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ART is a victim of the ‘new bus blues’

The Antelope Valley Transit Authority in Southern California became the first agency to deploy 60-foot articulated electric battery buses. The agency purchased its buses from BYD, a company based in China that has supplied the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project. (Courtesy of Antelope Valley Transit Authority)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Less than two years ago, Albuquerque was projected to become the first city in the nation to run all-electric 60-foot buses as part of a “proven technology.”

Nowadays, the hoopla has given way to what’s been described as the “new bus blues,” and transit officials across the country say the 60-foot articulated model has yet to be “proven.”

A Journal survey of transit agencies that have deployed such buses – and smaller versions – report a mixed bag of success. Being first with such promising – but developing – technology hasn’t always been easy.

“Sixty-foot vehicles in North America have been notoriously challenging for some of the reasons that I think you’re experiencing,” said Matt Horton, chief commercial officer of Proterra, a leading U.S. manufacturer of electric battery buses.

Horton wouldn’t say whether his firm, which sells only 35- and 40-foot models, is considering developing the longer version, but recognizes there is a market for such buses in major urban areas with congested routes.

Last fall, the Antelope Valley Transit Authority, northeast of Los Angeles, beat Albuquerque in the race to be the first to operate the 60-foot electric buses.

Like Albuquerque, Antelope Valley ordered their buses from BYD, a major Chinese company that has a manufacturing plant in Lancaster, California. Like Albuquerque, Antelope Valley didn’t receive its entire bus order.

With the five that Antelope Valley has put on California roads since October, some workmanship issues have surfaced but have been fixed.

“I’m sure you are calling about the defects,” Mark Perry, directory of fleet and facilities at Antelope Valley Transit Authority, told a Journal reporter last week. “We’re experiencing a few ourselves. Like I’ve said before, everybody’s experiencing the new bus blues.”

The incoming administration of Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller revealed earlier this month that the $135 million Albuquerque Rapid Transit project along Central Avenue has been sidelined. It was slated to begin operations by late last year. Top city officials blamed bus delivery delays and workmanship issues, as well as route and bus station design problems that don’t involve BYD.

While BYD officials say the buses purchased by Albuquerque have passed all safety tests, the Federal Transit Administration has yet to give the green light to any 60-footer. Two prototypes, from BYD and New Flyer, based in Canada, are poised to undergo rigorous durability testing, which is required for federal funding of such buses in the country. That could take at least five months.

Albuquerque’s buses from BYD have been sidelined with workmanship issues. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ABQ goes big

Most other transit agencies switching to zero emission electric buses have opted for the more tried-and-true, 40- or 35-foot versions.

“Albuquerque went big. You really went for it,” said one vendor who lamented last week about the negative publicity from Albuquerque affecting the burgeoning all-electric bus industry.

In 2016, Albuquerque received bids from the two companies that build 60-foot electric buses, with BYD winning out over New Flyer.

In announcing the city’s choice of BYD, then-Mayor Richard Berry said in June 2016 that Albuquerque would have a chance to be the first city with 60-foot electric buses.

“It’s a proven technology,” Berry said back then. “I’m very comfortable with this.”

But of the nine buses Albuquerque received from manufacturer BYD last fall, roughly 23 or 24 issues have been detected with each, said Lawrence Rael, the city’s chief operating officer. Another 11 buses were supposed to be delivered by Oct. 4, but weren’t. The company said it had a backlog of orders.

BYD officials who traveled to Albuquerque last week to respond to the problems pledged to work with the city. They said the defects were minor.

BYD’s senior vice president Macy Neshati said his company will not seek payment for any of the buses until all of the problems are fixed.

Berry, who left office at the end of November, still supports the project and issued a written statement saying there are contractual protections in place and the issues will be resolved in a timely manner.

Delay not surprising

During a recent Journal survey of transit officials whose agencies run electric battery buses, most had heard about Albuquerque’s sputtering rollout. Most weren’t surprised.

Antelope Valley purchased two 40-foot electric buses from BYD in 2014 and followed up with an order of 13 60-foot buses in 2016.

Most problems with the latest order have been engineering related, along with some workmanship issues, Perry said.

“Technology of the buses, and their drive systems, works pretty well,” Perry said. “It’s always been, you know, the little stuff, door issues, or an air conditioner that was leaking and wasn’t properly sealed.” On one of the new 60-foot BYD buses, he said, a screw was in the wrong place.

“You’re going to get that with any manufacturer, but maybe we’ve gotten a little more with BYD,” Perry said.

