Ember: Edinburgh’s electric express

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On 1 October, new entrant to the inter-city market Ember launched its inaugural service between Dundee and Edinburgh. Jonathan Welch spoke to founders Pierce Glennie and Keith Bradbury about the new fully-electric service

After months of delays caused by the coronavirus outbreak, new entrant to the market – and the coaching world – Ember launched its service linking the cities of Dundee and Edinburgh quietly at the beginning of October.

Quietly in that there was no big launch event because of coronavirus restrictions, but also because this is a service which employs solely electric propulsion. No diesel or CNG engine here, no range-extending generator or hydrogen fuel cell. Just pure battery power, courtesy of a pair of smart dark grey Yutong TCe12 coaches delivered by Castleford-based Pelican Engineering and to full PSVAR specification.

Neither Keith nor Pierce has a background in the coach or bus industry, and their technology background is reinforced at their offices in central Edinburgh, in an office block used primarily by tech companies. By their own admission the two casually-dressed young entrepreneurs don’t look like typical bus industry people. Nor are they. “We worked together at a tech company,” Keith explained. “We were part of a small company which grew quickly into a much larger company. Between us we had experience across the whole business, including management experience. We wanted to start a business together, and considered a number of themes. One strong theme was around net-zero emissions. Now is the time to do something about emissions, there’s already been a lot of progress in cars, and we looked at what we could do with different vehicle types, including planes and hovercraft. We tried to assess which offered the most viable technology.”

Founders Keith and Pierce along with driver Mark Addison and local operations manager Gus Cameron. JONATHAN WELCH
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Net zero

“Before Covid-19 overshadowed everything, net zero was quite urgent,” said Pierce. “The government is talking about banning fossil fuel cars in 15 years, but that doesn’t leave much time for research and development projects.

We wanted to find an area where the technology already existed and where we could grow fast.”

“That’s how we came to look at the coach and bus sector,” continued Keith, explaining that this initial route is planned to be the first of many. “We will be using coaches and buses. Dundee to Edinburgh is more suited to a coach but we are not wedded to any one vehicle. Other routes might be better suited to a bus. The main thing is that we want to provide public transport.

“We believe the technology is there, but there’s not yet a clear plan for how operators will run the vehicles. We see Ember as a technology company not just a bus operator. We believe it is just a technical problem to solve. Rather than thinking like a traditional operator, we have looked at the constraints of the technology and how we can work with them. We have a 150kW charger in Dundee, and if we build our schedules and rotas around what the coaches can do, we can use them effectively.”

Picking up on the point, Pierce continued: “We’re not the first to use electric buses. Locally, Lothian bought some with government support, but didn’t build on it. There was no ramp-up, and replacement of diesel vehicles is slow. We don’t see that as the model to transition the industry. We believe if we use them on a longer route rather than in the city, we will make more savings in fuel. It’s easy to run them for 100 miles a day and charge at the depot overnight, but that doesn’t save much. We’re doing five times that every day so we will see greater savings.”

Driver Mark Addison rated the Yutong highly from a driver’s point of view. JONATHAN WELCH

A puzzle to solve

Keith highlighted that it is a multi-dimensional puzzle to solve. “It is a multi-layer challenge. We need three key things: the infrastructure to run the vehicles more intensively; the right vehicles; and the tech to bring it all together.

“The technology will mean we know the state of charge at any time and how much range the vehicles have. It will take into account factors such as temperature, weather and delays so that the driver doesn’t have to worry about the range. It should be as easy for the driver as a diesel vehicle. When you look at it as a combined problem, there is no real excuse to stay with diesel. The tech is out there and we can build the software to make it happen.”

All of the software that will run the business is being developed in-house for Ember’s own use, and although it doesn’t form a core part of the business plan the founders say they might be open to marketing it to other operators if there were a need. Similarly, Ember is looking to build up a network of chargers to suit its own needs, but says it doesn’t see a reason these couldn’t be used by third parties in the future.

Whereas for many bus companies, electric buses are almost a distraction in the greater scheme of things, Ember is looking at the longer-term and planning how it can push forward the next stage of electrification of transport.

“Depot charging doesn’t suit long distance journeys,” said Pierce. “The infrastructure doesn’t really exist at the moment to support that – what if a tour operator wants to go to the Highlands? The have to use a diesel coach.

