All-Electric Busses for Worcester, MA

June 1st, the Worcester Regional Transit Authority (WRTA) will open its new Central Transportation Hub outside of Union Station adjacent to Worcester’s downtown business area. But the big news is that they’ll be rolling out three new Proterra EcoRide BE35 Zero Emission Battery Electric Transit buses on select routes.

The new buses are to be used in the WRTA fleet replacing older straight diesel buses. The WRTA estimates the replacement of the older buses will eliminate 53 tons of harmful emissions and reduce fuel consumption by more than 23,000 gallons per year and reduce operating costs by $500,000.

The new electric buses recharge in less than 10 minutes and can run up to 35 miles before recharging. The buses run cleaner, quieter and are 600% more fuel efficient than straight diesel buses.

At present there is just a single automated overhead smart-charging station located at the new central transit hub and another for service charging at the new WRTA equipment service facility. These high capacity chargers use wireless controls and robotic automation to mate the charging coupler with the mating rail on top of each bus. Rapid charging from 0% to 95% can be accomplished in as little as 10 minutes while passengers enter and exit the busses at the planned “schedule-adjustment” stop at the new transportation hub.

As soon as they go on-line I plan to take a ride and document the experience for the forum. It’s unclear at this time whether the new all electric busses will start service on June 1st or not - but I did see one parked under the charging station today; so it might be ready for use as we speak. We’ll see.

Hi Bob,

This is certainly a very interesting story and it reminds me of the number of electric buses currently operating in London. One issue, which I believe local governments and electric vehicle manufacturers need to sort out, is promotion and education of the public. Many people are totally oblivious to the fact that some London buses are electric powered although thankfully it seems to be very different in Worcester, MA – they are advertising the fact.

Indeed the same could be said of local government operated battery charging stations as I have come across a number in my area “by mistake” with absolutely no promotion or advertising of the service by the local council.

Does anyone know about how much the BE35 costs? I’m wondering if it’s affordable for smaller cities where fuel costs are a bigger issue.

These buses look great but I am having some difficulty finding a price - has anyone had any success finding a price?

Today I took my first ride on one of Worcester’s electric busses. I got the driver to tell me all about her experiences with these Proterra Ecoride BE35’s and compared them to other conventional and hybrid busses she’s driven. I had high hopes for these all-electric busses, but my enthusiasm may have been premature.

First off - these busses are apparently the first production ones purchased from Proterra for use in a US city. Worcester has 6 of them and use them on 5 different bus routes in the city, keeping one as a spare. More on that later. The driver I spoke with says they all dislike the Proterra busses for several reasons.

  1. The Proterra BE35 has slower acceleration than either the conventional diesels or the Gillig diesel/electric hybrids currently in use in the city. This makes for more trouble merging with traffic and keeping up with traffic on the short highway stretch this bus route has on it.

  2. Lack of power: The bus seems to have a mind of its own when it comes to climbing hills. The factory rep says there’s a ‘normal range’ of throttle pedal travel that gets you up to 80% of full motor power. If you press hard on the pedal at the bottom of its travel a secondary switch clicks and you get up to an additional 20% power. Also, there’s built-in sensors for battery pack and motor temperature that artificially limits available power to prevent overheating. After the 2 mile highway speed (52 MPH) run we had a moderate hill to climb. The bus would only go about 20-25 MPH up the hill. Yet, earlier in the trip, it had easily done 35+ MPH up a similar hill. I would hazard a guess that it’s thermal limiting taking hold here.

  3. The proterra’s suspension is very harsh and bumpy compared to conventionally sprung busses. It is also quite heavy-feeling and doesn’t seem to handle as well as either the conventional busses or the hybrids she’s driven. I don’t know if it’s an active hydraulic suspension or if the kneeling system is on top of regular springs but it sure seems to ride harshly to me.

  4. Reliability has been poor on these Proterras. Several times the bus has conked out - sometimes at a stop and sometimes in the middle of the roadway while moving. It then requires a mechanic and/or a tow to get it back to the shop. That spare bus is trotted out to pick up the passengers and continue the route if it’s available. Otherwise they send a conventional bus.

  5. Usability issues: The bus uses quite a bit of battery capacity when just sitting still waiting for passengers to deposit their fare or even when the bus is waiting at the end of its route for a schedule adjustment period. My driver shuts off the bus when stopped for more than a few minutes to save the battery but this also defeats the doors and kneeling suspension system. It takes 10-15 seconds to fully power-up the bus and open the door for a passenger during one of these schedule adjustment stops. That’s just stupid on Proterra’s part.

