MTD starts using newer hybrids in fleet

URBANA — Within a few months more than half of the 102-bus fleet of the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District will be made up of low-emissions, improved mileage diesel-electric hybrid buses.

The first of the newest generation of the 40-foot, 38-passenger hybrid buses is to hit the streets Tuesday — a lighter weight, better mileage model that has a more open interior and a new safety feature.

By the time the 10th of the new hybrids is on the streets of Champaign-Urbana this spring, the MTD will have 55 of the quiet, low-emissions buses.

"The hybrid buses have done very well," said Dave Moore, the MTD's director of maintenance. "Normally when you switch to a different mode of operation there are all these bugs that you have to work out. But we didn't see that in the hybrids. We have had a few minor issues but overall we have done very well.

"When we made the decision in '08 to buy the hybrid vehicles, everyone was saying they were bulletproof, that they would hit the streets every day and they would do what it was said they would do. That gave us the confidence to start buying them. We stated buying them in '09 and I think we can use that term ourselves, that they have been bulletproof."

The new hybrids, made by New Flyer Inc. of St. Cloud, Minn,. are about 2,600 pounds lighter than the last generation of the models "and that should translate to more miles per gallon," said Moore. While standard diesel buses get about 3.6 miles per gallon and the last version of the hybrids gets about 5 miles per gallon, the new models "should be around 5 and a half to 6 miles," he said.

In addition to lower emissions and less maintenance costs, that should mean thousands of dollars in fuel costs saved.

"We have estimates that we'll save 100,000 gallons of fuel this year just because of the hybrids," said Moore. "The last cost we paid for biodiesel fuel was $3.04 a gallon so you can see how much that means we can save."

The new buses weigh less, he said, mainly because of new components and the use of lighter materials: a redesigned frame, a switch from carbon steel to fiberglass and a plastic versus stainless steel fuel tank. And a large fan that pulled a lot of horsepower and was used to air condition the bus has been replaced by nine separate fans that operate only when needed.

Passengers will notice a lighter, more airy interior, mainly because a rear window has been restored.

"It really opens up the back of the bus," Moore said. "It's not like this dark cave any more and it brings a lot of light into the bus and makes it seem like there's more space inside."

The buses also "kneel" about 2 inches lower than recent hybrid models, making it easier for disabled and limited mobility riders to board. And the buses now have all disc brakes, which should make for smoother stops.

For bus drivers, a new feature illuminates the area where the bus is about to turn, giving another warning to motorists and pedestrians.

"When the operator hits the turn signal a light located behind the front wheel illuminates the corner they're turning to," he said. "It brightens it up. From a safety standpoint I think this is a big deal."

The new buses are replacing 1996 model year buses that have as much as a million miles on them. Three are being retained, two (with about 700,000 miles on them) have been sold to the Danville Mass Transit District and the others are being sold for scrap. The industry standard for buses is 12 years of service, Moore said.

"We got our money's worth out of them," he said. "We kept them going for a long time."

At one time the difference in the purchase price of the hybrids versus conventional diesel buses was as much as $100,000, but it's now about $600,000 apiece for the hybrids to $550,000 for a conventional coach.

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