Hydrogen buses come to Champaign-Urbana public transport

CHAMPAIGN – Sunlight and water power two new buses in the Champaign-Urbana transit district fleet.

Champaign-Urbana is one of the first transport agencies in the country to adopt zero-emission hydrogen buses.

“I have always been a huge fan of science fiction,” said district general manager Karl Gnadt. “Now, it’s not quite Star Trek-level technology. But it’s on the way to Star Trek-level tech.

The Champaign-Urbana (MTD) public transport district unveiled the two hydrogen fuel cell buses with great fanfare last week. More than a hundred people, including state and federal leaders, gathered in a white tent at MTD’s maintenance station on Thursday.

Federal Transit Administration Director Nuria Fernandez speaks at the unveiling of the zero-emission buses on Thursday, October 14. Emily Hays / Illinois Newsroom

Federal Transport Administration official Nuria Fernandez stepped onto the podium to congratulate the public transport agency for paving the way for other bus systems.

“MTD is definitely at the forefront because it will only emit water vapor instead of greenhouse gases and this is what is leading the way in the fight against climate change,” Fernandez said.

Hydrogen fuel cells divide hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. Electrons provide an electric current and eventually join together with protons and other oxygen molecules to become water.

This technology laden with chemical equations has been around in cars since the 1960s, with a more recent revival in the 1990s. Hydrogen fuel cell buses are slightly newer and exist mainly in California and abroad.

Although often hailed as a green technology, hydrogen energy is not necessarily zero or low emissions. In fact, most of the hydrogen comes from the extraction of natural gas, which releases greenhouse gases.

Champaign-Urbana is among the few places with a truly zero emission process. The transit agency has its own electrolyser, a device that separates water into hydrogen and oxygen using solar energy.

Millions and billions for transit

The creation of MTD’s new buses and gasoline pump required significant sums of government money, including $ 1.45 million in 2018 from the Low-Emission or Zero-Emission Bus Program (Low- No.) of the Federal Transit Administration.

The investment is well worth it, US Senator Dick Durbin told the crowd gathered at MTD.

“These buses could cost a bit more to start with. But in the long run, they cost less to maintain, less to charge, and are certainly more environmentally friendly, ”said Durbin.

Durbin took a moment in his speech to promote President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill. This bill would include $ 5.25 billion for the low- or zero-emission bus program over a three-year period, well above the totals for previous years.

Other Illinois transit authorities, including those in Chicago, Rock Island County and Peoria, have secured Low-No program grants since Champaign-Urbana’s victory. These other districts either specified that they would buy battery-electric buses – the more common cousins ​​of hydrogen buses – or did not specify the type of electric bus.

U.S. Representative Rodney Davis (R-Taylorville) also spoke at the event as a rare Republican who is passionate about public transportation.

“What we are seeing here today is exactly why the United States of America is leading the way and making sure that we are reducing our carbon footprint and our emissions in this country,” Davis said.

They hire

At the same time as MTD deploys a potential bus of the future, its operations are lagging behind due to a problem of the present – the COVID-19 worker shortage.

The Champaign-Urbana public transport district has approximately 30 open positions. Every day, 20 additional drivers are absent for reasons related to COVID-19. Karl Gnadt of MTD said a driver may have caught COVID or have a family member sick.

“Sometimes the kid has tested positive in his class, so he walks away. Then they have to stay at home with their child. It’s a myriad of different reasons that can be tangential to COVID, ”Gnadt said.

The district has seen a higher number of retirements this year and a lower number of job applicants. This is a situation that can be observed across the county with various employers. Closer to home, Danville Mass Transit has also reported a shortage of drivers, leading to service cuts.

MTD is recruiting slowly to fill in the gaps. Gnadt said the agency must strike a balance between keeping veteran drivers on their routes and the need to remove them to train new hires.

In the meantime, buses on the district’s more frequent routes – typically around the University of Illinois campus – come a little less frequently. The wait time between buses has been reduced from 10 minutes to 15 minutes, Gnadt said.

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