Imagine if there were a network of chargers at suitable locations so the coach could recharge while the passengers were off and the driver was on his break. It makes sense to charge during a stop, and to have shared infrastructure. We see this first route as a proof of concept that electric coaches can be run intensively and provide a useful service.

Funding

Keith and Pierce worked closely with sustainable bank Triodos Bank UK to secure funding for the launch as part of the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). This provided a significant loan towards the purchase of two new coaches instead of the one coach originally planned, giving Ember the opportunity to run a more frequent service from launch, it having met the necessary criteria in that it is a viable UK business that has been adversely impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak. “Being able to partner with Triodos Bank has given us the confidence to accelerate our plans,” said Pierce.

Philip Bazin, Environment Team Manager at Triodos Bank UK, said in a statement that to be a part of such a pioneering project is of great excitement to the bank. “Supporting the transition to a low carbon economy is a fundamental objective for us as a lender, and Ember is a brilliant example of an organisation taking advantage of the latest technology to offer customers high-quality, environmentally sound transport options. Working with Ember really embodies why we became accredited with CBILS. We knew that we were well placed to offer finance to values-based organisations that had been affected by Covid-19 and the scheme provides us with an opportunity to work with new impactful customers, who may have never crossed our path previously.”

The Yutongs carry a simple grey livery, seen here before application of branding. JONATHAN WELCH

Ticketing innovation

“We’ve built our own ticketing software,” Keith continued, somewhat surprisingly considering the strong reputation and similar ethos of companies such as Ticketer which might have been seen as an ideal ticketing partner. “It gives us better flexibility to build our business around electric than if we used an off-the-shelf product,” he explained. “We want to be able to think about things like dynamic stops so that we can plan ahead. For example if there’s someone waiting at a stop on a busy dual carriageway, the driver will know in advance rather than see them at the last minute and have to brake quickly. Or if we know there’s going to be no-one, the driver doesn’t need to come off the main road to stop. All parts of the system will communicate with each other, and we’ll be able to see what we need to change.”

Pierce added: “We’re starting simple but that allows us to develop more. Over the next five years we will see the green agenda really coming to the forefront. Five years ago, people were making the point but with no urgency.

Right now, we can do something to make an impact. The challenge is solvable. I remember looking at what the car companies were doing around 10-15 years ago. There was lots of experimenting but nothing you could go and buy off the shelf. We think we’re at the tipping point now where change can happen, but there needs to be policy changes so that it can happen more easily without government support.”

First steps

Despite the ambitious plans for expansion, Pierce and Keith are aware that they need to build experience, and that the current situation means that the service might take a while to start seeing good passenger numbers. The launch having already been delayed, Ember is using the opportunity to start the service with a soft launch, which gives it chance to gain experience and iron out any problems with the vehicles or technology as well as gain valuable experience of operating the TCe12s so intensively. Looking at the company’s website during the first week, some of the afternoon journeys seemed to be the most popular, some others – especially early morning and late at night – seemingly running empty.

“In terms of passenger demand, it’s roughly what we were aiming for at the moment,” explained Pierce. “We took the decision to launch regardless since we wanted to get the testing data in, ready to expand once restrictions start to ease. That’s also meant we’ve not made any big marketing push yet so it’s very much a word of mouth thing for now. It’s too early to say which services are the most popular but, we’ve had a few services with 15 passengers or so (the current maximum capacity being 20). We’ve also had quite a few people using the services for intermediate journeys such as Rosyth to Kinross which is good, and we’ve had a lot of interest from cyclists who are happy about the ability to book bike spaces.”

Seen in Edinburgh shortly before the launch and prior to receiving its branding is one of Ember’s two Yutong TCe12 coaches. JONATHAN WELCH

Rapid expansion

Talking about Ember’s immediate plans, Keith said the company is already looking at its next steps. “We plan to expand rapidly to between 30 and 50 vehicles over the next five years,” he said. “Quite quickly that will mean looking beyond Scotland, to the UK and beyond. When you have the right solution you can go anywhere with it. A bus can be deployed anywhere. Battery technology is getting better and will open up longer routes. There are lots of opportunities of the right length in Europe.

