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Behind Victoria’s zero-emissions bus trial pioneers

ABC chats with some of the operators leading the charge when it comes to zero-emissions bus trials in Melbourne and beyond

When zero-emissions bus technology first began to arrive on Australian shores, state and territory governments moved to match it. In recent years, the Victorian government has been one of many to begin implementing network changes to usher in the latest generation of new energy buses and coaches.

In mid-August, the Victorian government launched pre-qualification for some of its metropolitan bus services contracts. These new franchises serve as an important next step under the state’s bus plan as they centre around zero-emissions buses.

It’s taken an evolution in Victoria’s zero-emissions bus technology to get to this stage. Just two years ago, the state government launched a zero-emissions bus (ZEB) trial project as a way of familiarising operators with the technology before these latest 10-year contracts came into force.

With the Victorian government now mandating that all new public transport buses bought from 2025 onwards be zero-emissions, a select group of operators have positioned themselves ahead of the curve. As of August this year, six Victorian operators are currently in the midst of trialling zero-emissions buses on the state’s roads – Donric Group, ComfortDelGro Corporation Australia (CDC), Latrobe Valley Bus Lines, Seymour Passenger Services, Transit Systems and Ventura, with Kinetic introducing electric buses into its fleet as part of the Melbourne metropolitan bus franchise.

As the pressure begins to slowly be applied to the state’s operators to successfully implement zero-emissions buses and their associated infrastructure on metropolitan and regional routes, ABC caught up with some of these six operators trialling new energy buses in Victoria to see how their initial electric forays are going.

Dabbling in electric with Donric

For Donric Group’s managing director Matt Baird, battery electric buses first came onto his radar way before the Victorian government’s first ZEB trial in 2021.

Baird first remembers travelling to Europe back in 2017 on a study tour with Volvo Bus Australia to see the very first fully electric buses running in Gothenburg, Sweden. His experience inspired him to begin introducing this technology into Victoria when it became available.

“I had a particular interest in the technology from the years prior to the trial being announced in Victoria,” Baird told ABC.

“When it came to procuring electric buses for the trial in 2021, we spoke to several OEMs about their electric bus product.

“At the time of preparing for the tender submission, Custom Denning was the only OEM with a product that we could touch and feel.”

Once Baird and the Donric Group team were able to hop onboard a prototype Element model in 2021, the deal was done.

After securing electric buses for the trial, Baird and his team were ready to test the new energy models on Victorian roads. Baird says, much like all new bus deliveries, the battery electric models had a couple of teething issues, but these have since been ironed out and the vehicles have performed well in recent years.

Some Donric Group drivers warmed to the quieter and smoother rides immediately, while others took convincing as the operator engaged in a comprehensive training program to teach staff how to drive electric buses.

“Our biggest challenge has been getting the charging right,” Baird says. “Electric vehicles add a whole new dimension to the scheduling of buses and drivers. Additionally, the different costs of charging suddenly became a factor, so we’ve had some major headaches with setting up our charging infrastructure.”

Donric Group decided, after nine months of persisting with its initial infrastructure, to switch to ABB for charging equipment. This change involved running new cabling, with Baird saying the amendment has been worthwhile as the equipment began functioning well.

“My advice for other operators who are wanting to trial electric buses is to plan five to 10 years ahead,” Baird says.

“Set up for how you think you will look in 10 years rather than focusing on your needs now. The technology is changing so quickly so you need to look ahead.”

Charging forward with CDC

As one of the larger operators in Australia, ComfortDelGro Corporation Australia (CDC) was always keen to be at the cutting edge of zero-emissions bus technology. Its Victorian journey started in 2019 with its first hybrid bus. Now, CDC says it has Australia’s largest hybrid fleet with 50 vehicles operating in Victoria.

“Our logical next step was to participate in the zero-emissions bus trial in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs,” ComfortDelGro Corporation Australia CEO Nicholas Yap told ABC.

“In just over four years, the CDC Victoria hybrid fleet reduced fuel use by more than 1,273,000 litres and lowered CO2 emissions by 3,428 tonnes, so we were keen to trial electric.”

When it came to ordering the zero-emissions models, CDC looked no further than its existing hybrid bus partnerships with Volvo and Volgren. CDC approached Volvo to use its BZL battery electric chassis and kept the manufacturing of the trial buses locally in Victoria, with the buses being built and fitted out at Volgren in Dandenong.

Now, the first of eight battery-electric buses is running on the busy route 601 on weekdays and route 630 on weekends, covering Huntingdale Station, Monash University, Gardenvale and Ormond Station in Melbourne’s south-east. Another two BEBs will be operating on Melbourne streets by the end of the year.

