“Nobody Went To School For This!”

Hello colleagues,

Electric buses are disruptive. I advocate for them because they slash the emissions that drive both climate change and increased cancer rates (diesel exhaust is carcinogenic). Yet the more I learn about electric buses, the more I respect that it’s hard to move from diesel (or any fossil fuel) to electric.

Frontline fossil fuel workers should share in the benefits of electric buses, and of any new technology. So, I interviewed Bill Bradley, pictured below, a board member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 757. Bill works as a tire specialist at Lane Transit District (LTD) in Eugene, Oregon, which has four electric BYD buses.
ATU 757 has 5,500 members in Oregon and Southwest Washington. They are primarily operators (drivers) and mechanics in the public transit and school bus sectors, but also include dispatchers, customer service reps, fare inspectors, public safety officers, and some planners and materials management personnel. Many ATU members work for third-party contractors such as First Student.
It’s already well known that the range an electric bus achieves depends heavily on the skill and training of its driver. My questions for Bill were about if and how training is working for mechanics. 
“There are real gaps currently on training for electric buses,” Bill said .He explained that in his experience so far, training is coming either from the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) or from each other, i.e. fellow ATU members working at properties running electric buses, such as King County in Seattle.
(Sidenote: Columbia- Willamette Clean Cities Coalition and the Advanced Transportation Technology Center of Linn Benton Community College, both under Brian Trice’s leadership, are active in the electric space. I need to meet up with Brian to learn what training is available from them for bus organizations.)

“We haven’t yet found a local resource for training,” Bill said. “We don’t have a unified way to make an e-bus work. What kind of electric bus will we train to? Diesel never posed this choice; it was uniform. We’re still finding our way. There’s no universal standard even on charging a bus.”

Bill noted that conventional buses are based on 24 volts of electricity, but e-buses are based on 600 volts. “It’s a new challenge; nobody went to school for this. Our mechanics have always been jacks of all trades, but three phase power and how it propels a motor is a new concept.”

Some problems can be diagnosed and fixed remotely by OEM’s since electric buses are heavily computerized. But when a hands-on fix is needed, it may take a week for an BYD technician to arrive at a relatively small property like LTD’s. From a fleet management perspective, that’s not good.   

“Our start with e-buses at LTD has been rocky,” Bill told me. “There’ve been lots of issues.” The context here is that everyone I’ve ever talked with that runs e-buses has navigated lots of issues. BYD buses, though, seem to have been especially problematic. 

“Electric performs differently than diesel. Our battery warranty says we shouldn’t go lower than 20% state of charge, because that can stress the battery. We’ve been putting ours out on split shift routes, mornings and evenings, and recharging them in the afternoons. “We’ve never had to strategize like this before. This is a planning exercise, not just a bus.”   

“There’s a big push to electrify. But we must be thoughtful about it, must ensure that a bus shows up for the passenger waiting for it. We can’t be naively trusting of the manufacturers.” 

Even with the challenges, Bill Bradley expresses commitment to the electrification of the transit system. “We [ATU] have to embrace the change to electric. It would never work to resist it,” Bill said. “We’d be left behind, we’d be the horse and carriage if we continued to hitch ourselves to diesel. I want ATU members to be competitive, the best around.” 
Alison Wiley, M.S.
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To go fast, go alone.
To go far, go together. 

— African proverb
By | 2019-08-09T16:50:00-07:00 August 9th, 2019|ATU 757|