Electric Versas for York – First operating six Optare Versa EVs on new Park and Ride
Although York’s Roman and Viking heritage is much celebrated, the city is anything but languishing in the past. Its latest development sees a fleet of electric powered Optare Versa EVs enter service from a new Park and Ride site
Chris Peat made the trip to York to witness the opening of this new chapter in the city’s transport history
Electric powered P&R
York is renowned for its Park and Ride sites, of which there are now six with this newest facility. The opening of this latest 600 vehicle capacity site at Poppleton Bar, just off the A59, now sees all A roads to the city covered by a Park and Ride facility. All are operated by the city’s primary bus operator, First.
Key to the green credentials of the Poppleton Bar site are the six new Optare Versa EVs. Operating service 59 between York city centre and the new Park and Ride, they run weekdays between 07.00 and 19.45 on a ten minute frequency. On Saturdays, they operate from 07.00 to 08.30 every 15 minutes and then every ten minutes until 17.40. Sunday operations start at 09.30, running every ten minutes until 17.40. An adult single is £2, with a day return costing £2.70 and parking is free. According to First’s Director of Strategy UK Bus, Nigel Foster, the electric buses on the Poppleton Bar service were already attracting positive comments from passengers.
It wasn’t just the new buses and the Poppleton Bar site being celebrated at the launch, it also marked the recent expansion of the existing Askham Bar facility. This has had its parking capacity increased to 1,100 vehicles. Costing £22.7m, the combined work on the two sites was 70% funded by the government, with the remaining 30% coming from the City of York Council. To illustrate the scale of this investment, Cabinet Member for Transport, Cllr David Levene, said, ‘The £22.7m project represents one of the largest single investments in York’s transport infrastructure since the northern ring road was built in the 80s.’
Both sites were created in partnership with contractors Balfour Beatty and designers CH2M Hill. The latter carried out the preliminary design, detailed design, contract procurement and construction supervision for the client.
Introducing the new Park and Ride site is intended to reduce congestion levels. Major improvements being made to the nearby A59/A1237 roundabout to further help alleviate congestion, which were ongoing during the launch.
It is not only congestion the service aims to alleviate, but pollution too. This was the reason behind the purchase of electric Optare Versa EVs. Their drive systems and components were designed and manufactured by Sheffield based Magtec. Over their operating lifespan, the vehicles are expected to save over 7,500tons of CO2 emissions in York. They are not wholly emission free; they have auxiliary power from a small diesel generator for heating the interior. Part funding for the single deckers came from DfT’s Green Bus Fund, which contributed £1.2m towards them. They are not the first electric buses in the city, nor the first Optare electrics as Transdev York is already operating a Solo EV electric bus on the city’s University Loop route.
Electric charging infrastructure for the six new Versas was supplied by APT Technologies, which provided its evolt units. Two short charge power points were installed at the Poppleton Bar site, designed to give vehicles a quick boost while in service. Installed at First’s depot are facilities enabling the buses to be charged overnight, giving them an 80 to 90 mile range (depending on operating conditions). According to Nigel, this range has proved sufficient in service so far.
As well as the electric vehicles and charging units, other green features at the new Park and Ride site include a turf roof (or ‘living roof’) and a charging point for electric cars. Aesthetically, the building itself is pleasing to the eye, featuring wood cladding. To help York meet its goal of becoming one of the best digitally connected cities in Europe by 2015, all six Park and Ride terminals and on board services across the city are set to get free wi-fi.
Cutting the ribbon
To mark the opening of the Poppleton site, a ribbon cutting ceremony was held during the launch. Along with various councillors, dignitaries and others involved in the project, the event was attended by Enrico Vassallo, CEO of Optare. Enrico made a speech emphasising that the investment in the Yorkshire based manufacturer’s electric buses was an investment into the local economy.
He said, ‘York Park and Ride is yet another example that electric vehicles, the introduction of which Optare has pioneered in the UK, have a place in the public transport system. We are particularly proud to be able to contribute to the local economy by supplying buses that are running on routes local to where they are manufactured in Sherburn in Elmet near York. Optare’s electric vehicles continue to grow in popularity, with orders so far this year totalling 34 vehicles. The new vehicles are in addition to another Optare electric vehicle already operating at the University of York on the campus shuttle service and other Optare electric vehicles already in service in Harrogate, Scotland, Nottingham, Coventry, London, the Heathrow Terminal 5, Switzerland and Holland, bringing the total of Optare electric vehicles currently in service to 59.’
MD of First in York, Ben Gilligan, said in his speech he was proud to be operating ‘one of the best Park and Ride sites in the country’. The success of the sites, according to Ben, partly comes from providing a punctual service, mentioning the recent positive Passenger Focus reliability scores. However, he said he realised he ‘couldn’t do it alone’ and praised the City of York for the part it played in introducing the new service, paying tribute to its hard work with the DfT and private sector partners. He was pleased with the decision to go with Optare, echoing Enrico’s point earlier that it was a ‘local investment’.
Ben said, ‘As a member of the York Quality Bus Partnership, First works closely with partners to provide public transport that supports communities and the local economy. The investment by First of nearly £1m in these new Optare Versa Electric Vehicles in York demonstrates our commitment to improving the quality of life by lowering air emissions and congestion and offering low carbon travel options.’
Speaking to me after his speech, Ben said it was First that chose Optare electrics to run on the new service. He said, ‘Optare was really the only provider of electric vehicles with range we were after for this service. We have been very impressed with their performance. We have had one or two small teething troubles as you would expect with any new vehicle, but overall they are proving reliable and we are pleased with the range they are achieving. Drivers and customers like them, they are quite gutsy.’
He then went on to say that the drivers were given training in the vehicles prior to them going into passenger service. The main difference compared to diesel equivalents he mentioned was to the way they brake, with the electric Versas slowing more when the throttle is eased off, requiring less braking.
Ben said he is seeing 1% to 2% patronage increases on York’s Park and Ride sites year on year. They are perhaps some of the most successful in the country. The city’s first one started in the 1970s with successive facilities being set up in later years. Growth in demand for them can be described as dramatic, with 159,690 boarding in 1990, 1,14m in 2000 and over 4m passenger journeys recorded last year. When asked what is behind this success, Ben said, ‘One thing we have in York is good bus priority measures, which help provide a reliable and punctual service. What else helps is running a frequent service with value fares. It does help that we now have all A roads covered. It’s just far more attractive than sitting in traffic.’
York’s Park and Ride sites attract passengers of all kinds, according to Ben, from commuters and shoppers to tourists and students. ‘We have got to keep promoting it though,’ said Ben. ‘We have to keep raising people’s awareness of it. We also have to keep on delivering a good service.’
Support for First’s Park and Ride schemes in York came from Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer. She said, ‘It is great to see joined up journeys in action in York. These cycle-friendly Park and Ride schemes, supported by green buses, will bring significant environmental benefits to the city. They will also help boost growth by reducing congestion and making the city centre more accessible. We are happy to support these schemes which help deliver the government’s long term economic plan.’
And finally . . .
In addition to these electric Versas and the new Park and Ride site, expect more investment in York. The city was one of the four Better Bus Areas named last year, giving it a share of £16.5m. The council aims to spend £1.4m on measures to assist bus services between now and 2018. Across the city’s wider transport network, new investments are being made as part of the local authority’s i-Travel York initiative, made possible by £4.6m of government funding. A further £100,000 was also secured from the DfT in April towards this scheme.