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Transit down to single electric bus from four in test; union asking for answers

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>An electric bus at a charging station after the announcement that electric transit buses were being deployed on a Winnipeg Transit route in November, 2014.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

An electric bus at a charging station after the announcement that electric transit buses were being deployed on a Winnipeg Transit route in November, 2014.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/10/2018 (659 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It appears that Winnipeg Transit’s experiment with electric buses has come to an end.

The union that represents most transit employees says only one of the four electric buses that were put into service four years ago is still on the road in the city.

Aleem Chaudhary, president of ATU Local 1505, said he doesn’t understand the transit administration’s decision-making process on electrifying the fleet.

"Dozens of transit authorities across North America are committed to electrifying their fleet because it makes sense financially and for the environment but Winnipeg Transit still doesn’t know what its next step should be," he said.

Winnipeg Transit put the four buses into its fleet, on a cross-city route, in 2014 on a pilot basis.

Chaudhary said he’s learned from his members that three of the vehicles have been returned to Winnipeg-based manufacturer New Flyer Industries, with no decision made on whether they should be added to the city fleet.

"I don’t understand what they’re thinking is, but no one has been able to give us a clear answer on what is going on right now," he said.

While electric buses are more expensive than diesel — $800,000 versus $500,000 — a University of Manitoba professor's analysis that appeared in the Free Press in 2017 concluded that the transit department could expect see a dramatic decline in greenhouse-gas emissions and annual fuel and maintenance savings of $17,500 per vehicle.

On Winnipeg Transit’s 640-bus fleet, that’s an annual savings of $11.2 million.

Winnipeg Transit and civic officials were asked to confirm ATU’s claim that only one electric vehicle remains in the fleet and to explain why the others were removed, but they did not respond before deadline Thursday.

Joseph Kornelsen, president of the transit advocacy group Functional Transit Winnipeg, said he was aware some of the electric buses had been taken out of service.

"We need more buses and better service and it's disappointing there are no firm plans going forward when it comes to electric buses," Kornelsen said. "Electric buses could be that way forward, and it's too bad there no plans to keep that program going."

Chaudhary said the three electric buses that were taken off the road had been experiencing service problems. He said New Flyer is planning to refurbish them with updated battery systems and advanced electronics, but no decision has been made to take them back.

He said Winnipeg Transit’s indecision is not connected to Wednesday's civic election; mayoral candidate Jenny Motkaluk has promised to expand and electrify the entire fleet over a six-year period, while Mayor Brian Bowman favours a slow and measured response, endorsing a joint city-province task force report that recommended city hall purchase 12-20 electric buses and observe how they function within the fleet.

"The administration just isn’t ready to make the decision," Chaudhary said. "They don’t move as fast as other transit authorities."

He pointed to Edmonton Transit’s decision last week to spend an additional $20 million in 2019 on security measures after a 65-year-old operator was stabbed 13 times by a 15-year-old boy in late September.

Edmonton Transit is installing driver safety shields on all its buses, at a cost of about $14 million, starting first with those running at night and on high-risk routes. Edmonton is also spending another $6 million annually for 24-7 security at 26 LRT stations and adding 24 people to the service's existing security complement.

Chaudhary said in contrast, it’s been almost two years since driver Jubal Fraser was killed on the job, yet there’s been no indication from Winnipeg Transit whether it’s prepared to equip the fleet with shields, other than six already installed a pilot study.

NDP environment critic Rob Altemeyer said Winnipeg Transit's indecisiveness is "mind-boggling."

Altemeyer said it appears that the transit department is throwing away the benefits the former NDP government made possible with the original electric-bus pilot program, which involved Manitoba Hydro, Red River College, New Flyer and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.

Electrifying the fleet "makes too much sense," he said. "They make for a quieter ride, drivers love them, they save enormous amounts of money and the greenhouse-gas emissions, compared to diesel, are reduced to zero."

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

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