ESO in conversation: Luke Marion, Oxford Bus Company

18 January 2022

Sustainable public transport is a critical part of the transition to net zero, and Oxford Bus Company is already taking action to lower its carbon emissions. Luke Marion, Finance and Commercial Director, tells us more.

Tell us about Oxford Bus Company and your role

Oxford Bus Company is part of the Go-Ahead Group. We have three depots, with 270 buses and coaches, operating services across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, and parts of the Southeast of England. Before coronavirus, we were carrying around 24 million passengers a year – about 2 million passengers a month. My role is Finance and Commercial Director which means I’m involved in fares, ticketing, customer services, route planning etc., and also building investment cases for new vehicles.

How is Oxford Bus Company helping to improve air quality within Oxford?

Air quality has been a big challenge in Oxford for a long time. As bus operators, we’ve done a lot to clean up our act over the last 20 years. We’ve been managing our carbon emissions by introducing hybrid vehicles, retro-fitting existing vehicles and investing in new vehicles with the latest emission standards and we’ve also put solar panels on the roofs of our depots. It has been really good to see the contribution buses have made to air pollution emissions within the city reduce by 50% over the last 10 years. We’re now emitting less nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon dioxide (CO2) than cars are within the city.

How will Oxford’s planned Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ) impact you?

Oxford City Council is introducing the UK’s first Zero Emission Zone (ZEZ), which is due to launch in February 2022. Initially, it will apply to a few streets in the city centre. But there are bold ambitions to expand the ZEZ over the next 10 to 15 years. Obviously, buses are going to be a key part in whether we deliver that. So, we’re working with the council to build a plan to deliver ultra-low emission vehicles, and going beyond that to obtain funding to bring in electric or hydrogen buses or other forms of zero emission bus to accelerate our transition to net zero.

Do you currently operate any electric buses and what has been your experience?

In the last couple of years, we’ve been working to retro-fit some of our vehicles in our City Sightseeing fleet because they’re out for shorter periods of time (around 10-12 hours a day) and operating quite low mileage (less than 100 miles a day). Now, we’ve got a couple of those retro-fitted and driver feedback and customer feedback has been very good. These vehicles have dealt with the range with no problem at all. The wider group operates many electric vehicles. They’ve got over 100 electric, single and double deck vehicles in London and they also have electric buses operating in Newcastle and Salisbury.

We’ve learned that it’s very expensive to introduce electric buses. As well as the buses themselves you’ve got to consider the charging infrastructure which is a big piece of work. We’ve also learned that electric buses are not necessarily suitable for all applications and routes i.e., places that are longer distances from the depot with high operating hours and higher range, or with higher speed sections of route.

Going forward we’re going to need to develop scalable solutions that can be phased in over time as electric bus technology improves and, potentially, new technologies are discovered. We want to avoid committing to an existing model that might not be suitable for all our routes or that may be inefficient.

What are your plans for electrifying your fleet moving forwards?

We’ve already trialled some electric buses on our routes in Oxford and we know they are capable of the shorter distance routes operating wholly within the City. We think, realistically, there are about 100 of those that could replace diesel buses and they could provide the same service as we do today without too much of a problem. The challenge will be buses that operate longer distances outside of the City. For these, we’ve been looking at range extended buses and, also at hydrogen buses, but at this stage the jury’s still out as to what we’re going to do.

Is charging infrastructure a barrier to electrification?

Getting the right charging infrastructure in place, across our different sites, to deliver the electricity we need is key. For bus operators, this is an area of massive complexity with potentially huge costs involved.

Within our local depots we have realised we need to take a scalable approach, working with a batch of buses at a time. Here in Oxford we’re going to need multi-megawatts of power as we grow our electric fleet but we don’t want to find ourselves paying for a large amount of electricity capacity before we need it. Realistically, it’s only going to happen as part of a major infrastructure project.

Hydrogen vehicles bring their own infrastructure challenges. This could mean we end up using one depot for hydrogen buses doing the longer, higher mileage routes and a local depot, focused on the electric buses and lower mileage routes.

How can Energy Superhub Oxford help you to overcome these issues?

Energy Superhub Oxford is a really exciting project because it offers private wire supplies – essentially providing our own dedicated electricity capacity. What’s really serendipitous for us is that Pivot Power’s cable route, which will connect National Grid’s Cowley substation to Redbridge Park & Ride, comes right past our depot gates.

This means we can access a high voltage supply at the depot without having to use all of the power on day one. Pivot Power will supply us with scalable, expandable infrastructure. We’ll have up to 8 megawatts (MW) available which we can off take in 1MW chunks so we can increase the level of energy we receive as we buy batches of electric buses. Importantly, we won’t have to disrupt operations by digging up the depot every time. It’s one less thing on the critical path for deploying electric buses.

What would an all-electric bus fleet mean for Oxford?

Any level of air pollution causes health problems, so an all-electric bus fleet would be a huge benefit to our society and the youngsters growing up here. If we’re also able to deliver things like the workplace parking levy, more bus gates, more controls on private cars within the city, public transport will become more attractive, faster, and better value for customers. Ultimately, it will make Oxford much more livable. We can have more space in our streets, fewer traffic jams and public transport journeys which are quicker and easier with better and wider connections. It will be transformational for us. That’s why Energy Superhub Oxford is so important to the city.

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