Switching on to wholly electric buses

An all-electric bus in Croydon. These will gradually take over from the hybrid buses, which will then be cascaded to other areas.
An all-electric bus in Croydon. These will gradually take over from the hybrid buses, which will then be cascaded to other areas.

Regular readers of this column know that the writer is in favour of railway electrification.

I have also held the view that there are two main improvements which could be made to buses in cities and large towns — the first being to replace the diesel engine with an electric motor, and the second being to put it on rails.

In the 1930s, when the original rails were wearing out, many municipal tramways were replaced by trolleybuses, which continued to use the municipal electricity and were almost as flexible as motor buses.

As we came into the present century, determined efforts were made to develop electric buses. These have mostly taken the form of hybrid vehicles, where the wheels are driven by electric motors and the power is supplied by batteries.

However, batteries are heavy and require frequent charging so a small diesel engine is carried, which tops up the batteries as required. It uses much less fuel than a conventional bus engine and emits much less harmful exhaust.

Such hybrid buses are now to be found in many cities and large towns.

Work has continued on developing a wholly electric bus. The photograph shows one on the first route in London to be operated wholly by all-electric buses. Batteries do need to be charged frequently so the route is based on Croydon garage and the batteries are charged every time the buses have completed a trip.

So far, these are all single-deck buses, but the Chinese are working on a double-deck design.

As the double-deck electric buses reach the point where they can operate reliably in cities and come into service, the hybrid vehicles will be cascaded to the few remaining routes in rural areas which require such vehicles.

It is pleasing to see some operators making efforts to develop inter-urban routes using double-deck buses, rather than withdrawing them. Some of the responsibility rests with the local authorities, of course, and there seems to be a wide variety of attitudes to the need to support public transport.

The significance of using double-deck buses in rural areas is that they develop tourist traffic. While the locals like to stay downstairs because they have shopping bags and buggies, and are usually travelling for short distances, tourists like to go upstairs to view the scene.

Buses are on the go all day, every day, but goods vehicles stop for loading and unloading. Lorry operators are being offered financial incentives to convert vehicles to hydrogen dual-fuel, and vans are to become all-electric, like buses.

The electrification programme on the railways makes haste slowly. There are always snags that hold things up so there is an urgent necessity to operate trains using alternative fuels on non-electrified sections.

For various reasons it was intended to complete big electrification programmes before 2020, using 2018 as a target, and hundreds of new trains are being built to meet this target.

Plans are having to be modified so that many of the new trains are being built with diesel sections which can run beyond the wires, and no doubt the question of alternative fuels is being considered as a matter of urgency.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp? priced £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation, at £11.95. Order at www.john-wylde.co.uk