Staying On Schedule

This last weekend, I rode on Route 160 at the same time in the morning on both Friday and Saturday while on my way to work. Even though it was the same trip on the same route, the experience was quite different between the two days. On Friday, we left Dayton TC as soon as the clock said it was time to go. Over the course of the trip, there were less than 8 people, and we only had to stop a handful of times. By the time we got to my stop (the last one before Three Rivers TC), just 15 minutes had elapsed, which is also the same amount of time Google Maps estimates the drive from Dayton TC to Three Rivers TC will take on the same route. On Saturday, the bus had quite a few more passengers, with more boarding/alighting at most of the key stops along the route. By the time we got to my stop, about 22 minutes had elapsed, which according to the public schedule actually makes the bus late by 2 minutes (though regular riders of the 160 would know this is more in line with the usual running time of the route).

After the stark differences I had in my experience (as minuscule as they might seem), I started thinking about what it really means to say that a bus is “on schedule.”

Traditionally, Ben Franklin Transit has told riders that they should be at their bus stop at least 5 minutes before the bus is scheduled to arrive. With a large majority of the passengers being regular riders who use the bus at least once a week, the process of catching a bus is pretty routine as they largely have the schedule(s) committed to memory. Being used to this laid back approach was a bit of a culture shock for me last year when I moved twice and spent several months living in Tampa and later Spokane. As a major metro and medium-city respectively, the transit agencies did things quite differently.

It wasn’t until I was in Tampa when I learned about the concept of a “timepoint hold.” Just like BFT, they publish their schedules with times at key points along the route listed. However, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) had a strict policy for their operators that if they pass a scheduled timepoint early, they will be subject to disciplinary action (i.e. a write-up). On the very first night I was in Tampa while getting my introductory tour of HART with Jason Eames, we were on a late night Route 30 trip where the bus operator was deliberately driving the bus slow (by my estimation about 25-30mph on a 40mph road). Having never seen something like this, I asked Jason about it and he explained the aforementioned policy. Later on in my time in Tampa, I noticed other bus operators doing the same thing, while others would drive the bus at a regular pace until they arrived at a timepoint where they would stop the bus and wait until the clock said they could proceed. I also observed the same thing in Spokane while riding Spokane Transit Authority buses, though it was quite rare for it to happen there (which may be attributed to careful work by staff to develop more accurate schedules in a time of austerity measures).

When I was living in Tampa and Spokane, the concept of the “timepoint hold” seemed a bit extreme and even wasteful to me. After moving back to the Tri-Cities and riding BFT again, I’ve started to wonder if there may be something to it. The schedule is arguably the most crucial piece of information for bus riders. Whether they’re an experienced rider or a new one, it’s important to be able to know what time your bus leaves and when you’ll get to your destination, along with how long the trip will take. If the bus isn’t running within 5 minutes of that schedule, it can mean a few things. Maybe the schedule wasn’t allocated enough time and needs to be adjusted, or maybe the bus operators are traversing the route too fast and need to be asked to slow down a bit. When you’re dealing with routes that only run at 30 minute plus headways, this is especially critical. Nobody wants to be waiting outside in the hot sun or pouring rain only to find out that the bus passed by 3 minutes before they got there and now they’re stuck waiting for at least another half-hour. Even if it’s a frequent bus route (every 15 minutes or greater), a schedule is still a crucial tool to have. (You may recall earlier this year when I posted the entire schedule for Tampa’s MetroRapid North-South Line after HART neglected to do so initially).

In the future, relying on public schedules may not be such a critical issue as more and more agencies start launching real-time bus tracking apps and others starting increasing frequencies. For the time being however, we have to work on the basic issues to help attract new riders, and solving the issue of staying on schedule is probably the best place to start.


BFT’s ZEPS Electric Bus Begins Service

It’s here!

2013 Complete Coach Works ZEPS Electric Bus Photo Credit: Zachary Ziegler

2013 Complete Coach Works ZEPS Electric Bus
Photo Credit: Zachary Ziegler

After a long wait, the ZEPS Electric Bus has finally begun rolling on the streets in the Tri-Cities. Last October, I first reported that Ben Franklin Transit would be launching an all-electric battery-powered bus built by Complete Coach Works of Riverside CA. While it was supposed to begin service last year, delays in the building of the bus (mainly waiting on the batteries to arrive from China) pushed the launch back to now. The bus has actually been in the Tri-Cities since last month, but it did not go into service immediately as BFT staff needed time to familiarize themselves with the bus, as well as clear up any potential operational problems (such as low hanging branches on the routes it is running on).

