Taking the lead with electric ‘deckers

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A range of vehicles operated by Metroline: a diesel ADL Enviro200 alongside a BYD ADL Enviro200EV, an MCV eVoSeti-bodied Volvo and the two new electric double-deckers – a BYD ADL Enviro400 and an Optare Metrodecker

Metroline has been making headlines recently for its decision to operate London’s first two entirely electric double-decker bus routes. With the first of the vehicles beginning to enter service, James Day spoke to recently-appointed Group Engineering Director Ian Foster and Project Manager Paul Wastell to find out how it has come to fruition

Metroline is in the process of receiving 67 electric double-decker buses, which has required significant overhauls of two of its depots – Holloway and Potters Bar. The process has not been an easy one, but has been expertly managed by Paul Wastell, who is handling the project at both depots.

Metroline’s Group Engineering Director, Ian Foster, described it as an exciting time for the business. He said: “We like to be at the forefront of smart technologies and new systems being released into the market where possible, and it fits well with fleet development and the aims of our wider Group.”

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The initial trial
Metroline has an ongoing project to trial five double-decker BYD e Bus electrics, which has been running for the last three years. The vehicles started operating on Transport for London (TfL) route 98 from 6 May 2016, and the trial comes to an end in November this year. The project required upgrading the electricity supply into Willesden Garage.

“The e Buses were used to test the possibility of electric double-deckers in London, and we have been getting a range of between 120 and 130 miles out of them,” said Ian. “Our new vehicles are a significant advance on those.

“The vehicles had a special dispensation to run on the road at almost 22 tonnes. They have massive battery packs, and the idea was to run them in service to see what worked, what failed, and how much battery power was being used. The 98 is not a particularly long route, but it is a 24-hour route with buses out day and night.”

Sourcing the vehicles
In the last decade, Metroline’s vehicle strategy across its business has changed to favour having two suppliers for each type of vehicle – two single-deck suppliers and two double-deck suppliers. The same practice is being applied for electric double-deckers, which is why both Optare Metrodeckers and BYD ADL Enviro400s are joining the electric fleet.

In total, 31 Optare Metrodeckers will operate on route 134 out of Potters Bar depot, while 36 BYD ADL Enviro400s will run out of Holloway depot.

“There are two manufacturers in the UK which are pretty conspicuous in terms of electric bus development operation,” Ian said. “BYD is fairly dominant throughout Europe, while Optare is a niche British manufacturer. Optare is not without its own set of problems, but is focusing on electrification and green vehicles as part of its business plan going forward.

“We’ve had the experience of BYD with double-deckers, but the personal preference of the engineering team is always to try and buy British if we can and we would have struggled if BYD was making both the chassis and the body. With ADL making the body, which is something we are already used to working on, and the good relationship we have, the BYD proposition became a lot more attractive.

“What we weren’t willing to do was put all our eggs in one basket and leave ourselves open to any delay or undue influence from any single manufacturer.

“We ran a tender process including every electric bus manufacturer to ask if they could make a double-decker bus. No vehicles were approved by TfL at that time, and the chosen vehicles would be the first to comply with that approval process. As with all these new technology roll outs, we expect them to be further developed in service once we realise what all the problems are.

“We let TfL know we had approached several suppliers as part of our tendering process and two had confirmed they were in a position to deliver double-decker vehicles. They were not necessarily able to do so within the desired timeframe, but they were close to it.

“From a technical point of view, it means we have two different vehicles with two different systems, which gives us the opportunity to assess the performance and reliability against one another, the availability of parts, the service backup, warranties and so on. I’m expecting another couple of manufacturers to enter into the double-decker electric vehicle market over the next three years, which will give other options going forward. It might be within any of the other businesses we own, such as Metroline West or New Adventure Travel.”

Taking the first step
Ian said he realises that by being one of the first operators to run the electric double-deckers, Metroline will have to deal with any design issues, but said it will be worth it to help develop a battery electric vehicle capable of a range of 200 miles at the end of the life of its batteries. “This is what we tend to need for a vehicle working day and night,” he noted.

“All our tenders are based on the fifth year value of the battery, not the first. We should cover the range easily in the first few years, but year five – the end of the TfL contract cycle – is most important to us.

“We’re starting to see manufacturers now looking further ahead. Yutong are offering a seven year warranty and is starting to move towards 10. The next stage for me will be the manufacturers de-risking the vehicles completely by taking the battery out of the purchase price and offering a daily rental charge or something similar. For me, that will kick off the wider expansion of electric bus routes.”

