Next stop, EV: How First Bus is navigating the transition to a zero-emission fleet
Public transport operator First Bus is transitioning 100% of its UK fleet to zero-emission models by 2035. We speak exclusively to the firm’s chief sustainability and compliance officer to find out how.
Over the next few weeks, contractors will be hard at work in the First Bus depot in Bramley, Leeds, to transform it so it can host a fully electric fleet.
Diesel fuel tanks will be stripped out and rapid chargers put in, along with the associated grid connection infrastructure. The chargers will be capable of fully charging a bus in 2.5 hours; the hope is to have one-third of the fleet at Bramley being fully electric by next March.
“Literally overnight, in depots that we are able to completely transform, which is our preferred route… you’re going from looking at diesel and all of the grease that goes with that to these sparkly, clean electric technologies,” says First Bus’s chief sustainability and compliance officer Isabel McAllister.
The fit-out at Bramley is in support of First Bus’s strategic plan to switch 100% of its buses operating in the UK to models with zero tailpipe emissions by 2035. This target covers some 4,500 vehicles already in operation.
McAllister, who joined the company last year after more than a decade in sustainability in construction, “inherited” the target and some of the planning around financing the transition, plus selecting the right technology options.
Delivery will depend not only on her team but also those at First Bus specialising in infrastructure, construction and energy, due to the need to refit bus depots for electric models. McAllister explains that, while the upfront cost of a new e-bus is around twice that of a diesel model, a far greater share of the upfront cost is associated with adding the necessary depot infrastructure.
She describes this as an “involved process with many people taking part”. In some cases, major dig projects are needed to secure a grid connection for multiple chargers. In all cases, the inside of the depot itself is transformed.
Charging points are either added at ground level, or using a gantry system if floor space is scarce. First Bus is set to complete its first gantry depot later this year but some other operators have already fitted this type of technology.
Also in a refit, diesel fuel tanks are removed and diesel-related kit can be phased out in the engineering workshops. Mechanical ventilation systems, used to extract diesel fumes during testing and engineering works, can also be ripped out.
None of this, however, is the biggest hurdle to clear. McAllister says: “The big challenge is procuring the power. You have to, a long time in advance, make sure that you can procure sufficient power to meet your demand.”
From diesel to digital
McAllister explains that the process of transitioning a depot to electric doesn’t end with infrastructure installation. Those who work there will need to be trained in how to handle an EV compared to a diesel model.
For the drivers, it’s a case of learning about how e-buses brake and accelerate differently. They will also be told to expect less noise from the engine shaking and also less heat from battery systems than from engines. McAllister said the changes are small and that most drivers do find an electric ride “more enjoyable”.
It’s a different story for engineers. Overnight, around one-third of their regular tasks will change. While bodywork tasks remain the same, engineers will need to shift away from diesel filter checking and oil top-ups towards more digital diagnostic tasks.
McAllister explains that most engineers see a need to “completely reskill”. Nonetheless, most are keen to undertake the task, and those keen to keep working with diesel are invited to transfer to alternative locations.
First Bus is offering a training programme to all engineers, based off of learnings from the companies manufacturing its new e-buses, such as Wrightbus. Those wishing to go the extra mile are supported to work directly with these OEMs to undertake additional training.
Looking to the future, McAllister is not anticipating that her company will struggle to attract new engineers for e-buses. She even believes that the electric engineering roles will “attract a wider pool of people” than diesel specialist roles. After all, the former is a cleaner job with less heavy lifting.
First Bus is operating a new apprenticeship programme for those looking to enter the sector. This scheme, based out of Cheshire, has been operational for just over a year.
Electric or hydrogen?
So far, we’ve covered several of the practicalities of procuring electric buses (like the one pictured above, in Leicester). But why did First Bus choose to adopt these models instead of hydrogen? Several competitors, including Go-Ahead, have invested heavily in hydrogen.
“There are four cost considerations – capital cost of the vehicle, capital cost of the infrastructure, operational costs of running vehicles related to fuel, and other operational costs like maintenance. Hydrogen is currently more expensive than EV in all four areas,” explains McAllister.
“Hydrogen is also challenging in terms of infrastructure…. It is space-hungry, quite capital-intense and brings with it a lot of curiosity and considerations that EVs don’t.”
These considerations include adding controls for storage and ventilation per regulated requirements for hydrogen vehicles.
McAllister states that some operators may find hydrogen to be a better fit if they are operating inter-city routes (i.e. where the bus will complete one, two or three longer journeys across the UK). First Bus, however, primarily offers shorter urban routes, meaning it is suitable for buses to be charged once (overnight) every 24 hours.
Hydrogen might also be a good fit for those operating in areas with keen investors in hydrogen production and refuelling infrastructure.
For example, there is a hydrogen refuelling station in Aberdeen, serving First Bus and other corporate customers (pictured below). This was part-funded by local authorities keen to promote the role of hydrogen in the North Sea energy transition.
So, if more hydrogen infrastructure comes online and if vehicle costs come down, would First Bus see hydrogen buses playing a bigger role in its transition?
“We are completely agnostic on EVs versus hydrogen,” McAllister answers. “Should hydrogen become a lot more viable, then we will absolutely include it in the mix to a greater extent.”
She emphasises that she and colleagues have tried to plan the fleet transition to be “independent” of support externally – be that from private investment or from Government grants.
Sharing is caring
Grants are on offer for e-buses at present in England and Scotland, partially covering the costs of infrastructure funding and upfront vehicle costs. But more information on the future of the English scheme is still to come, having been delayed over the summer.
McAllister believes the lack of clarity is a concern but not one that could undermine the firm’s target. She says: “I think what’s really important for all large public transport operators is making this model sustainable independent of public funding. This is what we are doing. If we are fortunate and can get additional government funding again, that would be fabulous – but we made our 2035 commitment without expecting the government or other bodies to subsidise our approach.”
She acknowledges that not every business will be so fortunate, especially SMEs. Indeed, the Scottish grant scheme, ScotZEB, only gives funding on the condition that bus operators support SMEs.
With that in mind, First Bus is inviting other businesses and public sector bodies to use its charging infrastructure during the day, when its vehicles are out and about. It has seen “strong interest” in this sharing offer, says McAllister.
She elaborates: “The UK’s EV transition is not going to work if every vehicle needs its own charger; the 1:1 ratio is not appropriate”.
Additionally, First Bus recently opened its first public charging hub in Cornwall. This will encourage those with EVs or hybrids to park and ride. For First Bus, the benefit is making use of surplus space and power to enable the transition to electric beyond its own fleet, bringing the general public on board too.
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