Reading has the image of something of a high-tech town, with a host of multinational technology companies based in and around the Berkshire town. And the town’s council-owned bus operator is leading the way in new propulsion technologies with a significant proportion, around a fifth of its total fleet, made up of hybrid buses.

Reading Transport has been a significant beneficiary of the government’s Green Bus Fund and now boasts a hybrid fleet of 31 vehicles, all of them Alexander Dennis Enviro400Hs that feature a hybrid drive system designed and produced by BAE Systems.

The credentials of BAE Systems’ HybriDrive® propulsion system are now well known. Although finding an application in military personnel vehicles, the technology has also been applied successfully in the city bus setting. The company has so far supplied more than 3,500 hybrid propulsion systems in this setting, with particular success in North America. The company is now aiming to roll out the technology around the world and in the UK has worked with Falkirk-based Alexander Dennis to create a complete line-up of hybrid-powered vehicles.

Reading Transport has experience of new propulsion technologies. Much of this has been brought about by ownership of the operator by Reading Borough Council, which has made concerted efforts to introduce green technologies in order to improve local air quality. In recent years the operator has trialled a bewildering number of alternative fuels such as Compressed Natural Gas, Liquefied Petroleum Gas and Bioethanol.  The latter experiment saw a fleet of bioethanol-powered Scania vehicles introduced on the busy route 17 cross-town corridor, but it met with mixed success. More recently the operator has announced plans to introduce 20 gas-powered buses also from the Swedish manufacturer that will be introduced across the operator’s network and supplement the hybrid fleet.

In parallel with the decision to conduct the bioethanol experiment, Reading Transport chief executive James Freeman had been invited to see the Enviro400H hybrid prototype. He was impressed with the vehicle and its handling characteristics, in particular, from the passenger’s point of view, the smooth ride quality. “I went away and thought it was a fantastic product, but we weren’t really in the market for any new vehicles at that time” he adds.

That decision quickly changed with the then Labour government announcing the first round of the Green Bus Fund in 2009. The prototype that Freeman had been to see was quickly secured for trial service in Reading and he says that both staff and passengers were impressed. “For the staff the vehicle really sold itself – it was a case of love at first pedal push,” he says. “The trade union enthusiastically backed the vehicle and were really impressed with how it handled on the road. They didn’t need any persuasion that this was the way forward.”

Impressed, Freeman and his management team applied for Green Bus Funding on the basis of an initial fleet of six vehicles. He says that they were erring on the side of caution and with the bioethanol experiment fresh in their mind, they didn’t want to put all of their eggs in one basket. Formal approval for the vehicles followed from then transport minister Sadiq Khan and Reading placed an order for the six initial hybrids with an option to take on a further 14 vehicles at some point in the future.

From the passenger’s point of view, Freeman and his team went for a high specification with some unique features. Reading has long favoured double deck vehicles built to the maximum possible dimensions and the Enviro400Hs are no exception. At 11.4-metres in length, they are amongst the longest Alexander Dennis Enviro400s ever produced, but the operator has not chosen to pack passengers in like sardines. “We wanted the longest lower deck possible with plenty of space for buggies,” says Freeman. “The length also means that we have the luxury of being able to offer plenty of legroom too. We opted to fit 77 seats rather than the 90 we could have had. That sort of thing is appreciated by our customers.”

The initial fleet of six hybrids went into service on the Yellow 26 route between the centre of Reading and the suburb of Calcot in December 2010 with branding, as part of the Premier Route network, produced by design agency Best Impressions. Passenger reaction to the vehicles was instantly favourable and it was obvious that taking up the option on additional vehicles was a foregone conclusion.

This wasn’t the end of the operator’s journey. Freeman takes up the story. “Following the announcement of the second round of the Green Bus Fund, Greg Chambers, Reading Transport’s finance director, bid for 15 further buses,” he says. “In the event this was extended to 25 buses, following discussions with DfT staff, who suggested that the bid be increased by one and then by nine more buses and of course we said yes! In the end our initial 15 buses became 25 in this way.”

This flurry of activity meant that Reading was in the position to place an order for 25 additional Enviro400Hs. This has allowed the remaining conventional vehicles on the Yellow 26 to be replaced by hybrids with two further corridors converted to hybrid operation.

The most prominent is route 17, which is something of a flagship route for the operator and where the unsuccessful bioethanol fleet was deployed. Running between Three Tuns and Tilehurst via the town centre, the route is intensive and operates every 10 minutes throughout much of the day and includes operation overnight. The new vehicles were launched last summer with a special ‘Purple Party’ that highlighted the purple branding used for the route that was updated by Ray Stenning’s Best Impressions agency.

Meanwhile, a further corridor, branded as ‘Claret’ which encompasses three routes connecting the town centre with the University of Reading and the suburbs of Earley and Lower Earley, was also switched over to hybrid operation.

With a hybrid fleet that now numbers 31 vehicles out of a total fleet strength of 150, the new technology comprises a significant proportion of the fleet. For some engineers, the widespread introduction of the technology would be a daunting task, simply due to the new skill set required. With no gearbox and only a small engine, the focus of maintenance is on electric motors and batteries. However, the transition has been straightforward for Reading. Freeman says that the vehicles have proved to be reliable and are only really off the road due for more prosaic reasons such as smashed windows or accident damage.

“The support from ADL has been superb,” he says. “We have a good rapport with them and they have engineering staff who we can call on if we do encounter any problems that are out of the ordinary. We were concerned that introducing such a sophisticated vehicle would lead to problems, but the support and training that we’ve received has been excellent.”

More importantly for Freeman are the financial advantages that the vehicles offer. Changes to bus industry funding streams now reward fuel efficiency and the hybrid fleet is playing its part in assisting with this, but he also sees other benefits. “Our customers and staff think that they’re fantastic and that’s the real test,” he adds.

 

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