Greener engineering

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Since August First WoE has been trialling a Scania Enviro400 City biogas bus. ANDY IZATT

Rich Northey, Engineering Director at First West of England, explains to Jade Smith what improvements have recently been made to the engineering side of the business, where the focus is now on greener bus operations

Prior to working at First, Rich Northey, Engineering Director at First West of England, spent 30 years in the army starting as an apprentice and working his way up to WO1 (Warrant Officer Class 1) as an engineer and later was commissioned as an Officer within the Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME). In 2006 he left the army and came to First Bristol, Somerset & Avon, as it was then known.

“I came in as the quality and performance manager for engineering,” Rich said. “I’d previously spent time fixing tanks, trucks, motorcycles and the like. When I arrived here I was made an engineering manager of one of the depots so I could get to know engineering in the bus world. I thought I couldn’t be taught anything new, but I was wrong – this is nothing like anything you would do as an engineer anywhere else, as the day-to-day running of a bus workshop is completely different. There are not many industries where you turn out 190 vehicles every day, 364 days of the year and then there are 28-day inspection cycles.

“In June I was put in post as Engineering Director of First West of England (First WoE). We’ve retitled the business from First Bristol, Somerset & Avon to First WoE and now have moved from two Ops licences to one. The business has changed quite a lot in the last 18 months.

“When I left the army and came into the business 11 years ago, the Engineering Director at the time asked me what I wanted to do. My honest answer was to tell him that I wanted to sit where he was.

“I’ve learnt a lot in the last 11 years and I’m still learning today. It’s a fantastic world to work in.”

Lawrence Hill depot

First WoE has a depot at Lawrence Hill, Hengrove which is south of Bristol, Weston-super-Mare, Bath, a small operating centre in Wells in Somerset which runs 26 buses with a PVR of 23 and Westbury outstation. The latter two are controlled by Bath. Wells is a one pit workshop and two years ago the doors were opened up so it could take double-deckers.[wlm_nonmember][…]

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Rich provided a tour around Lawrence Hill depot, which is First WoE’s head office site. He said that 212 buses are maintained on this site with a PVR of 189 for the two operations: Marlborough Street and Lawrence Hill. “If we wanted to get any more buses onto this site we would need a crowbar – a very thin one at that!” Rich joked. “Our percentage spare is to be 10%.

“In the past we leased some of the small hangers next door on Croydon Street where we parked our single deckers. A few years ago the fleet decreased and we handed it back when the depot had 150 buses. Recently the business has grown and we looked for another site and ended up back at Croydon Street. Around 10-15 buses can be parked inside and an additional 10-15 single decks outside.”

At Laurence Hill depot 212 buses are maintained. JADE SMITH

Green depot improvements

Many environmental improvements are being made to First West of England’s depots. Rain water harvesting for the bus washes is being looked at in the Bristol depots as well as Bath and Weston-super-Mare. The local councils may part-fund it.

Solar panels have been installed in Hengrove: 696 panels cover 1,139m2 and generate all the power for that building. First is working with Bristol City Council to have the same set-up for Lawrence Hill, as there is a higher capacity there due to the shed and workshops. Bath depot is being considered as well.

“We operate three all-electric Nissan Leafs out of Hengrove depot to carry out driver changeovers,” Rich said. “There’s a hospital a mile away from the depot and the bus used to finish its service at the hospital, drive to the depot for the driver changeover, go back to the hospital and then carry on in service.

“It works well in that location because the driver reliefs occur there. In an ideal scenario, we wouldn’t have any driver changeovers in the depot. They would occur in the city centre, but we would have to supply transport to get drivers there and the off-coming drivers back to the depot.

“We’d need around 15 Nissan Leafs in that situation, which wouldn’t be cost-effective, but it also isn’t cost-effective or environmentally friendly to run a bus back and forth.

“We are working with the councils with funding for projects such as car sharing or bikes. We put extra cycle racks in and the use of those has since risen, but we’re unsure if that’s due to us installing the bike racks, as we’ve also had an increase in younger people who are more likely to cycle.”


