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The EVDDs on the slow chargers at the Rongotai depot – it takes three to four hours to charge them to capacity

Tranzit Group leading the way with electric buses

While Auckland is still only trialling electric buses, Wellington is already running a fleet of fully electric double-decker buses on its regular services, courtesy of Tranzit Group, which has proven that electric buses are commercially viable for public transport – and desired by the travelling public – in New Zealand.

Tranzit has been in business since 1924 when Albert Snelgrove launched a fleet of grey buses under the imaginative name of the Grey Bus Service (updated to the Blue Bus Service in 1947 when the grey buses changed their livery to – you guessed it – blue). In 1985, with the company making a name for itself nationwide, it became Tranzit Coachlines and would go on to purchase InterCity Coachlines in 1991 and Newman’s Coachlines the following year.

Today, Tranzit Group is one of the largest family owned and operated coach companies in New Zealand, headquartered in Masterton and with depots in Auckland, Wellington, Palmerston North, Wanganui, New Plymouth and Masterton. Two of Albert’s grandsons, Paul and Keven, are at the helm and the company prides itself on its traditional family and small-town values.

Tranzit launched 10 fully electric double-deck buses into Wellington’s Metlink bus network in July 2018, making it the first city in New Zealand to have a battery-powered bus fleet

But having small-town values doesn’t mean narrow-minded thinking. Tranzit is leading the way in the development of electric buses for passenger transport, and is now five years down the track, having trialled an electric bus with AUT and launching 10 electric double-deckers in Wellington last year in collaboration with Greater Wellington Regional Council.

How it started

“We began exploring electric vehicle (EV) technology in 2014,” Keven Snelgrove explains. “We carried out some research trips to the USA, China, the UK and the Netherlands to see if we could introduce EV technology in New Zealand, and by 2015 we knew that 100% battery-powered electric buses was where our future lay.”

Tranzit partnered with Auckland University of Technology (AUT) to do a joint application to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority’s Low Emission Vehicles Contestable Fund. This was successful and in 2017 led to the development and build of New Zealand’s first commercially operated 100% battery-powered electric bus, which they called EV1.

EV1 is a 35-seater bus and was launched in March 2018. Built by Kiwi Bus Builders in Tauranga, it incorporates a chassis and electric engine from Chinese company Times Electric Group, with 12 batteries onboard, supplied by LG, that provide a range of around 180 km. It takes around five hours to be fully charged on a slow charge. “It was an eye-opener,” says Keven. “It was very quiet, so passengers enjoyed the ride more, and it reduced CO2 emissions by 100% per trip compared to a diesel equivalent.”

EV1 is now part of AUT’s shuttle fleet, servicing the North City Campus and South City Campus bus routes. “Without AUT’s foresight and our own commitment to a sustainable future, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” Keven adds. “EV1 still operates as a mobile research tool, providing data to understand the viability and impact of electric buses on New Zealand roads.”

Hitting Wellington’s streets

In May 2017 the council announced that following a competitive tender for bus services in the Wellington region, Tranzit Group was the successful bidder, with a contract to build 228 new buses “with as many built by the Kiwi Bus Builders team as it can handle,” the council said. The buses would contribute to a new, more environmentally friendly bus fleet that would improve air quality across the region and reduce emissions of harmful pollutants by at least 38% in Wellington and 84% in the Hutt Valley.

Buses can be charged on the show chargers overnight to avoid peak power rates

In July 2018, Tranzit launched 10 fully electric double-deck (EVDD) buses into the Metlink bus network, making Wellington the first city in New Zealand to have a battery-powered bus fleet – possibly the first in the southern hemisphere.

A major step up in technology

Like EV1, the EVDDs were assembled and built by Kiwi Bus Builders in Tauranga, also utilising a chassis and electric motor built by Times Electric Group, at a cost of around $1 million per bus (by comparison, a double-deck diesel bus costs between $600,000 and $700,000).  

They weigh about 12 tonnes each – roughly the same as a single-deck diesel bus – due to the batteries: each bus has 14 Microvast lithium-ion-based batteries, which have an expected lifespan of 10 years before they will have a second life in houses, micro grids and solar-powered off-grid chargers. Each battery has a capacity of 161 kWh and is secured in a sealed, fire-safe pouch to prevent gassing/venting.

The Reef Street fast charger – it takes between 8 to 12 minutes to charge the bus to capacity via the rear-mounted pantograph which elevates to connect with the overhead charger

However, the EVDDs feature a major step up in charging technology. Utilising charging infrastructure from Heliox in the Netherlands, the EVDDs can be charged on both a slow and fast charger.

“We realised that to maximise the vehicles’ time out on the roads in service, without having to return to the depot to be charged, we would need fast-charging infrastructure of some sort,” explains James Howard, Tranzit Group’s Wellington operations manager and the EVDD project manager. “We have slow chargers located at our Rongotai and Grenada depots, and these are ideal for the buses that operate on the commuter services. 

They take between three to four hours to charge to capacity, so the buses can be charged between shifts or overnight. The main advantage of using the slow charger is cost: avoiding peak power rates through charging overnight.” 

However, for the buses on Wellington’s busiest service, Route 1 from Island Bay to Grenada, a fast charger has been installed in Reef Street at Island Bay. It takes between 8 to 12 minutes to charge the bus to capacity – around the same time it takes for the driver to have a break and a hot drink. Each bus is equipped with a rear-mounted pantograph which elevates to connect with the overhead charger.

Once fully charged, the EVDDs can run for between four to six hours or clock up 130 km, at a cost as little as $23. The motor produces 3000 Nm of torque, meaning Wellington’s uniquely hilly topography and tight street infrastructure don’t pose a challenge.

Plans for the future

Tranzit will incrementally add 22 more EVDDs into the Wellington fleet over the next few years and has plans to introduce passenger EVs into regional New Zealand. “The work we’ve done in Wellington to design, test and implement the charging infrastructure, with the support of our technology partners, means we have built up some tremendous intellectual property in this space,” James says. “We have proven without a doubt that it is possible to operate a fleet of electric buses on a commercially viable basis, and we’re keen to talk to other operators around the country.”

Passengers love travelling on the EV buses and Tranzit’s drivers love driving them

The EVDDs have been very successful, says Keven Snelgrove. “We’re super proud to have pioneered this technology in New Zealand and will continue to explore ways we can develop sustainable technology right across our businesses. Passengers love travelling on EV buses and our drivers love driving them. 

They’re clean and green, and they make the most of our country’s renewable energy. This fits right into our focus to care for New Zealand – now and for future generations.

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