A fleet of new electric buses are being rolled out along bus route 63, and they include a number of new innovations that are being tested together for the first time.
The new buses have been under development for a couple of years, and they are slightly experimental, in that a lot of ideas are being tried at the same time. If they work, great, but it’s considerably cheaper to remove something that people don’t like than to add it later if tests elsewhere show it worked.
So, a new fleet of buses started rolling out on route 63 a few weeks ago, with a range of new ideas.
Some of them are very obvious when you look around, such as the removal of the grab poles on the upper deck, replaced with every single seat having a grab handle. Every seat, even the window seats. That gives the upper deck a much cleaner appearance, but it also means there are more grab handles to hold on to compared to the few poles that used to be there.
Each of the seats comes with a phone charger socket and a flip-down phone holder, as well as the stop button for the bus driver.
Probably most dramatic though is the sunlight in the front of the upper deck, which is tinted to prevent it being a heat trap. However, the bus also has air conditioning as well, and that runs the full length of the bus in vents above the seats. And yes, the windows can still be opened if necessary.
Upgraded iBus displays have been fitted that show duration to the next stops and any local transport issues.
Another change is the floor, it’s a wooden effect lino. It’s subjective, but it does look nicer than the classic patterned lino flooring and yes, it does add a bit of style to the otherwise overly generic bus appearance.
Externally, in addition to the destination board on the front and by the front door showing both the route number and destination, they’ve also upgraded the back of the bus. Here, traditionally, only the bus route number is shown, but they’ve put the destination on as well. A small, but helpful addition.
The aim is for the buses to be seen as a bit more than simply a necessity for getting people from A to B, but as a form of transport that’s responding to changing passenger expectations. Air conditioning, phone charging, and environmentally friendly. By being more appealing to people in the post-pandemic work, TfL hopes to embed a generational shift in transport expectations away from motor cars to electric buses. If more people switch to buses, then that’s fewer cars on the road, which in turn lets buses go faster and be more reliable, which in turn makes them more desirable to use instead of cars. A virtuous circle is created.
TfL will use customer feedback from route 63 to inform plans for the wider bus network and which features may need tweaking in future bus orders.
The buses themselves were built in Scarborough by Alexander Dennis (ADL), based on a chassis supplied by China’s BYD, and then ADL handles the coach building above the chassis. There are plans to import the BYD chassis in parts to assemble them in the UK, so creating more UK jobs, but that’s dependent on bus companies being able to make reliable commitments to orders.
TfL is still waiting to find out what its long term funding situation will be, but for bus manufacturers, as important as TfL is as a customer, ideally, all UK transport operators would have reliable funding so that suppliers can plan and invest as well. That investment is needed as these new buses are replacing older buses that are at the end of their practical life, and it becomes progressively more expensive to keep them on the road. You reach a point where it’s cheaper to buy new buses, but that needs everyone to have clarity about their long-term finances.
However, for electric buses to be plying the city streets, it’s not just the buses that need replacing, the bus depots also need upgrading.
The obvious change in the garage is that petrol pumps need to be replaced with electrical chargers. This isn’t a simple swap job though, for while buses can drive up to a petrol pump and be refuelled very quickly, charging batteries takes time. To do that, the bus garage is being fitted with rows of 150KW chargers, although it’s worth noting that the buses are currently charged at 112KW, so there’s the capacity to upgrade at a later date.
Most of the chargers are along the walls, but they’ve also needed to put some in the middle of the parking space for the buses, and that’s an issue as buses tend to be packed tightly together, and the chargers took over space for a whole row of buses, so they have to redesign the parking layout to handle this.
The buses can be charged in around 3 hours, but you can’t have a fleet of buses all plugged in at the same time as there’s not enough electricity to support that.
Getting extra electrons is often the hardest part of upgrading a bus fleet, as higher power cables and substations need to be installed and that is a very complicated process. Here at Walworth Depot, they have two supplies. One is live now, and it also charges a gigantic local storage battery that can be used to supply surge charging on demand. A second supply is due to go live very shortly.
The buses can run for around 150-170 miles on a single charge, which is generally enough for a full day of service. As the depot is part way along the route, it’s also easy to divert the buses to the garage for a top-up if needed though.
Something that extends the life of the battery charge is heating. A typical bus heats up in the morning as it drives around town, but the electric buses will be warmed up before they leave the depot. While that’s done so that the heaters draw less electricity from the battery during the day, it also means passengers get warm busses first thing in the morning. A decision of necessity has improved passenger comfort.
Each depot faces different challenges in converting to electricity, and this one was chosen as route 63 takes in a wide swathe of London, from the offices and centre of London, down through the residential and commuter areas of Camberwell and Honor Oak, where transport links are weaker than in other parts of London.
The route upgrade comes as ridership between on route 63, between King’s Cross and Honor Oak, has returned to close to pre-pandemic levels.
For route 63, some electric buses are already in use, and the remaining diesel powered buses on the route will be phased out over the next couple of months. That’ll mean that road pollution along route 63 will reduce as the buses are zero-emission at source, but also the air pollution inside the bus garage will be almost eliminated, for the benefit of the staff.
But importantly for bus photographers, the digital destination boards on the front of the buses have a faster screen refresh rate than older digital displays, so no more problems of taking a photo, only for half the destination board to be missing due to the screen refresh.
Keeping passengers and bus geeks happy.