“CDC, in conjunction with our project partners ENGIE, Volvo, Volgren, Monash University and TSA Advisory, collaborated closely throughout the entire implementation of the trial, including weekly operational readiness meetings and comprehensive testing,” Yap says.

“CDC also undertook extensive driver training prior to the first BEB going into service, giving drivers the confidence and skill to operate the buses. The feedback from our drivers has been very encouraging and positive.”

CDC says its partnerships helped with many of the challenges involved in such a visionary trial, ranging from the selection of charging equipment to the location of the bus depot. As part of the zero-emissions bus trial, CDC has also installed Australia’s first offsite bus charging station in the state at the Monash University bus interchange while enhancing its infrastructure at its Oakleigh depot.

The operator says collaboration is key to running zero-emissions buses successfully in both Victoria and Australia.

“As with any new technology, the more minds and skillsets working together means the higher the chance of success,” Yap says.

“Given the new technology being deployed, we ensured all areas of bus and depot operations were carefully evaluated, including safety, energy requirements, depot layout, vehicle and charger selection, training and shift scheduling.”

Cashing in with Kinetic

Unlike the other operators, multi-national company Kinetic’s journey was a bit different. Kinetic took until June 2022 to operate electric buses in Victoria. Instead of trialling the new technology before buying, it dove right in and introduced 18 BEBs progressively after it began operating the Melbourne metropolitan bus franchise in partnership with the Victorian government.

The wave of BEBs operate across the network from two depots in Sunshine West and Heatherton as part of its commitment to have 36 BEBs in service by mid-2025.

“At the time, Kinetic operated zero-emissions buses in Auckland, Christchurch, Hobart and in Queensland as we continued supporting governments and councils in achieving climate goals,” Kinetic co-CEO Michael Sewards told ABC.

“The decision to operate BEBs was simple – as a transport operator we have a responsibility to deliver cleaner, greener bus networks and that means being responsible consumers of resources, addressing our climate impacts and working with our customers towards more sustainable cities and communities.”

Kinetic used its partnerships with local manufacturers to deliver the fleet of BEBs, combining local Volgren bodies with imported BYD chassis alongside a 348kWh battery pack.

Sewards says the buses have performed well since being introduced, with some vehicles exceeding the 300km range per full charge.

“Drivers comment that less vibration and noise from a diesel engine leaves them feeling better at the end of a shift, and naturally many of them prefer using them,” Sewards says.

“They’re also equipped with awesome technology such as cameras replacing external mirrors, while customers say they have a smoother ride and cyclists have been pleased by the lack of exhaust emissions when riding behind an electric bus.”

By the end of 2023, Kinetic will have more than 1000 electric buses operating around the globe, with 300 in Australasia. Kinetic has selected depots to upgrade infrastructure that have sufficient parking and capacity to ensure space isn’t lost in the transition. While doing so, Kinetic has installed bus parking that provides shade for the hotter months, avoiding excessive battery use to cool the vehicles down.

Sewards says little tweaks like this hold the key to maximising the capabilities of electric buses in Victoria and wider Australia.

“The electrification of Kinetic’s Victorian fleet has been an evolution rather than a revolution,” he says.

“The electrification of bus networks is simple, practical and affordable and results in long-lasting meaningful change that will improve the communities in which we live and work.”

Tried and tested by Transit Systems

Operating in most Australian states with the nation’s largest green fleet – Australian multi-modal transport operator Transit Systems concludes our overview of the six operators currently running BEBs in Victoria. The expanding operator was the latest to add electric buses to its Victorian network when it launched nine new electric vehicles featuring Volgren bodies and Volvo chassis to its Victorian fleet in May this year as part of the state government’s zero-emissions bus trial.

“We’re operating the nine new buses from Transit Systems’ West Footscray depot and they have been deployed across the north-western suburbs of Melbourne including Footscray, Williamstown, Moonee Ponds and Sunshine,” Transit Systems Victoria managing director John Storms told ABC.

As part of the $20 million ZEB trial in Victoria, Transit Systems continues to train the next generation of drivers with a combination of theory and on-road preparation to ensure everyone is ready for the new technology.

In 2022, Transit Systems celebrated three years of running Australia’s largest battery electric bus network and depot, with more than two million customers having already stepped on board one of their electric buses for a more sustainable commute.

Leveraging global partnerships and working locally with government partners, Transit Systems is one of six operators showing that zero-emissions buses are possible in the state’s network. With the Victorian government looking to welcome more BEBs into its networks in the coming years, Transit Systems may not be the last operator to join in on this electric evolution in Victoria.

“We expect to complete more than 670,000 customer journeys on these new electric buses within 12 months, with the feedback so far being all positive,” Storms says.

“We’re excited to welcome more customers onboard this quieter and cleaner public transport journey in Victoria.”

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