Battle of the Buses
We haven’t seen anything like this since 2009. Maybe even before, or so I’m told.
News of the need for the LTA to start finding replacements for the 1,101 strong Scania K230UB fleet from this year onwards has apparently been spread far and wide. Manufacturers from all over the world are peddling demonstrator buses specifically made for the Singapore market. I’m personally not sure how much of this is marketing psychology to make an impact in the minds of road users, and how much is actual preparation for LTA-sanctioned trials.
Therein lies the question: why the public interest? Perhaps the LTA may be offering a very large and juicy contract. I’m not in the bus industry, so I wouldn’t be too sure. But a political promise of 400 electric buses in service by 2025, and at least two thousand more in the subsequent five years to meet our political goals of electrifying half the bus fleet by 2030, may be quite tantalising if all goes well. In short, that means we’ll have to bring in more than one new bus a day!
The situation here appears to be similar to 2009 when SMRT Buses was testing new technologies as part of a fleet refresh to replace ageing Mercedes-Benz O405 buses. Four bus models were brought in during that “demonstrator generation” — one diesel bus each from Yutong, MAN, and Mercedes-Benz, and a Zhongtong hybrid bus. This, however, is much bigger.
Squire, fetch the armor
It appears that the LTA has very specific requirements. Almost all the buses that have been spotted in town to prepare for trials have three doors. Compared to Continental Europe’s left hand drive where the three-door bus concept initially appeared, it takes quite an amount of effort to design a right-hand drive vehicle with three doors for the considerably smaller market.
A previous Volvo interview might even have implied that the LTA is likely the only right hand drive buyer in the entire world to demand such a development. It was likely to be difficult in the past with diesel engines and mechanical transmission powertrains, as evidenced by the kludgey designs of the two MAN buses produced specifically to evaluate the concept. But with electric vehicles, electric drivetrains, and motive power much nearer to the wheels, it might be much easier to do now.
By the looks of it (unless I hear otherwise from BYD Marketing or something, my emails are open), BYD may possibly be sitting out this trial despite putting a B12A03 demo bus on display at SITCE 2022. They may already have used their test opportunity on the double-decker electric bus trial previously conducted with SBS Transit on Service 851
And like Yutong, they also already have 20 operational K9s with SBST, which means that the selling point of the B12 is only technological improvements over the K9. If they don’t already like the K9 (or the Yutong E12 for that matter), they might not gain much mileage in the public bus market, even if they claim to have been approached over a potential purchase. But this is BYD, so I would say curb your enthusiasm.
Speaking of incumbents, though, the LTA is probably breathing a sigh of relief that they don’t have to replace double decker buses until the later part of this decade. With double deckers also getting three doors, it might be difficult to design an electric double decker bus capable of this before battery power density improves. The few years we have allows for just that to happen.
Likewise, CRRC (yes, the train maker) has already had their chance with the C12, which saw service on Service 3 with Go-Ahead alongside their fleet of Yutong E12 buses allowing for a head to head comparison. But this is also understandable once we examine Service 3’s role as more of a feeder, and how useful the third door might be on such routes. Just like how Linkkers operate on Services 38, 40, and 976.
The tourney goers
Who else might there be, then? Seven more, in fact.
What seems to be getting the most headlines are the local makers — LexBuild and SC Auto. It’s not surprising considering the feel-good nature of newspaper puff pieces on local industry. SC Auto, locally better known for their coaches, has partnered with Volvo to create a local adaptation of their BZL platform, targeted at the Singapore market. LexBuild, on the other hand, designed a vehicle from scratch, though they got a Chinese OEM to help build their prototype.
Made in S'pore: Local bus builders eye slice of electrification pie
A made-in-Singapore city bus powered fully by batteries will go on trial in the coming weeks. Read more at…
Speaking of Chinese OEMs, apart from the big names of BYD, Yutong, and to a lesser extent CRRC, there are also other OEM hopefuls. Zhongtong seems to want another shot at the market. Other less well known makers include the Sino-Australian joint venture FTBCI and Chinese company Ankai.
