Coaches already provide a sustainable travel option by taking personal vehicles off the road and provide a key service to many communities. With coaches accounting for around 400 million passenger journeys and around 1.78bn vkm, transitioning fleets to zero emission alternatives presents a material opportunity for decarbonisation. Electrifying coaches would save around 56,000 tonnes of carbon over the next decade and reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides equivalent to £225m in public health damage cost savings.
However, despite ambitious commitments from the industry and the Government to drive this green transformation, the coach sector is only at the beginning of its electrification journey. There are several unique challenges that come with phasing out the sale of non-zero emissions coaches, and as the Government consults on this issue, many operators are seeking to understand the strategies they can use to work through these and begin making the switch.
High capital costs
Electric coaches and the associated charging infrastructure have high upfront costs, creating a major barrier for operators looking to electrify, many of whom work at smaller fleet sizes compared to other vehicles. What’s more, coach operators are yet to receive the same level of subsidies available to the bus sector.
The solution? Electric Transport as a Service (ETaaS). ETaaS contracts reduce upfront costs for vehicles, charging infrastructure, and replacement batteries by transforming them into a monthly fee. These contracts remove both the technical and financial risk for the operator, with the service provider – the electrification specialist – assuming all responsibility for charging fleets and optimising battery storage.
This is already an established model in bus and other transport sectors and can easily be tailored to suit the needs of the coach industry. While standard bus ETaaS contracts are around 12-15 years in length, coach operators are not as well-suited to these as their revenue relies on multiple individual short-term contracts, rather than regular service contracts. To address this, fleet electrification specialists and coach operators are devising bespoke contracts for the sector, lasting only eight years.
Upgrading grid connections
Depots must be connected to local electricity networks to supply enough power to charge fleets. This is a totally new process for operators accustomed to filling up with diesel and can lead to overestimating the size of required grid connection, incurring unnecessary costs.
Installing charging software and onsite batteries can reduce or remove the need for grid upgrades and allow large fleets to be powered with small grid connections. Charging software powers up vehicles gradually overnight, reducing pressure on electricity networks during the day. Onsite batteries can provide an alternative source of electricity when energy demand is high. Together these tools can minimise the costs associated with grid upgrades and reduce expenditure from total energy usage.
Coaches typically travel longer distances than buses and require flexibility to meet changing route requirements based on their contracts. This leaves many operators concerned about range.
An electrified coach sector will firstly require a series of high-speed charge-points along major routes. A previous consultation by The Department of Transport addressed how to increase the number of charge-points along motorways, but did not provide specific details on coach charge-points. To allow the widespread shift to electric, the Government needs to commit to increasing the number of charge-points for coaches, freight, and buses at service stations. In addition to policy and regulatory changes, there should be collaboration between different sectors to share private charging infrastructure.
Journey ranges can also be increased by improving drivers’ energy efficiency skills. Less energy is used when drivers avoid braking and accelerating sharply, and they can be taught to use ‘regenerative braking’ – by releasing the accelerator rather than braking, energy is generated and stored in the vehicle battery. Our data shows that trained bus drivers use 61% less electricity (KWh/km) than untrained drivers, meaning they can travel further on a single charge.
The way forward
For operators looking to explore coach electrification there are a variety of sources available. The Campaign for Passenger Transport and Zero Emissions Coach Taskforce are sharing data and lessons learnt, and helping to drive the sector forward. There’s a wealth of information from electric bus routes in cities and the countryside too.
And there are coach operators who are trying it out – take a look at Westway Coaches and Airsym. They’re showing that while the coach sector does face barriers to widespread electrification, there are ways to make this work commercially and with true benefit to operators, drivers, and passengers.
For the UK to achieve its 2050 net zero goals and work towards a cleaner, green nation, the decarbonisation of all transport systems will be fundamental.