Lawrence Hill’s small central works has a team of just two mechanics, two body men, one electrician, two painters and one trimmer.

Rich explained: “We used to do the full works but it’s become restrictive now to do engine overhauls and the like, so they are mostly outsourced. Major repaints can be done in-house but we don’t do full retrims as there’s currently only one person. It’s a good workshop – work carried out in the one-bay paintshop is done with a roller. It takes two-and-a-half to three weeks to repaint one double-decker, including the time taken to strip the original paint. We’ve got a quality team here.”

The main Lawrence Hill engineering department has 13 workshop bays and one rolling road for brake testing, with seven body men, four electricians, 21 mechanics, six chargehands and one engineering manager. In total across First West of England there are in excess of 110 engineering staff.

Rich moved on to the main workshop. Rich said: “Buses come through here every 28 days to be inspected. Our fleet is very varied which is the same across First.

“Lawrence Hill is slowly becoming a double- decker depot – there are very few single deckers now. When James Freeman (Managing Director of First West of England, see p20) arrived we were struggling with capacity. Within months of him arriving, we were going all over the country collecting double-deckers as at any time of day on the 42, 43, 44 routes in particular we had standing loads. Even now we don’t think we have enough double deckers. We’ve taken them from everywhere and that’s not just for Lawrence Hill. It’s also for Hengrove, Bath and now Weston-super-Mare.

“There is no room at Lawrence Hill depot once all the buses are parked up. When I come in at 0415hrs, the small car park by the gate will have spaces where I can park, but until they start moving buses out you can’t get cars inside. It’s great that we carry so many people and need that capacity, it truly is a sign that this business in moving in the right direction.”

Rich: “There are not many industries where you turn out 190 vehicles every day, 364 days of the year and then there are 28-day inspection cycles.” JADE SMITH

A green and clean Bristol

As part of Bristol being European Green Capital in 2015, First WoE modified 42 Wrightbus StreetLites to be Euro 5 micro hybrids, installing new cooling packs, eFans and a new exhaust thermal management system which converted them from Euro 5 to Euro 5 hybrids. Rich said that was a fantastic improvement in terms of carbon emissions and NOx reductions.

“Bristol is not one of the big five cities involved in the 2020 Clean Air Zones (CAZ), but is one of 12-16 other city areas that have now been named,” Rich continued. “The city is pushing very quickly to get its CAZ in place.

“There are talks of a minimum of Euro 6 in the CAZ and discussions between us and the West of England Partnership about alternative fuels. We are pushing heavily towards gas, which I think they are buying into.

“We’re placing a bid with the new Clean Bus Technology Fund (CBTF) in conjunction with the West of England partnership, looking at doing some hybrids, some retrofit Euro 6s and some SCRT systems. Last year we had SCRT retrofits installed in 18 Euro 3 buses which brought them up to Euro 5, but now the technology can take them to Euro 6.”

Electrifying Bristol

Only five ADL Enviro400 virtual electric buses have ever been built, three of which are in London with Tower Transit and two are at First WoE’s Lawrence Hill depot. First WoE gained them due to the European Green Capital with funding from the DfT. The vehicles run in electric mode when inside the air quality management zone in Bristol city centre and turn back to diesel once outside it again. If the zone boundaries change for whatever reason it’s just a simple software upgrade.

Rich said the two vehicles went into the fleet properly in 2016: “The first few months we had some issues with the buses, but since then they have been very reliable.

“We’d never had buses with centre doors before and they’re built to London spec, which means the ramp is on the centre door rather than the front. But the drivers took to them very quickly and by June 2016 they’d settled in. They’re now just seen as normal buses.

“At Lawrence Hill depot, there is one plug-in Siemens charger for the two electric buses. They drive in to charge, which takes around 45 minutes, and then carry on to park in their allocated bays.

“The electrics only charge up to 92-93% and they can be depleted to 18% before the bus goes into diesel mode automatically. We don’t usually go that low, but they did when they were originally running from Hengrove on route 72 from the city centre to the University of the West of England (UWE).