On Tuesday, I just happened to be at Knight Street TC in Richland on my way home when I saw the ZEPS Electric Bus arriving as an inbound Route 26. Since I’d missed a few previous chances at PR events to see the bus, I jumped at this chance and took a ride as it ran a trip on Route 23. Along the way, I took some notes about the bus:

  • As expected, the bus is very quiet. With no diesel engine or transmission to make noise, the only sound you can hear is the hum of the electric motor and the A/C unit running.
  • When accelerating from 0mph, the bus has a bit of a rattle (imagine a bad shift on a manual transmission car). This only lasts a few seconds, and seems to be less intense when the bus operator accelerates faster.
  • 5-25mph is about the ideal speed range for the bus. Once it gets over that range, the bus starts to become more sensitive to small bumps on the road.
  • With the big battery box sitting on the roof, the bus ride is a bit stiffer. Going through corners, the bus has less “body roll,” but the suspension also strains a bit more in corners due to the added weight. The added weight also makes the bus sit a couple of inches lower, and along the way it did grind on the road a couple of times while passing through intersections in North Richland.
  • Anyone who rides a Gillig Low Floor regularly is familiar with the interior rattle, but on the ZEPS Electric Bus it is fairly muted. Once the bus gets past 25mph, you do start to hear some of those rattles though.
  • To extend the range of the bus, there is a regenerative braking system installed. The average rider won’t notice it, but a trained ear can tell when it kicks in. The transition between acceleration and regenerative braking is quite smooth, unlike the slight kick you sometimes feel on a Gillig HEV.
  • To lighten the bus up a bit, new seating was installed. Unlike the typical fully padded seats one can find in BFT’s buses (excluding ones bought used), these are ergonomic seats made of composite material. I heard multiple operators state that they were uncomfortable, but I found them perfectly fine. The floor was also redone, with the plywood subfloor replaced by a composite with a rubber flooring on top.
  • In the operators area, there are a couple noticeable changes. Where the transmission control normally sits, there is a large toggle switch and a yellow push button. On the right side of the dash, a 7-inch screen has been installed. On the screen, there are two gauges for the regenerative braking and the battery charge. While passing through the Stevens Center area, the bus operator exclaimed out loud that the bus had only used 25% of the charge. While it’s obviously an add-on to the usual Gillig Low Floor dashboard, it is molded in so it looks like it belongs there.
  • On the exterior of the bus, the most noticable change is the special livery. New LED headlights were also installed, and two overhead A/C units are on the roof of the bus (the usual A/C housing at the back of the bus was vacated for the electric drivetrain system).

Overall, I had pretty high expectations for the ZEPS Electric Bus and it did not disappoint. Based on what I’ve been told by BFT officials, the bus will be going into service during peak hours only for the time being. During both peak periods, it runs on a Route 23/26 interline. In the near future, there are also plans to test it on other local routes, but it will unlikely be seen on any intercity routes.

My recommendation to anyone who has the chance to take a ride on the ZEPS Electric Bus is to do so. As I’ve said before, this very well may be a small step into the future of public transportation.

More ZEPS Electric Buses On The Way?

Back in October, I first reported on the BFT Electric Bus Demonstration project. Since that time, there have been some updates. Perhaps the biggest and most important is that the ZEPS Electric Bus was finally delivered on the evening of May 13th. Am I late in reporting this? You bet. However, I was trying to hold off on writing a post about this until I had a chance to get a close up look at the ZEPS Electric Bus and take some photos. However, after last night’s BFT board meeting, I figured I needed to share the latest update to this project, because it is a big deal.

