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TTC staff sours on natural gas buses

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

The Toronto Transit Commission would like to clear the air.

Just how it is going to do that is becoming a vexing question.

Until recently the answer seemed obvious. It was to be natural gas.

Compressed natural gas buses - or CNGs in transit vernacular - were the apparent wave of the future.

The TTC has already sent 125 of the low-emission vehicles out on the road over the past decade and built a garage and fuelling station to accommodate them.

“But the thing is there are other technologies out there now and we really have to talk about them,” says Bill Brown, the TTC’s manager of vehicle engineering.

“You just don’t want to go the wrong way because of the cost of buses and if you go with CNG you may in fact have made a bad decision that will cost you a lot more over the life of the vehicle.”

With the next big bus order not coming on line until 2004, the commission has two years to decide on the fate of its fleet, with a two-year lead time required for large orders.

But it’s clear that the system’s senior staff have soured on natural gas.

With a combined 16 million kilometres under their belt, the TTC’s natural gas buses have given system managers ample opportunity to assess their cost efficiency and performance. And staff have come to the conclusion that they can do better.

Natural gas buses, Brown says, are high maintenance, high cost and offer no environmental advantage over some of the clean-emission technologies that are rapidly emerging.

True, they are far cheaper to fuel than their diesel counterparts in the 1,500-bus fleet. Natural gas costs an average of 26.3 cents per mile compared with 47.8 cents for the standard diesel buses.

But with purchase prices an average $60,000 more than standard diesel vehicles, the expense of creating new, specially equipped garages to house them and their innate propensity to break down more often, the natural gas buses offer almost no cost advantage for the system.

Because of the “super hot” spark required to ignite natural gas, for example, CNG engines are finicky creatures and need maintenance far more often than the sturdy diesels.

This is one of many complaints the system has with the buses. In a presentation to the commission last week, Brown listed six advantages to acquiring more natural gas vehicles compared with 12 disadvantages. He also urged the commission to look at two clean-emission options that should be well into development by the time the TTC must upgrade its fleet: hydrogen fuel systems and hybrid diesel-electric engines.

The latter, which would combine battery packs and a smaller diesel engine to power the buses, is being tested in New York city and might beat natural gas in the air quality game.

The former, which uses hydrogen gas for power, would send nothing but water vapour out of its tailpipe.

Councillor Howard Moscoe, the commission chair, was more than willing to consider either option.

“We were conned into natural gas by the provincial government in the 1980s,” Moscoe (Spadina) says.

Transit already does a great deal for the urban environment. Every person who abandons his or her car and hops on transit creates one-eighth the amount of ozone-causing nitrogen oxide and one-sixth the greenhouse gases for every kilometre travelled.

But as transit commissioner Joe Mihevc says, it’s not enough for the TTC to claim its environmental role ends with getting people out of cars.

“You can’t just say we’re helping to clean the air by getting people on buses. You have to get them on clean buses,” Mihevc (York Eglinton) says.

Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at