Stagecoach launches gas fleet in Sunderland
Marking a new milestone for gas bus acceptance in the UK, Stagecoach has unveiled its initial fleet of gas powered Scania/ADL buses.
17 vehicles form the first phase of the investment in Sunderland, a further 23 will follow meaning almost half of Stagecoach operations in the city will be gas powered. An open day at the Wheatsheaf depot in Sunderland enabled the public to preview the vehicles and sample the quiet and comfortable interior during short demonstration rides.
Despite being a normal working day, attendance exceeded expectations with two vehicles being required on each demonstration ride.
Stagecoach North East MD, Phil Medlicott, welcomed visitors on the first departure, emphasising the long term nature of this investment in Sunderland operations and the expected lower running costs of the gas bus fleet which would support further investment in the future.
Later Phil explained that the whole Stagecoach North East team wants to be at the forefront of bringing on new technology and are convinced that the gas bus fleet will deliver lower running costs as well as the environmental benefits of cleaner engines without the complexity of hybrids. The initial phase of the Sunderland project represents an investment of almost £4m of which £1m has been committed to the depot infrastructure. The Green Bus Fund has contributed around £16,000 towards the additional cost of each vehicle, reflecting the relatively small cost differential between the Scania product in diesel and gas form.
Sunderland appears an ideal location for gas bus operation. In the city, Stagecoach operates a compact network of frequent services using only single deck vehicles, thus there are no major operational constraints on increasing the gas bus fleet. Most services are bundled through key city centre streets where the reduction of emissions, notably particulates, will have an immediate effect on air quality
With completion of the first phase of the filling station due on 21 February, the gas buses are expected to enter service on city routes 16 and 20 on 24 February enabling the replacement of earlier low floor but non DDA compliant vehicles. The second phase will arrive later in 2014.
The initial gas bus fleet for Sunderland comprises 17 Scania K270UB 4×2 with ADL Enviro 300 bodywork. The Scania chassis is powered by their OG9 GO4 9.3l five-cylinder vertical in-line gas engine coupled to an automatic gearbox. Developing 270hp, drivers have already commented positively on the power available along with the comfortable feel of the controls. The chassis has only around 40 components not common to the diesel version. Composite gas tanks on the roof, concealed in a stylised pod, hold the fuel at a pressure of up to 200 bar.
The low entry ADL bodywork has 43 seats, four being tip ups in the low floor section giving wheelchair and buggy space. Two steps lead up to the gently ramped rear gangway with forward facing seats arranged on slightly steeper ramped podiums improving the view forward from all seats. The rear seat for five is a further step higher and the only row with any restriction on headroom. There is no above floor level intrusion of chassis components at the rear. Floor level heating is installed including an outlet behind the offside front wheelarch to ensure adequate temperatures for potentially vulnerable passengers in the low floor area.
Externally the gas buses are finished in a variation of Stagecoach corporate image incorporating swoops in various shades of blue. Phil Medlicott explained that the distinctive blue livery would be adopted across Stagecoach for gas buses in the same manner that the green variation of standard livery has been applied to hybrid vehicles. Balloon graphics at the rear add to the gas message and support the side and rear posters promoting modal shift ‘Driving is a downer, let us give you a lift.’ Wi-Fi will be available on board when the vehicles enter service.
Gas Filling Station
Stagecoach have chosen to invest in their own gas infrastructure at Sunderland depot, thus enabling them to negotiate independently with gas suppliers to secure the best value fuel supply. The contract for the gas storage and vehicle fuelling system is being fulfilled in two phases by Roadgas. This company has over twenty years experience in gas filling stations for road vehicles and installed the facilities for the first large scale trial of gas buses in Walsall in 1995.
The intention at Sunderland is to install a connection to the Northern Gas Networks low pressure grid at a suitable point outside the depot. The timescales for this would have meant a significant delay in the vehicles entering service so an interim solution using liquefied natural gas (LNG) in bulk has been adopted. At the northern end of the depot site, preparations were almost complete for the installation of a temporary LNG tank. Vaporisers are already installed to return the LNG to a gaseous state from where it is compressed in three stages to fill a bank of storage cylinders operating at pressures of up to 300bar. These are connected to the single road filling station equipped with Tri-scan monitoring equipment and two dispensers, although normally only one will be in use at a time. The tanks on the vehicles will be filled to approximately 200bar in daily operation, the minimum 100bar differential giving a filling time of around five minutes per vehicle.
