Electric buses too expensive for DRT

It’s easy to talk about going green – some people have gone so far as to buy electric cars – but for public transit it’s more difficult to adapt. Slow change is often the mark of progress. This is the case for Durham’s two major transit agencies, Durham Region Transit and GO Transit.

The initial investment of electric buses is a big concern, according to Vincent Patterson, the general manager of DRT. He is leery them.

Public transit has been the green poster child. Every bus filled with people means fewer cars on the road and lower emissions. It could be greener with electric engines rather than diesel but so many factors limit the technology’s use.

“One issue is one of range,” said Patterson. “Operators change in the course of a day but the bus could on the road for up to 20 hours in a day.”

This calls into questions of range and reliability of service, two things Metrolinx is concerned with, according to spokesperson Malon Edwards.

Diesel buses are more reliable and cheaper than electric buses due to the cost of infrastructure and the initial investment.
Diesel buses are more reliable and cheaper than electric buses due to the cost of infrastructure and the initial investment.

Edwards says current electric bus technology is geared towards municipal usage where buses make a shorter trip, which is problematic for GO because buses from Durham Region go as far as Peterborough and Toronto.

This problem wouldn’t be unique to GO Transit though.

“What if I’m running late and I need to shorten what’s known as layover time at the end of a route before starting a new trip?” Patterson said. “Does it still work as well when it’s -25 degrees?”

Windsor Transit has struck a deal to buy electric buses from BYD, a Chinese auto company, but the buses are still undergoing testing. According to BYD’s website its buses can go approximately 200 kilometers on a single charge and have been tested in Los Angeles and Ottawa as it prepares them to be market ready.

Neither Patterson or Edwards could predict the cost of constructing infrastructure due to it’s highly experimental nature.

Patterson says most buses cost approximately $400,000 and electric buses are almost double that. But the investment wouldn’t stop there as additional infrastructure and charging stations would also have to be constructed. The initial investment would be massive in the face of the cheaper diesel and maintenance of the current bus fleet.

Patterson and Edwards are also concerned about the reliability of electric buses and their charge times. The reliability and affordability of each transit company comes first, otherwise the quality of service could drop and that’s always a major concern.

The electric engine isn’t entirely hopeless. Patterson is interested in the development of the technology and explained that buses are gradually becoming electric. For example, doors and wipers are now electric where they were once pneumatic.

“We’re trying to be prudent instead of being incredulous,” Patterson laughed. “Let’s have some people break their teeth on it so to speak. When it comes to be an obvious business case I’m sure Durham Region will jump on the wagon.”

While electric buses are still developing they may show promise in the long term, but rushing to adapt a new and untested technology is not a feasible plan for GO or DRT. In time there may be electric buses on the roads but too many unknowns make it a difficult transition, one where a gradual development is making progress.