Maximising fleet uptime

Managing a diverse fleet of buses and coaches can be a multifaceted challenge both for operators and depot managers. Tom Austin-Morgan talks to some of the people facing that situation and finds out how they manage to maximise efficiency and vehicle uptime
On the road to net zero, where sustainability and efficiency are paramount, bus and coach fleets across the country now feature a mix of diesel, hybrid electric, fully electric and hydrogen powertrains. Operators face the challenge of optimising operations while minimising environmental impact and maximising cost effectiveness.
Fleet optimisation strategies

There are a number of issues around optimising a fleet, the first of which is route planning and scheduling. First Bus is using data analytics and modelling tools to optimise bus routes and schedules based on factors such as passenger demand, traffic patterns, and energy efficiency of different powertrains. 

”Bus timetables are quite complex, because we‘ve got 4,000 buses throughout the UK, and they‘re out for typically 16 hours a day,” says Simon Pearson, chief commercial officer at First Bus. ”Getting them to run on time is one heck of a challenge.”

Before the integration of AI, Pearson explains that bus scheduling involved a much more manual process, which meant it was slower. It was such a complex task that First Bus would typically only update timetables three times a year. Now, with AI‘s enhanced processing capabilities and learning capacity, the company can modify timetables more frequently if necessary. Additionally, it can automatically adapt schedules on any given day to address road congestion, a feature that helps prevent bus services from clustering together. The technology could also be used to assign buses with appropriate powertrains to routes where they can operate most efficiently.

Then there is the subject of infrastructure and smart charging. For electric buses, the best way to go is to invest in smart charging infrastructure that enables optimised charging schedules to avoid peak electricity demand periods and minimise energy costs.

Furthermore, consider incorporating renewable energy sources such as solar or wind to further reduce the carbon footprint of charging operations. Again, First Bus invested £2.5 million installing 60,000 solar panels in 2023: these are hoped to generate more than two million kWh per year as part of its net zero emissions strategy.

When it comes to maintenance and lifecycle management, fleets should implement proactive maintenance practices to maximise the reliability and longevity of each bus in the fleet. Developing a comprehensive lifecycle management strategy that considers the specific maintenance requirements and depreciation rates of different powertrain technologies is also advised.

Ongoing training and support for bus drivers should also be provided to promote fuel-efficient driving techniques and optimal use of vehicle features such as regenerative braking systems. The IRTE is finalising a general guide on EV Operation Safety that covers every aspect of operating and maintaining EVs. Ian Foster, director at Catlynn Transport Consultants, who is involved in the IRTE guidance, says: “Drivers have an acknowledged 15% effect on range, so eco driving displays should be turned on at all times, because that information is fed into telematics and drives driver performance and retraining. Whichever way you look at it 15% is 15%, whether it is diesel or a zero-emission powertrain." 

Foster also holds the position of director of engineering strategy at London-based bus operator Metroline, which was a part of a hydrogen bus implementation initiative in 2020, funded by TfL and the EU’s JIVE Project. 

“Hydrogen has got the biggest potential to produce the power that we need for long distance transportation and effectively reduce carbon emissions from vehicles into the atmosphere to zero,” he says. “I've always felt that fuel cell has a distinct advantage over battery because battery technology hasn’t gone forward in leaps and bounds as expected. There are certainly no batteries that can power fully laden trucks to do 1,000 miles over two days.” 

Metroline found issues with charging infrastructure equipment failures, CCS2 socket overheats and cable failures and, even if batteries had enough capacity to cover some of the longest routes in the capital, over the seven years those electric buses would be contracted for, the battery would deteriorate and the range would decrease. This could lead to extra buses being allocated to routes, more frequent battery changes, or vehicles being moved to less onerous work as they age. 

“We regarded hydrogen as the optimal operational alternative electric technology (fuel cell electric),” Foster explains. “Hydrogen buses run virtually the same as diesels, comfortably doing over 200 miles on one fill. No electric vehicle yet will do 200 miles constantly on a normal operational cycle of up to 23 hours in London.” 

One of the biggest challenges was that Metroline wanted to maintain the hydrogen buses in the same workshop as its diesel and electric fleet. This involved some modifications for safety. Where drive-through workshops are best in terms of safety for servicing different powertrains, Metroline’s workshop was not drive-through. 

“Hydrogen powered vehicles do not come into the workshop if the hydrogen system is active,” says Foster. “For repairs on the hydrogen system, the gas is drained down to allow investigation and replacement of parts, it is then recharged with an inert gas for pressure and leak testing before refilling with hydrogen. For normal maintenance, the hydrogen system is checked outside before the bus goes into the workshop; tests are carried out with a sniffer meter anywhere on the pressurised system where there could be leaks from. Once signed off, the system is isolated, and the vehicle is moved into the workshop for servicing.” 

He adds that the main features that required updating to accommodate a mixed fleet being serviced included replacing all lighting with sealed gas-proof units, making sure all door and shutter motors are brushless, moving the heating system to a sealed exterior room and integrating a series of sensors, positioned throughout the workshop, into the building management system that check for hydrogen in the air inside the workshop. If a certain percentage of hydrogen is detected, the heating system is shut down, vents in the roof open to let any hydrogen escape while fans in the lower walls activate to draw air into the building to expedite the process. The whole system cost between £120,000 and £180,000, so could easily be adopted by other operators.

Efficiently managing a mixed fleet of buses and coaches requires a strategic approach that balances environmental sustainability, operational effectiveness, and financial viability. By embracing diversification, optimising fleet operations, overcoming challenges and learning from best practices, transport operators and engineers can play a pivotal role in advancing the transition towards a greener and more efficient public transportation system. 

With innovation, collaboration, and a commitment to continuous improvement, the future of bus fleet management holds immense promise for sustainable mobility and enhanced quality of life for all. 

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