Alternative fuels needed

A hydrogen bus in London.
A hydrogen bus in London.

The drive for alternative fuels to replace diesel for road vehicles is gathering pace. The first move was for bio-fuel, but this was soon discredited, and hybrid propulsion was fitted in many buses, as well as in cars.

There was one hybrid railway locomotive, but after successful trials it was converted back to straight diesel.

Blackpool remained faithful to trams on its long seafront route throughout, and very gradually, high-level thinking came to the conclusion that in fact the best form of urban transport was the tram after all.

Hybrid propulsion is where a small diesel engine runs as required to keep batteries topped up. These provide the power for the moments of greatest demand, such as acceleration, which is why the principle is particularly useful for buses.

Straight electric vehicles were mentioned last month. In the first half of the last century these often took over from trams and drew their power from overhead wires.

They were known as trolleybuses, and as diesel fuel became cheaper in the 1950s, trolleybuses too gave way to diesel buses.

Battery technology has improved sufficiently to operate single-deck buses on fairly short routes, and the Chinese have now refined and compacted batteries sufficiently for them to be used in double-deck vehicles all day.

There is another alternative – hydrogen. This is being developed in Aberdeen, which has installed a plant to manufacture the fuel, and there are 10 buses running in the city, four operated by First group and six by Stagecoach. The 1,000th fill has just been publicised.

As always, experimental vehicles are usually tried in London before anywhere else. That’s because there are so many buses in the capital that trials can involve more vehicles than elsewhere.

The accompanying illustration shows a hydrogen bus near Covent Garden on a riverside route, hence the route number RV1.

The benefit of hydrogen as a fuel for propulsion in city situations is that, like straight electric, it is completely free of exhaust gases.

It does have an exhaust, but it is pure water, and the first hydrogen bus to enter service in Canada was toasted with a glass of its own exhaust. In the 1950s, when there was the biggest move away from electric street transport (trams and trolleybuses) to diesel buses, I thought, and said, that there were only two improvements that could be made to diesel buses.

The first was to put electric motors in them, and the second was to put them on rails.

Blackpool remained faithful to trams on its long seafront route throughout, and very gradually, high-level thinking came to the conclusion that in fact the best form of urban transport was the tram after all.

The leader was the Tyneside Passenger Transport Executive in Newcastle with the Metro, and now there are modern tram systems in Manchester, Sheffield, Croydon, Birmingham, Nottingham and Edinburgh.

After becoming established, these have all been extended.

The last one, in Edinburgh, had to be reduced from its original plan because of problems with the contractors and resulted in huge expense, but the city council has now agreed to extend the truncated system to complete most of the original plan.

There will still remain one more section to fill in to reach completion.

Concern has been expressed in eastern Berwickshire that the new local train services due to be introduced between Edinburgh and Berwick by 2018, with re-opened stations at East Linton and Reston, might be put in jeopardy by applications from open-access operators for paths to enable them to introduce some extra-fast trains, ostensibly to compete with Edinburgh-to-London air services.

However, there is hope that this will not be case and that all interests can be accommodated with careful scheduling.

Another development not yet established, because there has not been sufficient expression of interest by people in Northumberland, is that there should be some services linking the major communities on the East Coast Mainline between Newcastle and Berwick.

Services that stop at any of these are designed to link them with places further afield, rather than with each other.

The few people who have voiced their desire for such services are likely to be disappointed as a result of the lack of interest.

Disgust has been expressed by track-workers on the Borders Railway because the coaches used on the steam trains and other special excursion trains have toilets which drop their contents straight onto the rails.

There have been several opportunities to retro-fit retention tanks on these coaches, but the operators have always baulked at the cost because the coaches have to be withdrawn by 2020 anyway.

The exception to this is Chiltern Railways, now owned by German Railways, which has fitted tanks to the toilets and also power-operated doors instead of the old-fashioned slam doors, which passengers find difficult, and which cause railway staff grief because people leave them open when leaving the train.

Most of the trains used on the Cross-Country services, also now owned by German Railways, which were designed by, or at least for, Virgin Trains at the millennium, have always had smelly toilets.

At first, the operator’s management flatly denied that there was a problem, but after some months, it reluctantly agreed to take some corrective action, which turned out to be simply adding some air-fresheners, so the smells were not eliminated, but merely partly covered up.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport: A Will-o’-the-Wisp? This book is priced at £14.95, post paid, and signed by the author. He also wrote Experiments in Public Transport Operation, priced at £11.95. They can be ordered via the author’s website or from Grieves in Church Street, Berwick.