  6. Spartan interior: These Proterras are very plain on the inside. The seats are about as comfortable as a park bench. The floor is mostly level from the front door to about 6 feet in front of the rear wheels where it steps up about 7-8 inches. Just in front the rear axle it steps up another 7-8 inches (I suppose the batteries must be under the floor here). This makes moving to the rear of the bus difficult for people with disabilities.

  7. Charging limitations: The Proterra BE35 can run for over an hour in normal service and cover about 30 miles on a charge. The typical route takes an hour but only really uses 50-60% of the available charge. The charger has a semi-automatic docking system which takes over bus forward motion from the driver when it’s pulled into its charging lane underneath the charging shoe. The automatic system continues to move the bus slowly forward while positioning the charging shoe onto its rails at the top, rear of the bus roof and stops the bus when it has latched onto the charging ports. The charge takes about 6-9 minutes but draws so much power from the local electrical grid that they could only install a single charging station at the downtown transportation hub. My driver says she has had to wait several times to get into the charging station in the several months she’s been driving the Proterra. This also brings up another charging problem… What about at the end of the day when the electric busses all need to be charged before going back to the garage for the night? This takes up to 10 minutes per bus. If they all end at the same time (8:00 PM in Worcester) then they all need a full charge before going back to the garage so they’ll be ready to go in the morning. For 5 busses, this takes over an hour sometimes and can hold the drivers late when conventional busses are on their way back to the garage already. Not popular with the drivers, I can assure you.

My driver says she’s had a lot of contact with Proterra’s trainers and technical reps and says that Worcester is being used as a Guinea-Pig while Proterra works out bugs in their product. From Proterra’s web site and press releases it would appear that they’ve had successful fleets of these things running in major cities for a long time. Unfortunately, I think a lot of that is advertizing literature and may not be 100% the truth. Worcester may be the first serious purchaser of these things… I can’t say for sure.

So, overall the Proterras are not getting the best reviews from the Worcester Regional Transit Authority. Turnover of bus drivers has been high as they refuse to drive these busses. Longer work hours are the norm and breakdowns are frequent. My guess is that they’ll be a one-time purchase for the city until something better comes along. Oh well - another black mark for electric vehicles.

Here’s a short video of the charger in action:
[ame=]Proterra BE35 charger docking - YouTube[/ame]

great post

[B]Update on Proterra busses in Worcester, MA 3/28/14[/B]

This morning I took another ride on the Proterra BE35 electric bus here in a different part of Worcester Massachusetts. The WRTA has purchased 6 of these all-electric commuter busses. The one I rode earlier in the week (bus #335) was from the first batch of 3 delivered in early 2013. The one I rode today (bus #337) is from the second batch purchased in early 2014 and is much improved.

The driver told me that this second batch incorporated all the improvements as well as several serious design-flaw fixes found in the early production busses (#333, 334, 335) and have been very reliable. In fact, he says that the WRTA will be buying two more of this improved version soon, bringing the fleet total to 8. The oldest one in the fleet (#333) is broken down as often as it’s running and has been relegated to the Downtown Loop run as it can be charged more frequently and has no hills to deal with. The main problems have been with the charger and batteries. WRTA has begun only discharging to 40-50% and recharging at each Central Hub stop instead of every other stop. This may save the batteries and charger but at the expense of increased congestion and competition for the one available charging dock.

Thus particular driver was quite satisfied with how the newer series, busses 336, 337 and 338, were performing and had only one gripe with it - the busses lack power and speed when compared to the Gillig diesel/electric hybrids he’s driven. These two busses (the Proterra and Gillig) are both configured the same with low floors and 30-35 passenger seats. If the Proterra could get more acceleration he’d be satisfied with them. The suspension (at least on this second batch) is all pneumatic and self-leveling. The system seems to get confused when stopped in traffic and tends to shift around a bit trying to level the bus constantly. But it seems to ride a lot smoother than the one I rode on earlier this week (bus #335).

Proterra has had company technicians based in Worcester to run the fleet during the first year (June 2013 - May 2014) and try to keep the 3 early-production busses updated and working properly. They’ve had limited success, apparently, and are always fixing something on those 3 busses.

So it seems that my earlier evaluation of the Proterra BE35 was based on a flawed early-release model and the newer ones are much improved. With any luck the WRTA will begin expanding their routes which use the new busses soon. The problem Worcester has is that it’s a hilly city and these electric busses just don’t do well on hills.

More to follow as the weather warms up and busses start taking on more routes. Maybe the two new busses (still unsure on that) will be an even better version. We’ll see I guess.[ame=“”]Proterra BE35 accelerating to 35 MPH, then decelerating to stop[/ame]