation that reliability would be high, but it’s actually extraordinarily high.

“The bus and pantograph communicate through RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and WiFi. The vehicle identifies itself and that triggers a series of communications that determine the state of the onboard charge, the position of the vehicle and availability of power from the network. If all the parameters are satisfied, once the driver applies the handbrake, the charging sequence starts.

He or she always has direct control and if they’re tight within their departure time, they can stop the sequence at any time simply by releasing the handbrake. All the way through passengers can alight and board as normal.

Inside the Volvo Electrics there’s well-spaced seating for 34 passengers. ANDY IZATT

“Layover time is scheduled to be seven minutes – slightly generous to give us a little bit of leeway. A full recharge can be completed in better than six minutes, but depletion is only a maximum of 25% on one circuit of one of the routes, giving us considerable operational flexibility. If we’re running behind schedule for whatever reason, we can miss a charge and do it every second time the vehicle visits the bus station. Maximum range is around 23 miles in testing, which is more than double what we require as the longest of our local routes is 9.5 miles. Technically we have infinite range as long as the vehicles can get back to be recharged. We have 24/7 capability should we need it.

“Four buses are fully slow charged at our Starbeck depot each night where we have four medium power plug-in charging points. That means each bus gets an overnight charge every second day.

Overnight charging is primarily for battery balancing and conditioning. Vehicles can be plugged in for anything between nine to 12 hours depending on the previous day’s operation and what time they return to depot.

“If we only rapid charged at the bus station it would shorten the life of the batteries. Balancing and conditioning is important and actually takes place in the last 20% of the charge – the portion that takes the longest.

“The 7900 Electrics are maintained for us by the local Volvo dealership, Crossroads Truck & Bus at Boroughbridge with some heavy support from the manufacturer in Sweden. In the early days of the initial full scale run in, we had an engineer who flew in from there and stayed with us just to make sure the dealer was supported as required.

Three pantographs have been installed in Transdev Blazefield-owned Harrogate bus station. ANDY IZATT

“Our two engineering teams are working closely side-by-side, but we decided, in conjunction with Volvo, to have a ‘Gold’ contract from day one so the manufacturer is responsible for the whole of the vehicle bumper-to-bumper. I’ve been very pleased with the support we’ve received.

Harrogate Electrics
Each of the pantographs has been tastefully branded. ANDY IZATT

“Volvo is the single largest chassis supplier we have across Transdev Blazefield and many of the mechanical components used by the electrics are just the same as on our diesel buses. What’s different is handling high voltage electrics. Initial training was far more about awareness and being clear about what we can do and, more importantly, what we can’t do – safety precautions about how the systems are isolated and powered down to be made safe.

“We had an extended introduction and commissioning period because of the unplanned length of time it took to commission the pantographs. While that wasn’t what we’d hoped for, it was actually quite helpful because it allowed us to rotate the use of the buses and make sure that any minor issues were dealt with. Consequently, when we did switch to 100% running, we had excellent reliability.

“The power that we’re now consuming comes entirely from renewable sources. There is a guarantee that it’s either wind or solar generated depending on the time of day and time of year.

Everything that underpins the project is genuine and supports our overall objectives.”

Low emission town,zero emission solution

Said Alex: “Introducing the Volvo Electrics with £2.25m of OLEV (Office for Low Emission Vehicles) Low Emission Bus Scheme funding was a key part of our wider strategy for Harrogate of trying to create Britain’s first low emission bus town with a zero emission local network at its heart.

“The arrival of the electrics followed investment in 2016 and 2017 in 17 Euro VI Volvo B5TL Gemini 3 ’deckers for route 36 (Leeds-Harrogate-Ripon), which were built to our very customer-focused exacting specification.

“We also secured funding to fit Eminox SCRT equipment that reduced NOx emissions by up to 96% – the Euro VI equivalent – to the Euro III and Euro IV Wrightbus-bodied Volvo B7RLEs we refurbished with USB charging points, WiFi and voice announcements for the 1 group of services to Knaresborough and 7 to Leeds via Wetherby.

“The two electric Optare Solo SRs originally acquired for a University of York contract now operate on the 24 (Harrogate-Pateley Bridge) so that means, apart from our school services, every one of our buses directly serving the town meets our target requirement.

“The Volvo Electrics were launched in July 2018 and the way the town has reacted to them is as we hoped. It’s a discerning audience and they have really rallied behind their introduction. It’s something of an anticlimax now that they’re out doing what they’re supposed to do everyday without a problem, but it wasn’t an easy journey at times.”