After word got around about what Ben Franklin Transit was doing, other agencies got interested. Rather rapidly, a consortium of interested agencies formed, and now an application for a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Grant has been submitted. Officially submitted on June 3rd, the application is submitted under the name “US Bus – National Long Range Electric Bus Deployment Partnership.” BFT is the lead agency on this proposal, but there are quite a few partner agencies:

  • CALSTART (Pasadena CA)*
  • Clallam Transit (Port Angeles WA)
  • Washington State Department of Transportation (Olympia WA)**
  • Berks Area Regional Transportation Authority [BARTA] (Reading PA)
  • Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District [Santa Cruz Metro] (Santa Cruz CA)
  • Lane Transit District (Eugene OR)
  • East Contra Costa Transit Authority [Tri-Delta Transit] (Antioch CA)
  • Indianapolis Public Transportation Corporation [IndyGo] (Indianapolis IN)
  • OmniTrans (San Bernardino CA)
  • Gardena Municipal Bus Lines (Gardena CA)***
  • New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (New York NY)
  • Kansas City International Airport (Kansas City MO)

* – CALSTART was the grantee of the funds for the original BFT Zeps Electric Bus
** – WSDOT is acting as a steward for rural agencies in WA, will distribute buses to 4-5 agencies
*** – Gardena Municipal Bus Lines runs the demonstration ZEPS Electric Bus built by Complete Coach Works

Included in the TIGER Grant application are letters of support from all the participating agencies, along with letters of support from Senator Richard D. Roth (31st District CA), Michael Kluse (Director of Pacific Northwest National Labratory), Joseph K. Lyou, Ph.D. (President and CEO of Coalition for Clean Air), and Larry Rubio (CEO of Riverside Transit Agency).

Between all the different agencies, the proposal is for 41 buses to be built. All agencies (not counting CALSTART) will be providing at least 2 buses to be rebuilt as ZEPS Electric Buses. The grant funds will pay for the installation of charging stations and subsidize operating costs, with each agency providing their own local match. As the lead agency in this project, BFT will also be adding some additional infrastructure. The most noticeable part will be the installation of a solar array above the bus yard, which will be used to power the electric charging stations (this will be the 1st in the US, 5th internationally). BFT will also be working in collaboration with Columbia Basin College (CBC) to develop the “US Zero Emission Bus Center of Excellence,” which will be a resource and training/research center for agencies across the country.

While the participating agencies are only “ankle-deep” into this project at this point, I think the likelihood of this TIGER Grant being approved is highly likely. If it is approved, it will be a game changer for all the participating agencies, but especially for lead agency Ben Franklin Transit. For all we know, this may be just a small first step into the future of transit.

UPDATE 9/5/13: The final list of TIGER grant awards for 2013 has been released today, and sadly this project was not on the list. Looking back on it, there are several possible reasons as to why the “US Bus – National Long Range Electric Bus Deployment Partnership” was not selected. For starters, if approved it would have been the largest TIGER grant this year, at over $39 million. (There have only been 12 grants over that amount in the history of the TIGER program, 11 in 2009 and 1 in 2010.) Also, the multitude of agencies involved in this grant application may have been an issue, as there is not a whole lot of precedence for multiple agencies/jurisdictions in the TIGER program. All past TIGER grants that did involve multiple agencies/jurisdictions were neighbors and shared a common interest, such as the Mississippi River Bridges ITS application in 2011 that involved Mississippi, Arkansas, and Lousiana, or the Memorial Bridge Replacement application in Portsmouth NH and Kittery ME from 2010. Finally, it is worth noting that the most successful TIGER grants have a lot of local and financial support, and it’s not very clear if this consortium of agencies had that. It’s assumed that all the involved agencies accepted the proposed costs of this plan, but some of them may not have had the money budgeted away for a local match. As noted in this post originally, this consortium formed rather rapidly before the June 3rd application deadline, so there wasn’t much time to drum up major support for this project.

Even though this project will not be happening, there still is good news to come out of today’s final list of TIGER grants. Previously unknown to myself or fellow blogger Curt Ailes at Urban Indy, IndyGo (the local transit agency in Indianapolis) applied for and was awarded $10 million for at least 22 electric buses. The official press release explains more about the project:

INDIANAPOLIS (September 5, 2013) – This morning, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced the award of $10M in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) funds to IndyGo, the public transit agency for Indianapolis, Indiana. The highly competitive grant program prioritizes transportation projects that have significant impact on outcomes relating to state of good repair, economic competitiveness, livability, environmental sustainability and safety of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. The award of these funds will allow IndyGo to recondition and repower upwards of 22 transit vehicles, employing a zero-emissions electric propulsion system.

