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TTC hybrid bus batteries losing their power

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PostPosted: Fri May 16, 2008 6:07 pm    Post subject: TTC hybrid bus batteries losing their power Reply with quote

Cells only lasting half of time promised

May 16, 2008

The box-like batteries on top of the Toronto Transit Commission's brand new and premium-priced hybrid electric-diesel buses are lasting only half as long as their manufacturer promised.

They were supposed to last five years, but about a third of the lead-acid battery cells in use in the current fleet of 275 hybrids - which started arriving in 2006 - have already worn out, Gary Webster, the TTC's chief general manager, said in an interview.

The battery failures come on top of TTC testing that has shown the buses are producing just half the expected fuel savings, using just 10 per cent instead of 20 to 30 per cent less diesel than a conventional bus, although TTC officials expect this number to improve.

Still, Mr. Webster defends the decision to buy the Orion VII hybrids - which cost $734,000, compared with $500,000 for a conventional bus. He says the TTC and the manufacturer, Daimler Buses North America, are trying to sort out the battery problem, which is covered by the warranty and not costing the TTC money.
"We think the hybrid bus is a good bus. That's the bottom line for us. It's got some issues, absolutely," Mr. Webster said. "... We think we're going to address these issues."

By year's end, the TTC will have 564 hybrid buses - making up about a third of its bus fleet - with much of the cost of buying them covered by the federal and provincial governments in funding that mandated buses using alternative fuels. Within five years, close to half of the TTC's fleet is scheduled to have hybrid engines.

But Adam Giambrone, the city councillor who chairs the TTC, said the battery problems mean the jury is still out on whether the buses were a good investment: "We're still formulating our opinion on the hybrids."

He said the hybrid engine could be a "transitional technology" and that down the road, electric buses could come onto the market, or the TTC could, on busier routes, even return to using trolley buses - powered by overhead wires like streetcars - which it abandoned in the 1990s.

Mr. Webster said yesterday that New York has had some similar problems with its fleet of Orion VII hybrids.

But Jake Keyes, a spokesman for Daimler, which runs the former Orion Bus Industries plant in Mississauga where the buses are partly manufactured, said the battery problem was specific to Toronto's buses and has not occurred with its other hybrid buses running in New York and San Francisco.

The company's newer models include a different, lithium-ion battery that Mr. Keyes said lasts longer, but Mr. Webster said the TTC is not convinced the new battery will fix its problem.

"... We've said to them, 'Happy to consider it, but you've got to prove to us these things actually function,' " he said.

It is common for transit agencies to run into kinks with new vehicles, and the TTC has had problems before, including with vehicles running on compressed natural gas that it bought from Orion Bus Industries in the 1990s.

It has had to scrap 50 of those buses and convert another 50 to diesel, after engine problems, potentially leaky gas tanks and other complaints.

The TTC blames its hybrid buses' fuel-economy problems on the fact that they are being used more on suburban high-speed routes, where hybrid engines are less efficient.

Once more of the buses are running on stop-and-go congested routes downtown, Mr. Webster says, their fuel economy numbers should go up as the bus can rely more on the electric power it creates with its regenerative braking system.

The fuel-economy problems, which likely cost the TTC $1.3-million this year, are a small part of what is expected to be a massive rise in diesel costs as a fixed-price contract for fuel runs out at the end of this year.

The TTC estimates that its fuel bill could go to $97-million next year from $65-million this year, and Mr. Webster has said the transit agency may even consider a "fuel surcharge" for riders.
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