Not to be forgotten are the European makers as well, apart from the previously mentioned Volvo-SC Auto collaboration. MAN is doing something with Gemilang Coachworks, though it remains to be seen if their entrant might arrive in time for the competition, with much of the coverage still showing the vehicle under construction in Gemilang’s Johor facilities. And Scania also wants to play, despite being the only 2-door entrant, compared to everyone else who has three doors.
Mercedes-Benz will probably have to sit this one out, despite providing over 1100 of the first-generation Citaro to the Singapore market. That’s because their Citaros are simply too long, with spec sheets claiming a 12.1m length. This is why SG4004B, the Citaro hybrid demonstrator, needed special permission to operate on Singapore roads during its trial period.
Drawing first blood
Zhongtong and BYD, though, may already have a foot in the market — in NUS and NTU, where Comfortdelgro acquired a fleet from both manufacturers for campus shuttle bus services. However, it does appear that these bus models are coping poorly in NUS. Granted, NUS and perhaps NTU roads are more treacherous than the average Singapore road, so it may not entirely be a fair comparison. The buses are likely also worked harder in NUS, let’s be honest.
I haven’t heard of much issues in NTU, but it’s entirely possible the NTU shuttle bus has only gone from “horrible” to “bad” after the handover of services from Tong Tar to Comfortdelgro. It would thus likely be difficult to find issues with NTU shuttle buses if everyone’s still fed up of waiting and still are willing to take 179 and 199 instead.
That said, the crush loading conditions on NUS buses are likely to also be a good bellweather of how three-door electric bus models may perform on busier residential feeder routes especially in peak hours. After NUS ISB routes, Service 38 may give the Linkkers a workout and presumably 176 too, but I find it highly unlikely that the same can be said for Services 40 and 976. It’s not a lot of data in any case.
More importantly, it also remains to be seen how the fleet is used. Volvo B9Ls can still be found in NUS as late as January 2023 despite their stated claim of being able to go fully electric by the “end of the year (2022)”. Granted, there may have been delivery delays to the 3-door Zhongtongs, and potentially a need to scrabble together a fleet for the NTU contract meaning that NTU gets anything first, but I think it a question of public interest to ask if Comfortdelgro is facing any additional issues with their electric bus deployment in NUS. Things like charge capacity and shift utilization are also going to be interesting to hear about.
Let the games begin
Are we ready? I expressed my skepticism before, but should the LTA really be taking in so many buses for trials, they might think we are. They might have a plan. The infrastructure can possibly be ramped up in time either with a package-based approach, or by adding the electrical infrastructure progressively as upgrades are being done to the relevant bus operational infrastructure.
In any case, it also remains where the LTA might want to place these buses, which will be a factor towards the effectiveness of these trials. Services 95 and 96 are some possibilities — 96 more so especially with the Volvo BZL being assigned to Tower Transit. These could allow the LTA-demonstrator electric buses to compete against those permanently assigned to NUS, especially where they play similar roles in similar environments. Some sharing of notes between Comfortdelgro and the LTA would be needed for this to succeed.
Residential feeder services could work too, where they would play a role similar to the NUS ISB or NTU shuttle buses. The question might be where else one might find terrain similar to NUS or NTU. This might explain why there are Volvo B5LH hybrids on Service 920 and Linkkers on Service 976, to see how they cope with Bukit Panjang terrain. A shame Bukit Panjang is decently far from any depot charging infrastructure at least before the opening of Gali Batu bus depot; as it looks like none of the demonstrator buses are going to be capable of opportunity charging for now.
Whatever it is, the clock is ticking. Whilst the LTA is sitting on a sizeable supply of spare diesel-based buses which could buy them some time, there’s no running away from the fact that bus service needs will expand. As things currently stand, without significant political action, rail expansion is also unlikely to free up enough bus resources to mitigate the impact of large-scale retirement. This means we will need to decide, by next year at the latest, what our electric bus operations will look like, or risk scrapping the Scania K230UBs with no replacement in the short term.
Either way, we will have to start building. While that happens, let the battle of the bus models begin!