Wednesday 12th May 2021
After visiting Kintore Station on Monday I stopped off in Aberdeen to catch up on the latest development in the city’s high profile commitment to hydrogen powered vehicles.
In 2015 First Bus and Stagecoach introduced ten Van Hool A330H hydrogen powered single deck buses between them as phase one of an EU funded trial spearheaded by the city council.
That trial came to an end last year and was regarded by the city council as a resounding success. “The hydrogen bus project is a crucial part of demonstrating energy transition, the net zero journey and bringing our CO2 emissions in the city down” the city council’s hydrogen spokesperson Philip Bell was quoted as saying, adding “the project was phenomenally successful and has given Aberdeen a mature platform seen by the world”. As we’ll see, world recognition is important for Aberdeen.
The buses were scrapped after just five years operation.
The next stage in Aberdeen’s commitment to hydrogen power, known as ‘phase two’, started on 28th January this year when First Bus began operating fifteen hydrogen powered double deck buses manufactured by Wrightbus on its cross city route 19 between Culter and Tillydrone.
Much is being made of the buses being the “world’s first double deck hydrogen buses” with city council politicians and officers ecstatic at achieving such a notable first, not least I suspect because they’ve beaten TfL to the accolade. Similar buses will be introduced in London and Birmingham later this year.
Phase two of the trial is costing £8.3 million with funding coming once again from the EU as well as the city council and Scottish Government. The vehicles cost upwards of £500,000 each.
Naturally much is made of the buses green credentials. There are virtuous messages both externally and internally on the vehicles.
There’s all sorts of statistics you can amaze your friends with if you read all the blurb put out by the city council. “The hydrogen buses save an estimated one kilogram of CO2 per kilometre driven” according to Aberdeen City Council and are therefore “set to transform the air of the city”. Other claims include “the buses are as efficient as electric equivalents, with refuelling taking less than 10 minutes and offering a greater range”.
My eye was also caught by this observation “plans are in place for Aberdeen to make its own hydrogen to power the buses, making it an even greener energy source for the local community”. Why would that be “even greener”, I wondered?
I’m no expert in hydrogen production, but I’m given to understand there are two types: blue hydrogen created from fossil sources, where the carbon emissions are captured and stored and green hydrogen made from non-fossil sources and favoured by environmentalists wary of keeping the fossil economy going. I’m thinking Aberdeen are currently using blue hydrogen but it’s not clear in all the publicity and hype surrounding this trial.
It’s good to know, whether blue or green, the buses are kinder to the environment, however, what I’m really most concerned about is what they’re like to travel in as a passenger. Unless they persuade motorists to make a switch and use their cars less, Aberdeen’s air pollution isn’t going to be radically changed by just 15 buses trundling around on one bus route.
Much is made of the buses quiet operation “the buses will tackle more than just air pollution” the city council extols “as they are virtually silent when they run, helping to create quieter, calmer streets”. There’s no doubt they glide along the road like electric buses without the traditional engine noise associated with a diesel engine but I can’t say I found Aberdeen particularly calm on Monday lunch time.
Indeed, some passengers I encountered during my travels were confused and flustered by the continuing closure of part of the city’s main thoroughfare, Union Street, to supposedly allow for social distancing, and weren’t sure which route buses were taking on diversion, nor where to get off.
And the temporary bus stop build outs on the stretches of Union Street still open seemed to make it harder for passengers with mobility difficulties to board because the raised platforms are too short ….
…. and social distancing was even worse with bus queues spilling across the pavement from the build outs, rather than in a line alongside the kerb where there used to be bus stops and shelters.
On board the half-a-million-pound-a-go buses, it’s clear passenger comfort and convenience hasn’t featured highly in the interior-fit-out spec, if at all.
They have those rather dull tan coloured First Bus faux-leather type seats which always seem a bit dull to me.
For those with accessibility needs, aside from five tip up seats, three on the nearside …
…. and two on the offside ….
…. there are only four ‘proper’ seats providing level access (and then currently restricted to just two due to Covid capacity restrictions).
All the other sixteen seats on the lower deck involve a substantial step up to access them
And half of these are facing backwards …
…. involving foot to foot meeting with passengers sitting opposite.
And four are along the extreme rear, which aren’t the most comfortable looking, nor to actually sit in either. I tried it.
The upper deck is similar bog standard First Bus spec.
There’s no visual display showing the next stop, nor even a bus stopping sign.
Just a reminder to mind your head.
There are no USB sockets either.
Having spent half a million on each bus, for the sake of a few thousand more, it would have made a real positive difference to the internal design and ambiance by attending to these issues. Passengers might then feel they’re travelling on something special and take notice of all the virtuous messaging.
As it is, it comes over these buses are all about the techy stuff. And there’s no doubt that’s important in the context of an expensive trial, but we mustn’t lose sight of the overall objective. To encourage more people to travel by bus. Rather than giving an on board chemistry lesson…
.. it would be better to ensure passenger comfort is not foregone to make room for all the hydrogen gubbins at the rear of the bus. Readers may recall I found the same when trying out the Yutong electric buses First Bus have introduced in Leeds.
Meanwhile at the First Bus depot in KIng Street money has also been spent on adapting the garage infrastructure to accommodate these 15 buses, in particular providing space to ensure the buses can be plugged in at their docking point when parked so their temperature can be monitored. I understand it’s essential the buses are kept above 5°C to ensure pipes don’t freeze and rupture. Sensors have also been installed in the workshop roof to monitor the level of hydrogen when work is carried out on the buses and ensuring there are no leaks. Even the depot lighting has had to be adapted with safety features and grounding points added to ensure there’s no risk of sparking around the hydrogen buses.
When I asked one of the drivers how he found the new buses, he joked he was hoping they won’t follow the Hindenburg airship! Maybe he’d seen all these alterations taking place in the depot.
Route 19 is a busy route and was previously afforded the city’s ‘Platinum’ branding, when that was a thing with First Bus in Aberdeen.
However, being the ‘grumpy old passenger’ (I prefer ‘discerning’ as a descriptor) I am these days, I recall I wasn’t particularly impressed with the interior design and seating in that initiative either.
The front offside seat didn’t even pass the size 9 shoe test.
Some of Aberdeen’s buses are still sporting the Platinum brand but it’s not clear how committed First Bus is to this now the ‘world first’ Hydrogen era has arrived.
It’s also noteworthy the trend followed by Arriva and Stagecoach to close travel shops has spread to First Bus in Aberdeen with their centrally located shop in Union Street now closed.
On my travels on Monday I noticed at least three of the buses out on route 19 were standard single deck buses which might give a clue to the reliability and availability of the hydrogen powered double deck fleet.
I’m not sure how long ‘phase two’ of the trial is. Let’s hope the buses will outlast five years this time.
And the clever people behind the impressive feat of operating a double deck bus on hydrogen spewing out only water – and that really is impressive – now turn their attention to how to accommodate passengers on the lower deck in an accessible and welcoming way.