In a time when many municipalities have embraced alternative-fuel vehicles, having already tried it, the City of Ottawa, Canada may do an about-face and revert its city buses back to diesel from hybrid-diesel engines.
Canada’s capitol city’s proposed 2013 budget includes a pilot program to provisionally convert five of its
Orion VII-Next Generation transit buses
to diesel-only power at a cost of $550,000 (Canadian). If the program is successful, Councilor Diane Deans, chair of the OC Transpo Transit Commission, said retrofitting the city’s entire fleet of 177 hybrid buses would run $13 million.
In a news report by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC), Ottawa officials are admittedly disenchanted by insufficient fuel efficiency for the hybrids purchased four years ago. They say they work better in town, but lose out on higher-speed stretches the buses also must cover.
To compound matters, the city paid a premium of $100,00-150,000 for the hybrid models, pushing the cost of each bus to as high $650,000.
In a video report, the CBC said the city projected in 2008 a 17- to 35-percent savings in fuel costs as it sought to justify the higher price for the hybrids.
“There is no doubt that they have been underperforming. We thought we’d get a lot more fuel efficiency out of these hybrid propulsion systems than we have gotten,” said Deans. “And at this point they’re running out of warranty and we know the component maintenance parts are really high cost.”
Deans said Ottawa has spent $1 million more on diesel fuel than anticipated when first purchasing the hybrid buses. But that overage is almost a bargain compared to $7 million spent last year replacing batteries in some of the hybrids.
Poor performance or poor choice?
All together, added purchase costs plus escalating operating expenses plus potential millions to return to standard diesel have led to fingers pointing in the city’s direction, and officials in turn are not denying their culpability.
The Orion buses Ottawa is having troubles with are an evolved seventh-generation design from 2007. The company’s offering was again updated in 2010 and Orion is a division of Daimler Buses North America.
But in the application Ottawa is putting them through, it is generally agreed they were not the right choice and one in which officials prematurely jumped into with a big commitment. Craig Watson, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 279, said that Ottawa failed to perform due diligence before purchasing the buses. He said other cities, like Toronto, were experiencing problems with hybrid buses prior to 2008 when Ottawa obtained its fleet.
According to the CBC report Watson said the route system in Ottawa doesn’t allow the buses to fully capitalize on the hybrid technology since the hybrid works best during start/stop driving in the downtown area, but on longer runs only the diesel engine powers the bus.
“Hopefully we won’t make this mistake again,” he said.