TTC Plans Massive eBus Order

At its coming meeting on April 14, 2021, the Toronto Transit Commission will consider two reports that, if adopted, will begin a transition to an all-electric fleet over the coming decades.

Although the first report’s title suggests that this is simply an update on the trial of 60 eBuses now in progress, in fact the report includes recommendations for eBus purchases:

The Board delegate authority to the TTC CEO to undertake a public procurement through issuance of a Negotiated Request for Proposal (NRFP) and enter into up to two contracts for the supply of approximately 300 long-range, battery-electric buses (eBuses), based on the following:

a. Limit the total contract award amount, including all applicable taxes, and project delivery costs to within the approved funding of approximately $300 million;

b. Apply lessons learned through the TTC’s eBus Head-to-Head Evaluation to pre-qualify potential suppliers based on demonstrated compliance with system compatibility requirements and Transport Canada’s Motor Vehicle Safety Standards;

c. All 300 eBuses to be delivered between Q1 2023 and Q1 2025; and

d. Negotiation of an acceptable agreement that is satisfactory to the TTC General Counsel.

Procurement

The TTC plans a split contract to two vendors. Based on experience to date, this would seem to guarantee work to New Flyer Industries [NFI] but a second vendor is a more difficult question.

The TTC raises important caveats:

When reviewing this report, it is important to understand that the findings are specific to the eBus models procured, and to how those buses have performed in the TTC’s operating environment. As a result, the findings of this report may not be applicable to other transit authorities. Further, as the results are preliminary, we expect that action plans across all vendors will result in improvements to vehicle and vendor performance that will be reflected in our next report on the eBus head-to-head evaluation in Q1 2022.

As well, new eBuses offered by BYD, NFI and Proterra are expected to address system compatibility issues, which for the TTC will be critical for the successful adoption of this technology.

Eventually, TTC management has to qualify or disqualify each would-be vendor, but clearly we are nowhere near that point.

Under normal circumstances, the TTC would have an open bid on which any vendor could make an offer. An invited bid creates a process where we must trust that no untoward influence occurs. Considering the unseemly way in which BYD elbowed its way to the table through lobbying and a direct sales pitch to the Board in the guise of a “deputation”, a closed process could be subject to challenge depending on who is invited to bid, and who is excluded.

It is totally unclear why management seeks authority to negotiate a contract at this time when the head-to-head comparison has a year still to run and the vendors might, or might not, correct performance problems in the meantime. Conversely, none of the vendors in the trial has a vehicle that comes close to meeting the performance of the hybrid fleet.

Assuming that Nova Bus, a major Canadian supplier whose vehicles were not in the trial, is asked to bid, it will be interesting to see what types of vehicle they will offer. The TTC plans to pre-qualify bidders based on experience in the trial, and it is hard to understand how, within this constraint, Nova Bus would be invited unless the TTC uses experience from other properties as a reference.

One expected outcome of converting to eBuses is that by 2040:

Vehicle reliability and availability will have increased by an estimated 25%

It is not clear what the base for this improvement is. Is the TTC including its aging diesel fleet in the baseline, or speaking relative to the hybrids already in operation?

Aside from transparency, the results to date raise another key issue. Suppose that eBuses simply do not attain the performance and reliability we have come to expect from transit buses. Do we embrace the technology in the hopes that it will catch up and for the larger “green” agenda, and will we provide adequate budget to the TTC to handle the extra cost of ownership?

Throughout the evaluation report, there are many points under the heading “Lessons Learned”. For readers’ convenience, I have consolidated these in one document. They show just how many topics require a hard-nosed negotiating position by the TTC together with credible vehicle performance data.

There are few surprises, but clearly the TTC intends to go into this bus procurement cycle with is eyes open. Many of these lessons depend on work still underway as part of the trial making the delegation of purchase negotiation authority to staff at this stage even more troubling.

Quite bluntly, the proposed procurement process does not make sense and leaves Toronto open to being saddled with less than ideal vehicles. The authority to negotiate a purchase should be deferred until the results through 2021 are known, and the eligibility (or not) of Nova Bus as a potential supplier is clarified.

Fleet Planning

Updated April 10 at 8:20 pm: The original table of buses incorrectly showed vehicles 1000 to 1689 as diesels when they are, of course, hybrids. This is corrected below.

The TTC is not prepared to completely switch its purchases to eBuses because the technology is not yet mature. Purchase of 300 hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) was authorized by the Board in October 2020. Together, the orders would allow eBus and HEV technology to displace about forty percent of diesel fleet where many buses are near end of life.

