Plans for zero emission double-deckers jeopardised?

Transport for London was planning to introduce electric double-decker buses to routes which crossed Hammersmith Bridge but the dispute over who is to pay for the much needed repairs to the bridge could jeopardise the introduction of clean, zero emission buses.

The new electric double-deckers are more than twice as heavy as the old AEG Routemaster buses which were phased out more than a decade ago, because of the batteries they carry, and the additional cost of strengthening the bridge to carry their weight may prove too much for our cash strapped authorities.

The bridge was closed indefinitely on 10 April to all but pedestrian and cycle traffic, because of the critical need for repairs. Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which owns the bridge, is in a Mexican stand-off with TfL, which runs the buses, and the Department of Transport, over who should pay the estimated £40 million cost of strengthening it to meet 21st century traffic requirements.

Electric zero-emission buses

Of the 9,396 buses in London’s public transport fleet, just over a third (3,240) are hybrid buses running off diesel and battery power, according to the most recent audit figures from last year. The New Routemasters, dubbed ‘Boris buses’ as they were introduced when Boris Johnson was mayor, are supposed to be cleaner, but have been criticised for emitting more pollution than the old ones due to the unreliability of the hybrid batteries.

TfL have now shifted their focus to introducing all-electric, zero emission buses, in line with the introduction of the Ultra Low Emission Zone to tackle air pollution. Transport is responsible for around 20% of London’s CO2 emissions (of which buses make up 5%) and the current mayor Sadiq Khan has set a target of a 20% reduction in emissions by 2020.

Currently only 96 of the London bus fleet are electric, most of them single decker buses, provided by several different manufacturers. TfL is also experimenting with the world’s first electric double-decker, made by the Chinese company BYD, which was introduced on a couple of central London routes in July 2015.

BYD is the largest manufacturer of pure electric buses. Reviews of the bus praise it’s fast acceleration, its ability to drive 155 miles in heavy city traffic on a single charge and its quiet and smooth ride compared with the traditional vibrations, jerks and noise passengers have come to expect from older buses. They’ve been evaluated by more than 150 cities in 36 countries and are commonplace in Chinese cities.

Political will

The problem of pollution in China’s big cities is well-known, and a cautionary example for us. As a result, the most polluting country on earth is now racing ahead with zero emission public transport. Shenzhen became the world’s first city with an all-electric public transport system this year, having retired the last of its combustion engine fleet of taxis in December. Shanghai, which operates a similar number of buses to London, is not far behind. It expects to be all-electric by next year. “Each year we purchase buses with a longer range and higher specifications for less money” Li Hong, depot manager at Shanghai Bashi Public Transportation depot, told the South China Morning Post.

I suspect it’s rather easier to enact sweeping changes of this nature in China, where the Communist Party holds sway across the board. Here we have a Conservative government telling a Labour council that the responsibility is theirs, that they’ve been given the funding, so they should sort it out. Hammersmith and Fulham hit back that there’s no way they can meet costs of £40 million when their budget has been slashed in recent years and their total budget for everything is £160 million.

TfL say the responsibility is not theirs but they are working with the council on a plan to upgrade the bridge. TfL and H&F both say it’s for the Government to provide the funding. “We need the certainty of a long-term steady and sustained funding arrangement to allow London to cover the costs of its own infrastructure maintenance” said a TfL spokesman. The government’s response was that “Between 2015 and 2021 the government is providing £11bn of support to TfL.”

While they all fight about who is to foot the bill, we are left to breathe toxic air and as everyone starts back to work after the Easter break, Chiswick can expect more traffic to be rerouted over Chiswick Bridge.

According to new data from the London Atmospheric Emission Inventory, which now includes data from 2016, two million people in London are living in areas with illegally high levels of air pollution. Overall, air pollution levels are beginning to fall. Between 2013 and 2016 total nitrogen dioxide (NO2) emissions fell by 9% and the introduction of the ultra low emission zone on 8 April should speed up that decrease. It penalises more diesel cars, which are the primary source of NO2.

Hammersmith and Fulham’s Local Implementation Plan for the next four years include the aspiration to make Hammersmith Bridge a ‘zero emission bridge.’ The old Routemasters, which were withdrawn from regular public service in December 2005 (although one ‘heritage’ route remains in central London) weighed 7.68 tonnes; BYD electric double-deckers weigh 19 tonnes, whereas hybrids weigh in at 12.65 tonnes. Strengthening the bridge to take the weight of electric buses, not to mention electric cars and vans, will cost more than repairing it merely to maintain the status quo.

Whether the collective will exists to prioritise clean air in our politically charged system with its woefully short-term outlook, or whether clean buses will be ditched in the ongoing negotiations about money, remains to be seen.

Photograph above: BYD’s electric powered double-decker bus