“As a strong proponent of improving transit for Hoosiers, I was glad to lend my support to this effort,” said Congressman André Carson. “Recycling used buses to make them fully electric will save us money, reduce waste, energy consumption and dependence on foreign oil, and maintain a quality transit system for years to come.”

The 22 remanufactured electric propulsion transit buses will be completely rebuilt to like-new condition with a zero-emissions drive system and will cost approximately $555,000 each, comparable to a brand new diesel bus. In addition to the cost to rebuild and repower the vehicles, the grant also funds necessary charging stations at the IndyGo facility and the Transit Center, which is set to open in late 2015.

“Today’s announcement of the TIGER grant award supports our city’s goal to reduce dependence on foreign oil,” said Greg Ballard, Mayor of Indianapolis. “By introducing zero emission, post-oil technology public transit buses, we’re making another successful leap in the right direction.”

The new electric buses will have a range of approximately 100 miles and will provide the equivalent of 16 MPG, quadruple the energy efficiency of a conventional diesel bus. The 22 new electric vehicles will be used on routes that are compatible with the range limitations and will allow IndyGo to retire some of its older buses.

“IndyGo is thrilled to have the opportunity to be on the leading edge of the transit industry with the project,” said Michael terry, IndyGo President and CEO. “We’re always investigating innovative ways to refresh our fleet and use technology to build capacity with the limited funds that are available to operate vital transit services.”

For project updates and other news, visit

While not spelled out in the press release, it is clearly apparent that these will be ZEPS Electric Buses built by Complete Coach Works. For a refresher, this is same type of electric bus that Ben Franklin Transit is currently running and the same type that the consortium of agencies was going to use. While I am disappointed that we won’t be seeing more ZEPS Buses in the Tri-Cities (or at least not yet), it is quite exciting to see other agencies taking the plunge and investing in this type of electric bus. This is a big deal for Complete Coach Works, as this will be the first multi-bus order of the ZEPS Bus. As previously mentioned before, there are only two ZEPS Buses in existence currently, one operating as a demonstration unit and sometimes part of the Gardena Municipal Bus Lines fleet while the bus at BFT is the first official production unit. The demonstration unit made an appearance at the APTA Conference earlier this year in Indianapolis, which likely sold officials at IndyGo on the technology. Based on the positive reception that the ZEPS Bus has received here in the Tri-Cities, I think it’ll do quite well in Indianapolis.

BFT Electric Bus Demonstration

Zero Emission Propulsion System (ZEPS) Bus

As part of an initiative to be an innovator in green technology, Ben Franklin Transit will be participating in a demonstration project of an all-electric bus this year. Teaming up with Complete Coach Works of Riverside CA, the project will be funded with a grant for $750,000 that CalSTART (Pasendena CA), received. (It’s unclear who the grant is from.)

The Zero Emission Propulsion System (ZEPS) Bus is perhaps one of the most promising electric-powered buses to be developed yet. Promising a MPGe of 16.04, the bus is powered with a 180kw electric motor rated at 241hp. For batteries, the ZEPS Bus uses Lithium-Iron Phosphate batteries, which have many benefits, including longer cycle life, slower rate of capacity loss, more chemically stable, and less susceptible to overheating/igniting. With a range of 120-150 miles, the ZEPS Bus comes closer to equally the range of similar diesel buses than any other electric bus built before. The bus is also capable of running at highway speeds and powering an A/C unit while in motion.

Unlike most electric buses, the ZEPS Bus is not built completely from scratch. Using pre-existing buses that have already been carrying passengers, CCW rebuilds the bus and replaces the diesel engine/transmission with the ZEPS Bus drivetrain system. For the BFT Zeps Bus, the unit being rebuilt is #248, a 2005 Gillig 40′ Low Floor. #248 had been recently damaged in an accident in Richland and was already undergoing restoration at a facility in Las Vegas, so the timing of the ZEPS Bus project works out quite well. The rebuild of #248 into a ZEPS Bus is extensive enough that it will be issued a new VIN number and title. In regards to facilities, no major modifications will be needed beyond a charging station to be installed at BFT’s base. CCW states that it takes 6 hours to fully recharge the ZEPS Bus batteries, so it will be able to charge overnight and remain in service for most if not all of the service day.