What is not clear is the proportion of net new vs replacement vehicles in the 600 bus procurement, nor of the amount of additional service that the refresh of the fleet on this scale will represent. As I write this article, I await the TTC’s provision of an updated fleet plan showing the overall fleet size, service allocations and maintenance spare factors for coming years.

The current bus fleet numbers 2,113 vehicles of which 1,404 are diesels.

Adapted from Scheduled Service Summary for February 14, 2021 (p. 74)

The purchase calendar for new buses in the October 2020 fleet plan shows that the TTC anticipated more than 600 buses in the coming five years, but the number is capped by available funding.

Over recent years, the TTC increased its spare factor in response to dropping vehicle reliability and increased technical complexity. A tactic to offset this was to shift from an 18-year to a 12-year replacement cycle so that buses are retired before they reach an age where maintenance needs rise and reliability drops. This has an obvious effect on capital budgets, and that is compounded by the current premium paid for electric buses compared to diesels.

An important part of buying new buses and a new technology is the hoped-for improvement in vehicle reliability and availability. This would mean that the size of the fleet needed to provide a given level of service would go down. For example, if the spare factor is 20%, then a 120-bus fleet is required in order to field 100 of them in peak service. If the fleet overall becomes more reliable and the spare factor can be lowered, this translates to savings in both capital and operating costs.

Conversely, if new eBus technology cannot achieve a spare ratio equivalent to the existing diesel and HEV fleet, then more buses are needed just to provide the same service. This will be affected not just by reliability factors but by the capacity for charging vehicles that could remain in service through the day. If buses must be scheduled for garage trips simply because they will run out of power, that represents non-productive mileage and driver hours that add to fleet size and operating costs. (An alternative is on-route charging, but the TTC has not yet discussed that option in detail.)

With the shift to HEVs and eBuses, the premise that a bus should only be retained for 12 years may no longer be valid, but it will be at least a decade before we know if the new propulsion technology translates to long-term reliability and a longer replacement cycle. Past experience with trolley buses suggests that eBuses should last longer, but other factors including the robustness of bus bodies and the pace of technology change in the propulsion systems might work against this.

A more subtle problem can arise if a fleet is larger than needed to achieve the target spare factor for an extended period. Surplus “problem” vehicles might be sidelined rather than kept in working order. An organization can reach a point where a larger spare pool becomes part of the maintenance culture and a return to the target level is not as simple in practice as in theory.

For a fleet of 2,113 vehicles a 20% spare factor should allow a scheduled peak service of about 1,761 buses. The peak requirement in May 2021 schedules is about 1,500. Similarly, a streetcar fleet of 204 should allow peak service of 170 vehicles. Whether the TTC will achieve this by the end of 2021 when major overhauls are completed and construction projects affecting streetcar routes will all wind down remains to be seen. Buses now operating on streetcar routes are included in the peak service count, and they would be available for redeployment to bus routes.

This is an issue for the TTC as it moves out of the pandemic era: despite its large fleet, how many vehicles are actually available for service? Do vehicle purchases perpetuate a higher spare ratio? Is the service offered limited by actual vehicle availability, by the number of drivers the TTC hires, or both?

Comparing eBuses with Hybrid Bus Performance

Over the course of testing their 60-vehicle fleet of eBuses, the TTC used its existing Nova Bus hybrid fleet as a comparative benchmark. Despite problems with early generations of hybrids, reliability of recent purchases has been quite good. If an eBus cannot at least match this reliability, this has grave implications for service planning and ongoing costs. It is all very well to be “green”, but a bus in a garage for extra maintenance work chews up funding that could be better used to serve riders.

A very high level comparison of the four fleets for four key criteria appears below. There are many other factors in the evaluation, but these are considered essential. Of the three eBus vendors, only New Flyer avoids the “Needs Improvement” flag in this key group.

Note that Nova Bus was not part of this trial because they did not have a “long range” vehicle capable of extended service when the TTC issued its RFQ.

When the TTC procured its eBus fleet, Nova Bus did not offer a long-range battery electric bus. However, it is now building on its experience with HEVs and opportunity charged battery-electric buses to offer a long-range bus starting in 2022.

For clarity, “opportunity charging” refers to the use of charging stations installed along routes where buses can recharge “on the fly” using a pantograph to link to an overhead power feed.

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