Electrifying Holloway

TfL route 43 will become one of the first London routes to be operated entirely by electric double-deckers when the entire 36-strong fleet enters service. ANDY IZATT

Metroline’s Holloway garage began operating electric buses with the number 46 in October 2017, which uses 23 BYD ADL Enviro200s. With BYDs already serving from Holloway, it made sense for the new fleet of BYD ADL Enviro400 electrics to also call Holloway home and use the same charging infrastructure. The first of the buses are already operating on route 43.

Holloway at its peak could hold up to 260 vehicles, but the electric infrastructure has displaced some buses, resulting in the current capacity of 235.
“We placed UK Power Networks (UKPN) under contract to get the electricity into the site,” said Paul.

“The wider issue for that was we bid for three routes, requiring 100 or so vehicles. We worked out we would need between 75 and 80 chargers, because we wouldn’t need every vehicle charging at the same time.

“We’re doing work on charging strategies to find the optimum charging strategies for different routes, because they will all be different. We’re also considering placing chargers in other garages, so buses don’t have to be brought back to their home garage. We are trying to give electricity every possibility of succeeding in a variety of different manners across the business.”

Ian added: “We put a bid in for the power, requested the power from UKPN, they gave us a price and we worked out how many chargers we would need.

“When we weren’t successful in winning all of the routes, we still put enough power in to allow us to put a second route into the garage. Initially, we went down as low as 46 chargers. When we did the calculation for the double-deckers coming in, we increased this to 50. It still gives us a bit of spare capacity going forward.”

Challenges at Holloway
Paul said that the biggest challenge in the project at Holloway was adapting the garage itself. The 110-year-old garage started life as a horse-drawn tram shed, before becoming a powered tram shed. It’s still possible to see traces of the original stables on the exterior of the depot.

“We’ve kept digging up the ground to a minimum and put all of the cabling overhead,” Paul explained. “There are several miles of cables.

“The UKPN original thinking was to put a substation in the car park, which would be the easiest route into the garage to get power. We couldn’t do that, because the positioning of the cables would not have worked, so we had to put the substation in a different position. It was a major obstacle which we had to overcome and we did, though at considerable cost.

“It meant taking the roof off part of the building, knocking part of it down, concrete piling to a great depth (because the foundations were non-standard to take the weight of the trams when Holloway was a tram garage) and then rebuilding around the transformer. You can’t see any of that now the process is complete.”

Metroline’s contract obligations combined with planning authorities created another significant challenge, as Ian explained: “We actually had to start work before the planning permission was granted, or we never would have completed in time for the contract. It took 18 months in total.

“We were due to complete in May 2018, with the actual switchover in December 2018.”

Getting lined up

Delivery of the BYD ADL Enviro400 fleet is well underway

Ian highlighted some of the difficulties created by the London tendering model combined with the timescales required to source power: “You put a price in and win on electric vehicles, and then the contract starts 11 months later. However, when you look at the infrastructure, planning permission and everything else required to get started, it can take 20 months. A lot of work needs to be done with the electrical industry to speed the process up.

“In some areas, there is not enough electricity to run electric buses anyway. The capacity within the grid at the point we made the bid for Holloway wasn’t enough to do the entire project we envisaged with 80 chargers. As part of the project, 2kms of road had to be dug up to run a cable from Archway down to the garage. That’s still not complete – we had to secure other power from the grid until permission is given for the final routing of the cable.

“The way the system works at the moment requires you to give electricity providers an estimate of the power you’re looking for. They then look at the grid in the area and for several miles around to see what the available capacity is in those areas. If they can take power from two of the areas closest to the garage, they will do. If they can’t, they have to run a separate power supply in from elsewhere.

“We’re learning from our experience. For example, we’ve found that garages near shopping centres are much easier to put the power in, because they don’t use the power overnight. Where you’ve got a garage which is outlying, there is an issue.

Paul added: “We’re lucky in Potters Bar that the substation is right behind the garage. It still cost hundreds of thousands to set up for electric buses, though.”

Ian continued: “We as a business are getting a much better understanding of how the power demand and supply works, but there needs to be a much more joined-up effort from all the electrical companies around London if the Mayor’s target of electrification within the next decade or less is to be met.”

Thinking like a developer

Potters Bar will house the 31-strong Optare Metrodecker EV fleet, which will run on TfL route 134. KRIS LAKE

The infrastructure in London today is not sufficient to support every garage going electric, which means power needs to be rationed. The issue Metroline faces is that routes are awarded tender by tender, with each success requiring more cabling to be brought in. While the operator could bring in enough cabling to support the garage being populated entirely with electric vehicles, if this capacity is not used, it will be taken away and sold to someone else.

“In our discussions with the electrical companies, they feel that in most depots they can supply the electricity after a bit of jigging around in the local area,” Ian said. “The trouble is, when you apply for the electricity, they give you a price in 39 days and you have 90 days to accept. The way the tendering process works means you put in a tender and might not find out for four months.

