A diesel bus on the hoist at Coast Mountain Bus Co.'s Surrey Transit Centre. TransLink officials say natural gas buses that were notoriously costly to maintain have greatly improved in recent years.

TransLink says natural gas buses now beat diesels

Preference based on fuel cost savings, engine improvements

TransLink officials are defending their plan to buy 170 more natural gas-powered buses over the next three years, saying fuel cost savings and improved technology now make them better than diesels.

A compressed natural gas (CNG) bus burns less than $20,000 per year in fuel compared to $40,000 for a diesel, Coast Mountain Bus Co. fleet manager Dave Leicester told Metro Vancouver directors March 12.

Leicester sought to better justify TransLink’s preference for CNG buses going forward after earlier criticism from some skeptical Metro politicians, who suspect the province has applied pressure because it wants to launch a huge liquefied natural gas industry.

Most of Coast Mountain’s 1,340 buses are diesels, but there are about 50 CNG buses based mainly in Port Coquitlam, as well as 262 electric trolley buses that run mainly in Vancouver.

Early CNG buses that arrived in the 1990s and 2000s were plagued by costly maintenance problems.

But Leicester said since 2008 CNG bus engines are better and more reliable, have greatly reduced emissions and better hill climbing – a major shortcoming of earlier models.

Modern diesels, meanwhile, have become more complex due to stiffer requirements for pollution controls such as particulate filters.

“We refer to it as a chemical factory that has to be carried behind the engine to clean it,” he said.

Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said he remains doubtful, based on TransLink’s “disastrous” early experience with CNGs, that they’re worth the money if they result in higher costs of maintenance, parts and training.

“It’s not a sensible way to operate a transit system,” Corrigan said of splitting the fleet into too many fuel types.

He said diesels are still the most flexible type of bus that can be deployed anywhere in the region.

CNG buses cost more – about $485,000 each compared to $410,000 for a new diesel.

They also require specialized CNG fueling stations, which are to be built in Surrey and Richmond so future natural gas buses can run there as well.

Corrigan said TransLink is betting natural gas will continue to be the cheaper fuel in the future, when that’s not certain.

Fuel prices are a risk, Leicester said, but added TransLink’s estimates are conservative and the natural gas price advantage could get even bigger, not smaller.

He denied there’s pressure from Victoria for CNGs, but confirmed it did happen before.

“I will say in the past we’ve had political pressure,” Leicester said, but noted major cities in Alberta and Ontario are also now switching back to CNG buses after previously abandoning them.

BC Ferries is also moving to power some of its ferries by natural gas.

TransLink isn’t phasing out diesels – it will continue to buy them as well.

But Leicester said all-electric zero-emission fuel cell buses are too costly at more than $1 million per bus, not counting the need for costly charging technology on their routes.

The last compressed natural gas buses TransLink bought were these low-floor models in 2006. image credit: TransLink

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