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June 13 2018
By Tim Deakin

Tim is Editor of routeone and has worked in both the coach and bus and haulage industries.

Going Dutch: The Netherlands way to do electric

The UK’s aspiration for zero-emission buses is as strong as ever. Its appetite for paying for them is not. As seen in Holland, coming up with significant cash is unavoidable if serious change is to be delivered

100 VDL Citea SLFA-180 Electrics in Transdev’s fleet in the Netherlands

Discussion of zero-emission (ZE) buses won’t go away. It’s entirely possible to convert a demanding network to ZE, as proven by Transdev, VDL and partners in Amsterdam. What’s equally clear is that where such aspirations exist in the UK, money will need to be found.

And not a small amount of it. Real cash will be called for to fund the purchase of buses, the creation of infrastructure and the training of drivers and engineers.

VDL recently placed 100 articulated Citea SLFA-180 Electrics with Transdev in the Dutch capital. It operates them on BRT routes that are part of the Randstad R-Net network, and on Schipholnet services around the city’s airport.

Schipholnet, in particular, is highly-demanding. VDL believes that in its current form, the network is beyond simple overnight charging. Some of the electric Citeas cover up to 500km per day; average annual mileage is 120,000km.

As a result, opportunity replenishment is used. Each bus has a pantograph, and through the use of 23, 450kW charging stations, a 20-minute pit stop is required every 80km or so. Depots are also equipped with 30kW slow charging infrastructure.

Dutch mandate for ZE

Schedules are arranged so that during peak hours, all but a handful of the buses are in service. Even so, 100 electric Citeas have replaced 86 diesel buses. The Amsterdam electric bus fleet is not a proof-of-concept for large conversions. It is an early part of a Dutch strategy mandating that every new bus delivered from 2025 will be ZE. From 2030, every bus in the Netherlands will be ZE.

Government and public transport authorities alike in the country have long since recognised that such a plan requires external funding. In further contrast to the UK’s desire for ZE, which appears to revolve around the operator stumping up most (or all) of the cost, Amsterdam is investing in significant bus priority. The long-term view is that it will drive patronage growth, partially mitigating ZE’s additional expense.

Working together

Perhaps surprisingly for a bus manufacturer, charging methods and technical specifications are not at the forefront of VDL’s mind, according to Bus and Coach CEO Henk Coppens. “We are not about pushing technology. Technology is there to enable us to come up with a solution to the operator’s needs,” he says.

“Range is not a state of mind,” adds Business Manager Public Transport Alex de Jong. “It’s not what we look at. Instead, we look at how best to deliver a day’s operation.”

Charging is via pantograph, either fast or slow and in depots or at terminii

Controversially, the Dutch manufacturer believes that other builders’ promised 250-300km range on one overnight charge is not deliverable over the life of the batteries. Instead, VDL claims that they will degrade, with a considerable effect on energy storage capacity.

Another part of VDL’s approach is that it will not sell electric buses that are not fully connected. That is wrapped up with its view on whole system ownership and the way in which it provides and supports charging infrastructure.

“If a customer asked for an electric bus without connectivity, we would say no,” adds Henk. That aspect of the vehicle allows VDL to perform ‘flash’ software updates and also to monitor exactly what the bus is doing.

Thanks to that, systems can be updated and optimised based on real-world usage. “The buses tell us so much. We must then know what do with that,” he continues.

Operator and authority’s view

Transdev took over the Amstelland Meerlanden concession, of which the electric Citeas form a part, in April. It is a 10-year contract, but the buses and infrastructure are depreciated over 15 years. Should Transdev fail to win an extension, all will pass to the new operator. The depreciation period for buses is longer than the Dutch norm to allow for their higher purchase price.

“We must accept longer service lives for electric buses,” says Gerard Hellburg of Vervoregio Amsterdam (VA), the body that oversees public transport in the city. In another key lesson for the UK, he adds that despite a high degree of control exercised by VA, operators must be allowed to redesign networks to best accommodate ZE buses, as they know services best.

VA is not the only Dutch public body that is willing to pay for ZE. Last year, Transdev placed 43 articulated Citea electrics into service in Eindhoven, and electric buses are in use elsewhere in the Netherlands.

There has been a ‘penny drop’ moment in the country as far as ZE is concerned, says Bart Kraayvanger, Manager Zero Emission Programme for Transdev in the Netherlands.

“Overseeing bodies here now realise that low-cost, low-margin operations cannot sustain ZE buses because they are very capital-intensive. Contract issuing authorities are now more focused on quality than price.”

Amsterdam’s 100 electric VDLs would not be possible without a public transport system that is properly funded and free from both the meddling and the lack of knowledge exhibited by many politicians. One can only hope that, eventually, the UK may be able to say something similar.

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