Seventh heaven for Milton Keynes electric buses

Buses have a reputation for being some of the least environmentally-friendly vehicles on the road, but if new-generation electric buses being trialled become common place, they could soon be among the greenest. (“New-generation…” You see what I did there…) UK bus manufacturer Wrightbus has just launched electric vehicles which will operate on the number 7 route in Milton Keynes. The route carries an estimated 800,000 passengers every year between the suburbs of Bletchley and Wolverton.
This is part of a five-year trial programme which is being led by the European arm of Japanese company Mitsui and Arup, the UK engineering group. If the buses prove successful, they could then be rolled out to all the bus routes in Milton Keynes, before perhaps being introduced in other locations. Several other towns and cities worldwide already use electric bus systems, including Genoa in Italy, Mannheim in Germany, and Utrecht in the Netherlands.

Is there a conductor on board?

So how do these new electric ‘green machines’ actually work? Bus battery cells are charged all night at the depot, but the genius part is that they can receive booster charges during the day at the beginning and the end of the route, thanks to plates buried in the road. These plates are fitted with wire coils, through which electricity can flow, creating a magnetic field. The buses in turn are fitted with receiver plates on the bottom which can be lowered to within 4cm of the road surface. When the bus parks above the plates it can charge its batteries from the magnetic field, which passes a voltage through the coils in the bus plates. The biggest advantage of this method of charging is that the buses can run all day, without having to stop off to plug in to charge up. Currently (ahem), eight of these electric vehicles will operate on the route, taking to the roads from this month. If successful, however, they could in the future replace gas-guzzling buses for good, dramatically reducing CO2 emissions, and making town centres an altogether more appealing place to visit. Now I’m no scientist, but if this technology works for buses, then perhaps it may only be a matter of time before the cars of the future are fitted with these plates too. If plates were installed in those locations we all use regularly, such as car parks, supermarkets and so on, then we could all charge our cars simply by pulling into a parking space. Admittedly, this is likely to be a very, very long way off, but it would doubtless go a huge way towards increasing the appeal of electric cars.

Capital ideas

Going back to buses, Milton Keynes isn’t the only town to benefit from greener bus initiatives. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has ordered 600 'Boris buses', which will all be in service on the capital's streets by 2016. The total cost is expected to be around £212m, with another £37m spent on second crew members for the buses. These buses use diesel and electric hybrid technology to reduce pollution, and each is fitted with battery pack to power an electric motor which drives the wheels on the bus. A generator is used to charge this battery, which also receives power through what is known as “regenerative braking”, or basically recycling the energy lost during braking. According to Transport for London, the new buses will reduce CO2 emissions in the capital by almost 20,000 tonnes a year. Local authorities and bus companies in Sunderland, York, Oxfordshire and Manchester have also been provided with funding to buy electric, hybrid and biomethane gas buses, which are a lot more environmentally friendly than diesel-powered vehicles. There’s also funding to improve existing buses, with eleven local authorities already having received grants totalling £5 million to retrofit 392 buses, using technology fitted onto exhaust systems to reduce pollutants. [embed width="560" height="315"][/embed]

Is there a driver on board?

Cambridgeshire, however, has taken a different approach to help solve the problem of buses spewing out toxins while stationary in traffic with the creation of ‘driverless’ buses, which have already proved a huge hit and are more cost-effective than options such as trams. Here, old railway lines are converted into ‘busways’, along which buses can be guided automatically, with no need for the driver to steer. Stagecoach and Go Whippet are the two bus companies which run services for the busway, and all Stagecoach buses used on these routes run on bio-fuel. Go Whippet says its guided buses have the latest Euro 5 engines, which are among the most environmentally-friendly diesel engines around. The buses can switch between roads (when, of course, the buses cannot be driverless) and dedicated lanes, making them more flexible than tram systems. The guided sections in Cambridgeshire consist of a northern section, which runs through the former stations of Oakington, Long Stanton and Histon, while the southern section links Cambridge Railway station, Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the park-and-ride site at Trumpington. Similar lines will soon be in operation in Manchester, which already benefits from an impressive tram system, and a line between Luton and Dunstable is scheduled to open in September.

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