In Europe, Greener Transit on Existing Infrastructure




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Vienna is employing some old-fashioned technology to run shiny new electric buses wending their way through the narrow inner-city streets.

The Austrian capital is switching from buses powered by liquefied petroleum gas to a novel, first-of-its-kind fleet of electric buses that run unplugged, go anywhere, and recharge their batteries using the overhead power lines of older trams. Twelve of the buses, each of which can carry 40 passengers, are in service.

As Vienna shifts to electric buses, it is striving to be a leader in green transportation by testing new systems that can potentially create a cleaner, quieter downtown. Vienna is one of several European cities — struggling to square tight budgets with civic goals to meet climate targets — that are experimenting with new electric vehicles and infrastructure systems for buses and trains.

With the European Union’s ambitious goals to reduce global warming, these cutting-edge technologies are part of a slow-motion revolution in urban transit. Siemens, which provided technology for the electric buses, is negotiating with at least five cities in Europe and two in South America that have existing tram lines and might adopt the Vienna system, said Andreas Laske, of the eBus program at Siemens Rail Systems in Berlin.

The electric buses are more expensive, however, said Anna Reich of Wiener Linien, the city-owned transport company. But the city saved money by not having to build new infrastructure for the fleet.

“Vienna has the fifth largest tram infrastructure in the world,” Ms. Reich said by telephone. “We wanted to use the infrastructure we already have.”

The red and white buses partly recharge in 10 to 15 minutes between runs by pulling into an existing tram station and hooking up to electric current via a pantograph, an arm on the roof that carries the electricity. While electricity itself is not environmentally friendly unless it comes from renewable sources, city officials figure the buses — which are made by the Rampini company in Perugia, Italy — will reduce its carbon dioxide emissions 300 tons a year.

At night, the batteries recharge fully at the depot. Because the buses have modest range requirements, they use a smaller battery, which makes them lighter and less expensive than those that require larger batteries.

One of the new electric buses costs at least 400,000 euros, or $519,000, as much as double the cost of a comparable diesel bus, Mr. Laske said. He said that the battery was expensive but that prices were likely to drop as production rose. Some expenses are offset by lower operating costs, generally 25 percent to 35 percent less because of savings on fuel and maintenance, he added.

Expense was not Vienna’s only consideration, Ms. Reich said. “We always wanted to go greener,” she said. “We wanted to implement something new and help the technology improve.”

Their efforts have been influenced by a series of European Commission initiatives to address climate change and reduce dependence on imported fuel. The commission has set a goal for member states to reduce transportation emissions by 60 percent by 2050. Buses account for as much as 60 percent of the public transit in Europe, and 95 percent of those use gasoline or diesel fuel.

The initiatives have helped fuel a flurry of innovation.

Power Vehicle Innovation, a French manufacturer, developed an in-route charging technology called Watt that will begin testing an airport-grounds shuttle bus in Nice, said Epvre Delquié, marketing director for P.V.I. Watt’s charging poles reach out from a bus to pick up a potent jolt of electricity from chargers, called totems, installed atop bus shelters along the route. These 10-second blasts of power extend the buses’ range.

P.V.I. plans to sell and install each totem for about $78,000, which Mr. Delquié said was low compared with the cost of installing overhead electricity lines on an entire bus route. In France, savings on fuel could cover the outlay on infrastructure and the extra cost for electric buses within 10 to 12 years of operation, Mr. Delquié said.

Developments are not restricted to bus lines. European authorities are also working with makers of trams and trains to find smarter ways to connect forms of electric transport.

Heilbronn, Germany, set a goal in 1993 of reducing vehicle traffic 50 percent by 2005, but transit infrastructure was weak. So the city decided to build an inner-city light rail and link it to regional service. The “Tram-Train” vehicles from Bombardier can run on the kind of current that powers city light rail or, by using an electronic converter, on a type of current that powers the heavy rail lines between Heilbronn and other cities. In this way, one vehicle can serve both systems.

The primary benefit is passenger convenience, said Andreas Berk, the light-rail technical project manager for the city. Commuters get more frequent service and no longer have to switch vehicles during trips. A closer connection to Heilbronn’s city center has also made the area more attractive to regional businesses and residents, leading to more private investment along transit lines within the city, Mr. Berk said.

These technologies are not yet a clear economic success. For now, city governments, like Heilbronn and Vienna, regularly subsidize ticket prices. Some cities, cautious about vehicle and battery performance, are limiting electric buses to lines with lighter passenger loads and shorter routes. But companies say they are playing the long game, evolving their electric transit technologies to reduce air and noise pollution and add convenience that attracts additional passengers.