“If a developer comes in looking to power a block of flats and it is a choice between that and a bus garage, the flats will get it.

“We’re finding ourselves looking at planning applications in that area which might affect our access to power. Our view is that the tendering process and the way UKPN and the National Grid works are not compatible in the present situation.”

Ian said that the current situation creates ‘a whole new level of frustration’: “I’ve been a constant critic of the way the electrical infrastructure construction, development and installation at garages appears to work against how operators are used to previously achieving things. We like to have things lined up in a sequence we expect and we like to be nimble. We like to see things moving fast. As it is now, we have to move our normal thoughts away from being a bus operator and think like a property developer to understand the problems and implications of what we need to achieve.

“We’re moving into a market where power suppliers are used to dealing with multi-million pound construction companies on huge projects where there are substantial profit margins, and generally extended time scales. When they’re looking at buses infrastructure, they just don’t understand the speed with which we expect to progress. If you’re building a housing estate, you’ve got two or three years to build it. We’re going in and saying we need something in three months. They’re just not set up for it.

“Some of them are rising to the challenge and trying to work out how they can speed the process up and make it available for a wider range of people than just the big operators like us, who can access funding for these big infrastructure projects.”

Potters Bar
The layout in Potters Bar depot is somewhat different to what can be seen in Holloway. Cabling runs along the walls instead of overhead, with the exception of a small stretch running underground across the front of the garage. The space saved has allowed Potters Bar to maintain an impressive capacity for 190 vehicles.

Paul explained: “With the Optares, the chargers are mounted on the vehicles. For the BYDs you have massive five-foot charging stations, but with the Optares you just have a cable running along the wall and a small plug. The cables are also smaller because the distance from the transformer is much shorter.

“In terms of the electrical demand, it may be similar, but Optare doesn’t see the requirement for a fast charger. We have still bought two to put in that garage along with one in Holloway. We bought them because at the present time, we’re still developing our knowledge of how the vehicles operate and what might be required. We can get a vehicle fully up and running in two and a half hours if necessary, or have the option to put a 20 minute charge into it which would allow it to do whatever was required of it in the depot.

“While we’re dealing with the unknown, we’re trying to put contingencies in which allow us to at least keep operations functioning if something does go pear shaped.”

Future financing
Considering how the purchasing of electric vehicles could change in the future, Ian commented: “We know there are companies out there who are starting to look at infrastructure and even financing of electrical vehicles to try to offer a whole package. It’s a matter of whether those companies are reasonable in their price. Some of their expectations of profit are a bit out of kilter with the profit you get from running buses.

“Some large companies like Siemens are heavily involved in trying to work how to finance infrastructure and charging systems. We spoke to several other parties looking to take that a stage further and to give you a pence per mile charge for supplying electricity, infrastructure and even the vehicles.

“We have funding through a very large organisation, but these ideas are appealing to us and also smaller and medium-sized businesses who will be able to de-risk a lot of the cost of converting to electric.”

Commercial viability
Ian stated that electric buses are still ‘nowhere near commercially viable’ once infrastructure costs are factored in.

“However on maintenance electric vehicles are relatively straightforward,” he added. “The only things that fail are motors and batteries. The long term view for me is that an electric vehicle in its normal running state should be able to last 20 years. That is comparable to a diesel.

“Take up is what’s going to drive the price down, as always. I don’t think it will ever reach the price of a hybrid which in itself is more than a standard diesel, but the price will be driven down towards that level.

“We do think electrification is going to be priority for councils, but I still think we will see diesel around in 30-40 years in one shape or another.”

Maintaining the fleet

The BYD ADL Enviro400s use the same staircase styling as the Enviro400 City bus model, though the staircase has been moved back to help efficiently house the vehicle’s batteries. ANDY IZATT

Going into more detail on maintenance, Ian said: “There’s no engine and on some of the buses no gearbox. The batteries are all monitored remotely. We do everything the same as on a diesel bus, except we don’t have to clean out the exhaust systems, we don’t have to take gearboxes out or do engine work and the oil and coolant changes on the vehicles are twice per year. Our experience with hybrids is the amount of brake work drops considerably because of the regenerative braking systems, so I expect the same from the electrics.

“Apart from that everything else is the same. We have the normal safety inspections, door servicing, air-conditioning servicing and so on.

“I have no doubt we will start seeing failures as vehicles age. It will be interesting to see when we have the first drive motor failure. It’s bound to happen at some time, and a new motor is about £30k. We’ll have struck the same five year driveline warranty arrangements, but the issue is when the kit fails, there’s no aftermarket at this time. That will come – there is a huge electric vehicle aftermarket out there for other industries.

