On the (electric) Buses! A first for Coventry.
Earlier today I went for a ride on one of Travel de Courcey's new electric buses. They are yet to run in service, as final set-up and testing is finished, but will soon be running on the Coventry South Park & Ride service from Memorial Park on Kenilworth Road to the city centre and back again.
With electric cars having only just appeared, they are expensive and very much an unproven technology. It's no surprise that - so far at least - the take up of electric cars has been disappointing. So for most people, the nearest they will get to electric-powered transport for some time will be on a bus (or perhaps the pint of semi-skimmed delivered on a milk float).
Travel de Courcey has ordered three 38-seat Versa buses made by Optare in Leeds and they will operate on a 12 minute frequency Monday to Saturday. The firm prides itself on always using the most environmentally-friendly vehicles on the market, and is the first in the country to invest in large electric buses. As these particular buses will run in and around the city centre, they will help in reducing emissions in a polluted environment.
What's more, the ride is smooth, remarkably quiet, and very enjoyable. What's noticeable as a passenger was how easy it was to have a conversation, with the only background noise being the quiet whirr of the electric motor and the sounds of the wheels on the tarmac.
Around half the cost of the new buses, some £300,000, will come from the first tranche of the government's Green Bus Fund. Another £100,000 comes from Centro (the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive and Authority). Meanwhile, Coventry City Council has invested by installing fast charging points at both ends of the route.
The largely flat terrain in Coventry and the short distance of the routes will enable the buses to operate well within their range. And, as Bob Wildman at Travel de Courcey told me, electric buses are ideal for urban driving where the vehicle is stopping and starting.
The firm has taken a calculated gamble in investing in the new technology. Critical will be how the batteries on the bus perform. If the batteries last for five years (the expected replacement period for the bus) then the firm will have made a return on the investment. The risk is battery failure at an earlier stage - and as the first adopter, the firm is effectively experimenting, with some government support.
More generally, the city has a good track record in developing low carbon transport, through initiatives such as the CABLED demonstrator project, the low carbon vehicle procurement programme (involving the city council and Coventry's two universities) and through the city council's involvement in the 'plugged in places' scheme (which in part is funding additional charging stations).
It has also targeted low carbon technologies as a potential way of rebuilding the automotive and manufacturing supply chains given firms like Tata and Liberty making electric vehicles in the city.
The new electric buses will reinforce this commitment. All in all it's something of a first for Coventry and very much to be applauded.
Professor David Bailey works at Coventry University Business School.