“What we’re doing is new. Dundee to Edinburgh is around 105km, and between them our two coaches are doing eight return trips per day. That’s over 800km per day. We have spoken to Yutong and they said they have never seen their electric vehicles used this intensively. Lots of operators use them like diesel buses during the day and charge them overnight. Our approach is different.”

The choice of Edinburgh to Dundee rather that a route which might seem more likely to prove profitable such as Edinburgh to Glasgow was made after looking at many options. Keith and Pierce explained that the length is about right in terms of the capabilities of the coaches, there is sufficient opportunity for growing passenger numbers, it has a number of intermediate stops, and it can be operated with a limited number of vehicles. A Glasgow service would need a higher frequency to be viable; Dundee, on the other hand is described as a ‘typical’ interurban route.

Also key to Ember’s strategy is pricing. Booked online, a single ticket is £7.50 (£9.50 on board), which compares favourably with other options on the route. “We think the price is very competitive,” continued Keith. “Lots of people assume it has to cost more because it’s electric, but being electric doesn’t mean we will charge a premium. The fare is competitive against the train and comparable to the cost of fuel for a car. You can’t tell people to switch but charge twice as much.

“We want to offer a good customer proposition, which is why we have the ability to change and cancel tickets easily, to track where the vehicle is, and to book with no fees. We’ve tried to think about is as a passenger would.”

Passenger experience

Many passengers might not even notice what propels the coach, though most will realise it is unusually quiet. Yutong’s products have featured before in the pages of CBW and been rated highly on test drives. Driven by a Yutong electric motor rated at a maximum power of 350 kW and maximum torque of 2,400Nm, the coaches are powered by Lithium Iron Phosphate batteries manufactured by CATL, requiring between two and four hours to recharge.

What passengers will notice is the interior, which is to a high standard and trimmed in a classy upmarket fashion with black part-leather seats. After delivery, the coaches were down-seated to a capacity (in normal conditions) of 43 plus one wheelchair. Wheelchair users board through an underfloor-mounted lift at the centre door, with a reserved wheelchair area in the centre of the coach. As well as the extra legroom, the seats both recline and move sideways to allow extra elbow room. As befits the relatively short route, there is no toilet on board. “It’s about getting the right balance,” said Pierce. “Price is important but people don’t want to travel like sardines.”

Although there were a couple of comments from early travellers on social media about rattles coming from around the interior, when travelling through the centre of Edinburgh aboard one of the coaches prior to the launch I found the fit of the interior appeared to be of a high standard, though admittedly speeds were much slower than on the run out of the city and on towards Dundee. Electric vehicles will always emphasise any unwanted noises with no engine to mask them, and Edinburgh’s roads are known for being particularly poor. Other travellers praised the new vehicles, including First Glasgow Managing Director Andrew Jarvis who said on Twitter that the coach was “very quiet and comfortable,” and Ember says it quickly identified and rectified a couple of sources of noise such as loose emergency hammers. In fairness to both Ember and Yutong, I noted numerous rattles when I travelled out of Edinburgh aboard Lothian’s then-new Plaxton Green Arrow coaches.

Drivers seem very pleased with their new coaches. Driver Mark Addison, one of six taken on by Ember and who had previously worked for other operators in the region including Stagecoach and Timberbush Tours, said he was very impressed with the comfort and driveability of the Yutongs.

In the first couple of weeks there were a couple of minor issues with a small number of journeys covered by hired-in vehicles, not helped by bad weather and extensive flooding in some areas. Pierce pointed out that teething troubles are to be expected, and confirmed that no-one had been left stranded by the problems: “We’ve been able to get everyone to where they wanted to go and everything is starting to run smoothly now with the coaches operating as expected under intense utilisation,” he said, explaining that the problem had now been resolved. “Interestingly, we spotted this issue before it caused any problems through the telematics, which are streamed live to us every couple of seconds. Keith and I spotted that temperature was getting higher and charging speed was reducing on one vehicle but not the other. By feeding this data to Pelican and Yutong we became pretty confident we understood the issue and were able to get it fixed first time when they came up – a good example of the power of getting real-time data from vehicles.”

With a combination of new technology, new vehicles and since they themselves are new to the industry, there are bound to be problems, but Pierce and Keith are confident in their vision and plan for Ember. As a new entrant to the sector, all eyes will be on the company in the coming months to see how the initial service copes with the realities of running through a Scottish winter, and to see where its plans for expansion will take it next.

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