Harrogate Electrics
The driver has a clear display showing how opportunity charging is progressing. ANDY IZATT

“It took time to commission the bus station pantographs because there was insufficient power within the local grid to give us the connection we required,” said Gordon. “Being Harrogate residents ourselves, the last thing we wanted to do was put the lights out and it took time to build up that capacity.

“Our experience on the ground is that the electricity industry is not quite ready to help facilitate projects like this. It took a great deal of time and effort to get the legal documentation sorted and to physically connect and energise, but in the end we were able to influence the industry stakeholders we were engaged with and that made a difference.

“There was also some resistance from a couple of bodies within what is a Victorian spa town to erecting the pantographs. I had to convince them, which would then allow the borough council planning department to grant planning permission without any onerous conditions. All of that took time, which had not been factored into our planning despite the extensive periods we’d built in for the physical works to take place.”

“We wanted the pantographs to be at one with the bus station,” said Alex. “We wanted to design a solution that fitted with the town and we were happy to sit down with whoever we needed to and talk that through. Hopefully the result we’ve created is interesting enough to make people go, ‘what’s that?’ and they’re not shocked by them. Being Transdev Blazefield, we couldn’t miss the opportunity to put our branding on them as well in a tasteful way. Along the routes, bus stop poles have also been painted red and have branded flags with electric roundels on top.

Harrogate Electrics
Tables can be a handy place to put your brolly. ANDY IZATT

“Introducing Harrogate Electrics was an operator-led project and doing it alone made the obstacles we faced more difficult to overcome. Members and officers within the local authorities were very supportive and loved the idea of what we were doing. However, we were having to manage and adapt our own infrastructure (Including our owned bus station) which brought a very different set of challenges to normal.

“If we were doing a project like this in the future, we’d be more inclined to do it alongside a local authority partner utilising their owned infrastructure, where such challenges are better placed for them to respond and manage.

“However, all of our stakeholders always bought into what we were doing. Even when we were going through that introductory phase prior to the pantographs being commissioned, they still stood with us and supported us and we did lobby our MP, Andrew Jones about some of the issues we were facing.

“Andrew has done alot since the buses have been in service to promote them. It’s clear that many people are proud of what is a pioneering project in the town and in our industry, and that has created its own legacy. Nusrat Ghani (Under Secretary of State for Transport), who came to the launch, has not been slow at mentioning it – most recently in her opening speech at the UK Bus Summit in February – while Chris Grayling (Secretary of State for Transport) has come to Harrogate to see us and experience it for himself.

Harrogate Electrics
One of the overnight recharging points at Harrogate Bus Company’s Starbeck depot. ANDY IZATT

“We continue to host more visits; Rachael Maskell, as the MP for York Central and Shadow Rail Minister, alongside leaders from a number of passenger transport authorities. There is a lot of interest from decision makers, which we take as a compliment. We hope we are changing the perception of what bus operators are capable of achieving, even amongst the present challenges we are facing at the moment.”

Said Gordon: “If we were presented with the same situation again – with a project like this starting from scratch – would we do anything materially different? The answer to that is no in terms of the choice of vehicles, the use of pantographs and the charging solution. With the experience we now have, we might perhaps approach the electricity industry differently and deal with local planning issues sooner, but the project wouldn’t look any different. There’s nothing we’ve been disappointed with about its actual execution.”

More than just electrics

“We wanted a solution that was visually striking and would capture attention,” said Alex. “We are on a mission to ensure our buses are vehicles that people want to be seen on. We worked closely with Volvo on an enhanced specification for the buses.

“We have an exterior countdown departure destination display which we designed alongside McKenna Brothers that incorporates an animated recharging symbol that people can watch as the bus takes on charge at the bus station.

“We wanted to get people immersed in the electric bus experience so when we found out from Volvo that flagpole holders were fitted as standard we couldn’t resist – its another little bit of fun. Above the driver’s window and passenger door, and on the front bonnet, there’s also an electric bolt shaped logo that illuminates at night. We believe these bits of attention to detail matter.

“Inside we’ve deliberately reduced the seating capacity compared to the standard specification. The buses are being used on local town services where people can have buggies and shopping and may not be steady on their feet. We wanted to create an environment that’s suitable for them so there’s seating for just 34 with plenty of legroom.

“Seats are ISRI V3s with red leather headrests and special side tags. While they’re not the standard for this type of vehicle, it’s basically what we use elsewhere and we wanted the buses to look the part. Then there are little aspects like having a glass panel behind the driver so they’re not isolated from passengers. Those sitting behind would otherwise be looking at a wall. Things like that are important.

“We’ve removed rearward facing seats at the back because our research shows people don’t like facing other passengers. There are tables with wireless charging points instead. Obviously WiFi and USB charging at each seat was included, as was air-conditioning. There is a recycling bin as well as a normal one because we wanted to get across that these are vehicles on a bit of a mission to change how people feel about buses.