“The challenge for us is wrestling the parts provision away from the manufacturers who would like to hold onto it, to find the best value for aftermarket parts or encourage the aftermarket to grow.”

On the infrastructure side, Ian added: “What happens if a transformer fails or there is a serious fault in the grid? We have to consider that in our risk assessment. We are considering new back-up generators which run on 100% biofuel and produce no NOx. I think we will end up doing a deal with our electrical suppliers where if a system goes down in a garage with electric buses, there will be an arrangement in place which allows a power generator like this to be put in. It would have to comply with current plant equipment emission standards but would allow us to still operate those vehicles.

“The alternative is the hassle of transporting vehicles between depots to charge them, which isn’t efficient at all.”

Though drivers at Holloway are driving electric vehicles already, each driver is given an individual one-on-one training session with either the garage mentor or a training instructor. Metroline is also rolling out engineering training. All engineers work to obtain a high voltage training certificate, both for hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles.

“There is a comprehensive training plan in place for the engineering staff over the two-three years to bring them up to the standard of the development engineers which work on the vehicles,” said Paul. “There is a big commitment to training and safety.

“Within the training we then do the work with the London Fire Brigade and emergency services so that in the event of a serious accident, they don’t get carried away and start chopping through high voltage cables. There is a whole range of risk assessments and working procedures which need to be put in place.”

Charging at home
Ian said that in-garage charging is Metroline’s preferred option, because he cannot see the potential for on-route charging to work in most areas of London.

He explained: “With the constraints in terms of property and London being so congested, along with the fact that every route in London is criss-crossed by other operators, how would we reserve that on-route charging for us and how would we allow for a 30-minute charge in our scheduling? TfL’s thoughts on any technology we trial is that it cannot affect the bus schedule. It must operate as the system operates now, which is the real challenge.

While Volvo and other manufacturers are bringing out pantographs, overhead charging and charging plates in the floor, our current scheduling doesn’t allow time for it.

“The bus doesn’t fuel during the day – it goes out and runs all day – so we plan the driver’s breaks and any rest periods into the schedule so the terminus is on a bus stand. These are all shared by other operators. You could come to some arrangement where slots are pre-programmed at charging stations out on the road, but the problem is congestion could cause you to miss your slot. If it’s only for 10 minutes and you arrive five minutes late with the next bus due to come in at the end of the window, it doesn’t work.

“Technology will ultimately provide a solution but at the moment, you’ll find virtually every operator is looking at charging in the garage and maximising the length of duty the battery can do, rather than considering full-scale roll-out of on-route charging. We operate around 80 routes, which would require a lot of charging infrastructure just for our vehicles alone.”

Hydrogen buses
Ian believes hydrogen buses could hold the key to operating day and night with an electric drive without returning to the depot, and highlighted the 20 hydrogen buses due to arrive at Metroline next year – part of the JIVE project running across Europe. The hydrogen infrastructure is being installed at Metroline’s Perivale garage in West London.

Thanks to advances in hydrogen vehicles and the technology being increasingly proven, Ian expects a reduction in the stringent safety requirements to operate hydrogen buses, along with advancements in the delivery of the fuel, which will help to make the buses more viable.

“We’re running them to prove the concept of distance,” he explained. “If you’re looking across the piece at haulage and intercity coach operations, where vehicles travel 200-300 miles without stops, that is what will drive the move away from diesel eventually. If you look at the volume of goods and persons moved on the road in the UK, trucks far outweigh other forms of transport.

“At this present time, you’re not going to get a battery system which will last 200 miles with a safe margin of power left. You might in several years’ time because so much is being spent on battery development, but the potential for hydrogen has always been there.

“Production of hydrogen can be quite controversial, in terms of the energy used to produce the product. Ours will be generated by a redundant wind turbine on a wind farm. We looked at producing hydrogen on-site at the depot but worked out that by using some of this redundant grid electricity which has nowhere to go, it’s cheaper, even allowing for transporting the hydrogen.”

Ian believes that pure electric drives are only workable for about 40% of the vehicle pool – those used in cities and built-up areas. “Outside of that, something different has to be considered and developed.

“Electric drive technology is starting to prove its reliability. It’s now about building that same level of reliability into the hydrogen fuel cell and control systems. I’m gathering from ongoing trials that it is pretty good.

“On a hydrogen vehicle, you’ve still got the fact that the fuel cell deteriorates over eight or so years and needs to be rebuilt, and there is a cost involved. Once the technology is taken up on a large scale, there will be significant production savings. At the moment there are half a dozen providers, but once it becomes a mainstay of transport, that number will increase exponentially.”