“I know they try to work with us and things get fixed. For essentially a brand new company and as fast as they hit the floor running, maybe things could have been done a little differently. Maybe they could have spent a little more time with developing their new products, that’s really not for me to say,” Perry said.

For public transit officials in California, electric battery buses aren’t so much an option as a necessity because of strict requirements by the state to move to alternative fuels.

Adds Perry: “We knew going into this there were going to be challenges. It’s frustrating at times. But we come up with a resolution and we move on. We vowed to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. ”

The Antelope Valley Transit Authority, which serves Lancaster, Calif., touts its rollout as the world’s first 60 foot all electric bus. (Courtesy of Antelope Valley Transit Authority)

Perry noted his agency was months ahead of the ART project, and debuted its first 60-foot bus in September. “Riders love the bus. Our operators love the bus,” he added.

“We got a little bit of hurt feelings (about Albuquerque touted as being first), but it is what it is,” he said.

Neshati, of BYD, said he considers both Albuquerque and Antelope Valley to be first.

Serious quality issues

Another BYD customer, Long Beach Transit in California, wouldn’t address workmanship issues, preferring to extoll the benefits of a zero emissions option for public transportation over traditional diesel models.

But one BYD customer is considering withdrawing from the electric battery bus business to await a better product.

“This is experimental technology and that’s been one of my frustrations with the manufacturers. They’re treating it as if it isn’t,” said Richard DeRock, general manager of the Link Transit based in Wenatchee, Wash. “It’s challenging beyond belief.”

DeRock said his agency learned that being first to adopt a new technology can be risky.

Link Transit’s first generation of electric buses ordered from a different, smaller vendor are sitting idle this winter because their batteries won’t work in the below-freezing temperatures of central Washington state. Link Transit ordered its “second generation” of electric buses from BYD.

“It was something that was very important to my board (of directors), that we weren’t trying to be the first on this one,” DeRock said. “What we learned with our first order was that we needed something that had more support and had more behind them. That was one of the big reasons we went with BYD. That gave us some confidence.”

BYD, based in China, has sold 39,000 electric-only buses worldwide, said Neshati. About 185 to 200 BYD all-electric buses have been sold in the United States. Neshati said transit agencies in the state of Washington and in Indianapolis, Ind., have ordered about 40 of the 60-foot models.

But while BYD’s latest buses had better cold-tolerant batteries, DeRock’s agency sent its first two BYD buses back to the manufacturer, he said. “They were almost a year late on delivery because the buses couldn’t get through the plant. Our in-plant inspector would not release them. There were serious quality issues.”

Neshati said he couldn’t address that issue because he hadn’t worked at the company back then.

Typically, bus manufacturers like BYD have their own quality assurance system. And public transit firms, including the city of Albuquerque, employ their own in-plant inspectors.

“We’re having a whole variety of issues with our buses. We use them. But I think four of the five were down three days last week. Today I think we’ve got two in service,” DeRock, said. BYD, he said, “has put a lot of resources into fixing things.”

One concern at Link Transit is the range of the batteries on the buses – an issue cited by Albuquerque’s Rael.

Rael has said that fully charged batteries on the BYD buses are supposed to be good for 275 miles, but the city’s testing so far indicates a charge is only good for 200 miles.

A BYD specifications sheet reviewed by the Journal states the range of its 60-foot bus is 200 miles. At Antelope Valley Transit, Perry said their 60-foot buses are averaging “around 200 miles on a single charge.”

Neshati, of BYD, insisted at a meeting with the Journal’s editorial board last week that 275 miles on a single charge is achievable in Albuquerque. He said proper training for the drivers will lead to better mileage.

As for the workmanship problems, Neshati said, “It’s all solvable. None of this worries me. I’ve got a ton of engineers.”

Growing pains

Meanwhile, Tommy Edwards of SunLine Transit Agency in Thousand Palms, Calif., told the Journal he has no complaints with BYD buses.

His agency two years ago leased two 40-foot demonstration buses that were broken in on cross-country travel.

“The BYD buses have held up wonderfully and BYD has been very supportive. We really haven’t had any major issues,” he said.

“You’ve got to accept that if you got a brand new technology, you have some growing pains.”

BYD’s Neshati told the Journal last week the issues cited with ART’s buses are being fixed, and the buses could be in operation tomorrow if the city so chose.

That won’t be happening soon, city of Albuquerque officials say. They have discovered design and construction flaws along the ART route – including an intersection that might require reconfiguration.

Back in November, the ART project was awarded a gold designation for its design from the international Institute for Transportation Development Policy. A separate score on operations of the project is to be determined after six months.

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