Passengers board while opportunity charging takes place in Harrogate bus station. ANDY IZATT

“We have some quality LED strip and up-lighting that changes colour and wood effect flooring and ceiling panels. It’s a quality urban bus experience that makes for a really pleasurable journey.

“Of course AV (Audio Visual) next stop announcements feature. There’s a big wide next stop information display at the front. Announcements are made by Anna, one of our customers who won a competition to do it that we ran alongside radio station Stray FM and the local paper, the Harrogate Advertiser.”

7. Harrogate Bus Company has been promoting the Sunday Freeway throughout March. ANDY IZATT

“The screen is synchronised to the next stop announcements,” observed Marketing and Communications Manager Ben Mansfield. “However, we’re developing something with McKenna Brothers that will be slightly different. Fewer stops will be displayed, but the ones that are closest will be larger and there will be space for more of our marketing comms on the right-hand side. There will also be countdown displays that rotate for the next departures from the bus station on routes 1 and 36. Those will be displayed as the buses return to town.

“Rather than have advertising on the cove panels, we’ve used them to tell the electric bus story throughout the day in hopefully what is an amusing way.”

Said Alex: “Harrogate is an ideally-sized town to build effective relationships. We put a lot of effort into this type of activity so there has been a high level of community engagement and reaching out to customers.

“There are eight primary schools on the routes served by the electrics so each of the buses has been named after one of them. The kids all came out into the playgrounds for the namings and we gave the teachers free group tickets that were distributed so the whole family could take a trip. It got families onboard and we know the kids look out for the bus named after their school. Like the launch last July, we got buses on the front page of the local paper for all the right reasons!

“Every 10,000 miles one of the electric buses covers, we’re planting a tree. That will be 40 this year and it’s an open ended commitment. Normally organisations do that to offset emissions. We’re doing it to celebrate zero emissions and it’s just another angle that brings in the community. Throughout March we’re also running our Freeway Sunday campaign where travelling on the electrics on the four town services on Sunday is free. We are seeing many non-users now giving the bus a try.”

“There were 48% more passenger journeys on the first Sunday than we average throughout the rest of the year,” said Ben. “We have been distributing leaflets to local businesses and shops to tell them about it and to give them half price weekly ticket vouchers as well.

“We linked up with Stray FM to do a whole programme about the electrics at the bus station. Presenters talked to the drivers to find out what they thought as well as passengers. It went down very well. BBC Look North also did a news piece that was very positive. We’ve invited Robert Llewellyn of Scrapheap Challenge fame to come and have a look for his Fully Charged show on YouTube.”

An electric bus future

“As I think I’ve made clear, our Volvo electrics are operating better than I could have dared hope,” said Gordon. “I was never in any doubt that it would work, but I did have reservations about whether we could deliver a near diesel experience that served our customers’ needs. Based on the experience of other buses across our group and the relative ease of integration and their reliability so far, the introduction of these vehicles has been better than any equivalent diesels.

12. Specially branded bus stop flags also have electric roundels on top. ANDY IZATT

“I’m quite clear that the future will be driven by an electric motor. If we get another set of operational circumstances that are similar to Harrogate, I would absolutely deploy the same again, but I’m open to other solutions if the operation demanded it. There’re some instances where an overnight charge is preferable such as our sightseeing service in York. The duty cycle of those retrofitted electric buses is perfectly adequately served by that (the Harrogate Optare Solo electrics operate on the same basis). The future may yet bring generated electricity actually on the vehicle as with the hydrogen fuel cell solution, but on all of them an electric motor will power the vehicle.

“On lighter vehicles, the view is there will be parity between the costs of internal combustion engine and electric vehicles. If anything brings about a step change, it will be what happens in the passenger car market. I think that will bring the costs of batteries down, but time will tell.”

“We’re more than happy with what this solution has delivered for us in Harrogate,” said Alex. “It was what we thought was the right thing to do for the town and we’ve achieved low emission without the imposition of any low emission zone.

“The question is where do we go next? We’ve already told Volvo that when we start looking at buying the next batch of buses for route 36, we want and need a zero emission solution – one that does not prevent us from delivering an amazing onboard customer environment. We deliberately had the bus station pantographs erected to a height where they could accept double-deckers because we wanted to keep our options open.

“There still isn’t a commercial case to purchase electric buses outright, but we’re always thinking where best the next deployment could be. If there’s a new funding round, we will want to be involved. Now we have electrics running in Harrogate, we’re very keen to do more.”

15. Six of the eight Volvo Electrics cover the full PVR on Harrogate’s four town services. ANDY IZATT