According to CCW’s calculations, a single ZEPS Bus can remove 204 short tons of greenhouse gases per year when coupled with 100% renewable energy generation, and can save an agency $330,000 over 7 years in fuel and maintenance costs. With the Tri-Cities having hydro, solar, wind, and nuclear energy sources all in the immediate vicinity of the metro, the ZEPS Bus will easily be a 100% green technology initiative. Previously, BFT has done a demonstration of biodiesel in their entire fleet, and have had their new administration building certified as LEED Gold.

BFT staff have stated that the ZEPS Bus is set to debut sometime towards late fall or the end of the year. CCW was able to build the prototype ZEPS Bus in just 10 days, so there doesn’t seem to be too much of a risk of delays. Once the ZEPS Bus goes officially into service, I plan to head down to the Tri-Cities and check it out, as well as get some photos.

Transit and Social Media

(I originally published this post on August 21st 2011, but then later deleted it on September 7th 2011. Since the original publishing of this post, Ben Franklin Transit has expressed little to no interest in continuing a social media presence.)

What is the best way for a transit agency to connect with its customers?

Sure, advertising always works. Or at least it used to. Nowadays, we live in the era of free wi-fi at Starbucks and DVR’s, where people want what they want, when they want it.

A large number of agencies have started turning to a new method of advertising: Social Media. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube… you name it, there’s an agency that’s using it.

For some agencies, it’s just a simple presence with a Facebook fan page, regularly updated with news, route changes, and special events. Other agencies really take it to the next level, with a Twitter account that is monitored 24/7, with someone always behind the helm to provide up to the moment updates about temporary reroutes, buses running late, and always answer any questions from riders without delay.

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Epic Transit Journey – The Columbia Basin to the Yakima Valley to the Kittitas Valley

(If you’re new to the blog, I recommend reading my post on the last Epic Transit Journey I took.)

Earlier this week, I shared the news about a brand new bus route linking the cities of Yakima and Ellensburg (click the link to see the schedule and map at the end of the post). Since its way more fun to actually ride the bus and see it in person instead of just writing about it, I decided I would go ride it. But to make it more interesting, I decided that I would ride the bus to the bus. (Get it?) The following is a recap of everything that happened, along some photos I took along the way.

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September 2011 Service Change

To effectively service it’s region, transit agencies often have to make revisions and changes to it’s routes. That’s what Ben Franklin Transit will be doing in September.

The following changes are scheduled to occur:

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An Introduction…

So this blog will make more sense, I figured it would be best to give some info as to what I’m going to be talking about.

The main focus of this blog is going to be a public transit agency called Ben Franklin Transit, which serves the municipalities of the Tri-Cities, Washington. Most service is structured around the 3 main cities of the region; Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland, but also serves West Richland, Benton City, Prosser, and Finley. In total, there are 24 different bus routes, 19 running as “Local” and 5 running as “Intercity” service. To run these routes,  Ben Franklin Transit employs a fleet of 80 buses, mainly consisting of Gillig Phantoms and Advantage/Low Floors, but also some Optima Opus and MCI 102-B3/D3-SS coaches.

Operating since May 1982, Ben Franklin Transit now has about 253 employees, from coach operators to mechanics to administration personnel, all essential to continue smooth operation of the agency. There are also 2 local companies (A+ Transportation and TC Transportation Service/A-1 Tri-City Taxi) employed by BFT via contract to further increase available service to the residents of the Tri-Cities area. In recent years, Ben Franklin Transit was hit by the decline of sales tax revenue and ended up having to make some tough choices by cutting personnel levels, deferring improvements, and eliminating routes. As the nation starts to reemerge from the “Great Recession” revenue has improved a little but it’s still going to take time to get back to pre-recession levels.

Beyond talking about Ben Franklin Transit, I also plan to focus on happenings at other transit agencies in the region, including Valley Transit (of Walla Walla, WA), Yakima Transit, Spokane Transit Authority, and others. Another subject that’ll come up on occasion is the “Epic Transit Journey” movement. In short, an Epic Transit Journey is seeing how far one can travel via public transportation, often away from the beaten path.

So, that’s that. Welcome one and all to the blog, hope you enjoy!