“There is also an induction plate at the UWE and the buses can charge there. The council have spoken to us about identifying a location for another induction plate.

“When the buses moved to run on route 48a (city centre to UWE), the plug-in charger was moved to Lawrence Hill and isn’t difficult to move, it just needs a substation to plug in the main power lead. However, when considering what routes to run the electrics on we have to ensure they can reach the induction plate at UWE.

“UWE’s campus has a layover bay where the bus drops the students off and then parks on the plate for five to seven minutes. It then collects its next load of passengers and leaves.

“Some people have an unfortunate habit of parking on the induction plate, as the buses aren’t there 24/7. We’ve been in conversations with UWE to keep policing it, but that would involve someone being there constantly.”

Only five ADL Enviro400 virtual electric buses have ever been built, three of which are in London with Tower Transit and two are at First WoE’s Lawrence Hill depot. GARETH EVANS

Having a gas

From August this year, First WoE has been trialling a Scania Enviro400 City biogas bus. Rich said that like with any new technology, it had teething problems: “It just involved drivers getting used to a new vehicle with new technology and dash layout. All of them loved it because it was something new.

“Now we don’t see it. It’s the same as the single deck ADL-bodied Scania gas bus we had in 2015. The single decker I saw twice in its 11-and-a-half months with us. Once was to put a headlight bulb in it and the other was to repair a seat that had been vandalised. It was serviced and maintained at the Scania dealership because it was on loan to us, but if I could keep the remainder of my fleet on the road like that I would be a very happy man.

“For me as an engineer it’s fantastic because gas engines are basically petrol engines as they’re otto cycle engines: there are only around 40 parts that are different.

“The maintenance and reliability of the double-decker has been fantastic as the base engineering is there from the single decker. From an engineering perspective, I’m very pleased with the way it has performed.”

Rich explained that part of the workshop in Lawrence Hill depot had been converted with air vents and alarms. First WoE wasn’t obliged to go to that level but the operator decided to go above and beyond what was required.

“At the moment, our gas facility is located at the back of Lawrence Hill depot in the form of a trailer supplied by Gas Bus Alliance (GBA). Their support of the whole project so far has been great. If there’s even the slightest issue one of its people is on our site within 12 hours.” said Rich. “Our biogas Scania Enviro400 City bus is being converted to 250bar from 200bar to increase the fuel capacity. It already has the capability to be 250bar so it’s just a software upgrade that’s required.”

First WoE’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) bid was successful with the West of England partnership for 110 gas buses. Gas infrastructure will be installed with the gas piped to fuelling points. The gas main is just outside the gate to the depot at Lawrence Hill.

“Hengrove depot was where we were looking to run the gas vehicles, but the main gas main is in a retail park on the other side of a dual carriageway so it would be very difficult and expensive to have the infrastructure there,” Rich explained. “Currently the infrastructure will be either where the gas trailer is now in Lawrence Hill and then piped to the fuelling points, or we could put it indoors. Stagecoach’s Sunderland gas buses refuel inside and Reading Buses has outdoor maintenance.

“We’ve been looking at gas and infrastructure suppliers. All the offers differ and we have to look at those tenders and bids as they come through.”

The future of alternative fuels

“James is the power behind the gas element, but we don’t write off other technologies,” Rich explained. “We’ve talked to hybrid companies and full electric companies, looking at all of their specs.

“The only technology that isn’t going to be expensive is diesel, which is widely considered to be a dirty word now. To upgrade a Euro 4 to a Euro 6 costs around £12,000 and Euro 6 is very clean. There are no infrastructure costs and the maintenance is simple because everyone knows diesel buses.

“Gas is not far behind in terms of the technology because maintenance-wise the vehicles are very simple for an engineer to work on. The downfall could be the cost of the infrastructure. However, once the infrastructure is in place, the gas station can be expanded at a reduced cost in comparison to electric. We certainly wouldn’t be able to have 110 electric buses.

“In Bristol city centre, the local authorities want no emissions at all, which is fine, but it needs to look at well-to-wheel. We all want to create a greener city, but it can’t be at the expense of a different area.”