Once the network connection with appropriate filtering and metering is established, the tank and vaporisers will be removed, leaving the compression and storage. The interim filling solution has a capability of up to 25 vehicles in daily operation. This will increase following the network connection to be sufficient for the full 40 vehicle fleet. Further expansion will be possible by adding another bank of storage cylinders and running the compressors for a longer period. Having on site compression and storage not only speeds the filling process but also provides flexibility in the time when gas is taken from the network. This may have potential financial benefits as smart gas networks develop.
With the first vehicles delivered in December, interim fuel requirements for driver familiarisation have been met by tanker deliveries backed up by support from Arriva who run the North-East’s other significant fleet of gas buses fuelled at a filling station in Darlington.
Stagecoach in Sunderland
Stagecoach operates a network of services throughout the City of Sunderland, many of which can trace their origins back to municipally owned Sunderland Corporation Transport (SCT) which was absorbed into Tyne and Wear PTE in 1973/4. SCT was a pioneer in the adoption of high capacity single-deck vehicles and alternative ticketing systems from the mid 1960s. Stagecoach’s current operation continues that tradition with a fully low floor single deck fleet of over 80 vehicles and a wide variety of ticketing options.
The 17 gas buses join a fleet comprised predominantly of ADL Enviro200s and Alexander ALX300 bodied MANs. The Enviro200s include 21 new vehicles delivered in autumn 2013 which carry customer focused messages emphasising the ‘Sun’ in Sunderland including full rear graphics ‘Your place in the Sun(derland bus)’ promoting the vehicles’ accessibility to all.
Rachel Geliamassi was appointed Operations Manager at Sunderland during 2013 following posts in the Midlands and South East since joining the company as a graduate. She spoke highly of the team spirit at the depot and the performance levels achieved by her team of 205 drivers. In particular, the depot score on the Greenroad monitoring system, where lower scores are positive, is in single figures and below the national average for Stagecoach.
Training plays a key role in delivering the team’s performance. For the gas buses, all drivers have received familiarisation in their operation and safety whilst maintenance staff and the fueller-shunters have been trained in new procedures associated with the vehicles and fuelling facilities.
Operations in Sunderland are constrained by the River Wear that divides the city. The banks are linked by a high level bridge across which all services from the north are routed. Priority measures exist on several of the major routes into the city in the form of ‘no car lanes’ although feedback suggests that there is limited enforcement of them. In addition, a corridor through the city centre is restricted to public transport but long term roadworks on the south side of the Wear bridge add to congestion and the team work hard to ensure that the timetabled 10-15min frequency across the network is maintained.
The Sunderland based fleet is housed in the former municipal Wheatsheaf premises, the stark 1960s style of the offices contrasting with the softer blue clad depot buildings erected by Tyne and Wear PTE in the 1980s. The depot comprises a large open sided covered area for vehicle parking with wash and fuel facilities alongside together with a separate multi-bay enclosed workshop area. Minimal modification has been required to accommodate the gas buses, principally the screening off of specific gas bus bays in the already well ventilated workshop.
Stagecoach North East
No discussion on operations in the North East can avoid the question of Nexus’ fixation with introducing Statutory Quality Contracts in place of current commercial operations. Talking with Stagecoach North East MD, Phil Medlicott, he expressed concern at the uncertainty the proposals were causing for all his staff but made it clear that Stagecoach has no intention of giving up on the business, ‘We are working hard to protect services for customers and ensure they get the benefits that partnership will bring to the North East without the unnecessary expense, financial risk for taxpayers and uncertainty for employees which would come with a contracting regime.’
Phil also confirmed that Stagecoach was working with Go-Ahead to develop a multi-operator, multi-mode smart card system similar to the Oxford model, answering a further criticism of the commercial market. In Sunderland, however, passengers appear to remain wedded to the concept of on bus payment despite healthy sales of the company’s weekly ticket. Many of these are sold for cash and a recent promotion has seen the online version sold at half price to encourage the switch to non cash payments. A promotional campaign featuring the new buses is planned for April, coinciding with the company’s annual fares review.
The gas buses are the latest low carbon vehicles in Stagecoach North East’s fleet, joining the 26 ADL Enviro400 hybrids that have entered service in Newcastle from 2011. Phil has been pleased with the economy offered by these vehicles but the added complexity, particularly on the electrical side, has created challenges for the depot engineering team. The company also has past experience of electric vehicle operation with the operation of Designline vehicles whilst it held the contract for the Newcastle/Gateshead Quay Link service.
The not insignificant investment in Sunderland’s facilities for gas buses is a clear indication of Stagecoach’s commitment to deliver continuous improvement in part of an area already rated as one the best in the UK for customer satisfaction. Add the commitment to developing a multi-operator Smart ticketing system and it becomes even more difficult to understand how Nexus can expect to deliver a better product at a lower cost through their proposed Statutory Quality Contract.