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Gas Powered Public Transport - how it began (part 2)

Nigel Morris-Co...

Continuing the story of the world's first Rolls Royce powered bus running on natural gas.

For part 1 see How it began

.... The bus was taken out onto the road: the test driver brought it back after a short trip. He was shaking. "It's terrifying," he said.

"It's so quiet I don't know if the engine is running and because there is no vibration, I can't tell when to change gear." The project had challenged one of the most basic principles of "seat of the pants" driving - in effect it had removed from the driver two of the senses that he relied upon for the feedback from the vehicle - feel and sound.

The two things that had been seen as positive side effects had unintended consequences that, potentially, may be seen as negative. But after two or three more sessions, the driver reported that, once he had got used to it, the bus was a dream to drive. More, he said, "after a day in this, I would not be so tired from being shaken about. And because I won't be deafened by the constant noise and won't be in the habit of shouting all day, I won't talk so loudly when I get home."

Suddenly, the possible downsides from the driver's point of view had become positive benefits.

Now the time came to announce the Gas Bus to the world, and it went off to the TMT paint-shop, which had an annual tradition of dressing up a bus as "the Christmas bus" and had an ad hoc special projects team.

A new paint job married the fleet colours with the RR logos and “The Clean Air Bus” slogan in big letters down the side.

The press launch saw the handkerchief demonstration and the formal driving of the bus out into the streets and onto its first service route - and into controversy.

TMT was a very innovative organisation: it adopted many ideas that later became entrenched as the norm across the transport industry world-wide including such things as security screens for drivers, standards of signage and other things that were either invented or developed, generally by the engineering team. Many of their improvements of component design were adopted by manufacturers. In addition, the County Council team had special bus operation projects and one of these was to free up buses from traffic jams, and equally important to keep buses out of circuitous one way systems by bus-only lanes which a) saved time in jams, b) saved distance and c) meant that bus routes could remain in places convenient for foot-passengers therefore reducing the reliance of many on their cars.

Today, these things seem remarkably ordinary: in the early 1970s, they were revolutionary. The concept of the bus lane was beginning to attract attention in the industry - but Teesside went one stage further: when a road was converted to one-way, the bus routes would have to be diverted, and that would reduce the convenience of the buses for passengers and mean additional mileage. What if the buses continued on their original route? So the contra-flow bus lane was invented.

Just one problem, drivers reported that when the RR powered bus used the bus lane: people crossing the road watch the traffic in the one-way system but listen for the bus in the bus lane. And the Gas Bus doesn't make a noise. "We have to brake to avoid people stepping out into the street in front of us," the drivers reported. History does not record the name of the first person who stepped out directly in front of it but none were injured beyond grazes. Each one said exactly the same "I didn't hear it coming."

A year later, the bus's trial was re- evaluated. But the oil crisis that had made the project interesting to the government had ended and fuel prices were falling. And a Labour government policy had, ironically, torpedoed the project: the government had increased the duty payable on LPG, so significantly increasing its cost. This affected a large number of other vehicle classifications such as taxis as well, and this had made the running costs unviable.

A request to the Government for further funding to bring the product to market was declined. The Department of Transport representative told the TMT General Manager that “ What was environmentally desirable yesterday is not seen in the same light today”.

However RR agreed to pick up the bill for the increased costs for two more years, after which the engine was returned to Rolls-Royce where its fate is unknown. The Fleetline reconverted to its original specification and livery, later to be photographed in a scrap-yard.

A quarter of a century on, the project is almost unknown and engineers are busy reinventing the technology - and claiming the concept as their own.

But nothing is all that new says Roy: in the 1940`s war years the Midland Red bus company (now subsumed into the National Bus Company) was operating at least one single deck gas powered vehicle in the Burton on Trent area of Staffordshire. It towed a trailer with a large gas bag mounted on it. Details of this are very sketchy but it frequently ran into Barton under Needwood where Roy travelled on it to school.

In July 1998, The University of California, Berkley, issued the following press release: " News conference to debut a University of California, Berkeley, passenger bus recently converted from a diesel fuel engine to a new technology powered by natural gas. It is the first passenger bus in the world to use this technology, which is from Westport Innovations Inc. of British Columbia." There is a difference: the Westport approach was to convert an existing engine.

In 2001, new regulations in India required all new buses to be natural gas powered. Ashok-Leyland, India's leading bus manufacturer, ordered 400 gas-powered engines from IMPCO Technologies, Inc. of California. There's an irony: the Daimler Fleetline was built by a company in the Leyland Group and was a near relative of the Leyland Atlantean.

Also in 2001, Westport and Cummins, one of the world's largest diesel engine manufacturers announced a joint venture to produce engines especially designed for natural gas. By 2003 Cummins-Westport was able to say " Transit fleets favour the powerful Cummins Westport C Gas Plus. Since it was introduced in June 2001, more than 1500 of these clean natural gas engines have been ordered for Boston, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento and other cities.

In January 2004, Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, announced the introduction of three buses powered by hydrogen gas, touting their quietness and clean-air technology as "greenest, cleanest and quietest ever."

And what of the two men who started it all?

Lionel is running a 1600 acre estate in Shropshire where Roy spends a few days every couple of months doing paperwork to help Lionel keep up to date with the never ending government regulation of cattle farming.

Roy has moved to Kent where he does proof reading for a couple of publications and provides a guiding hand for several family businesses. He keeps his garden in immaculate order with the eye for detail that made the implementation possible, and tends to his grandkids with equal care.

And every day he eats his dinner from the octagonal oak table.

Unless one of his sons has a bundle of papers spread out over it saying "take a look at this?"