Media event for the Coffs Harbour electric bus trial - 01/02/2021. Busways attendees: Tim Reid, Janine Crawford, Juliana Meta. Key external attendees: MP Gurmesh Singh Media event for the Coffs Harbour electric bus trial - 01/03/2021. Busways attendees: Tim Reid, Janine Crawford, Juliana Meta. Key external attendees: MP Gurmesh Singh

The NSW government’s ambitious plan to replace it’s 8000-strong fleet of diesel buses with electric vehicles has been put back five years late,  as a result of the virtually inevitable  challenges in building that many buses as well as rolling out charging stations, upgrading depots and as a result of the disruptions blamed on the pandemic.

The then minister for transport Andrew Constance made the bold promise to turn the Sydney bus fleet to a zero emission future by 2030 at a conference in 2020. The plan drew gasps form the bus industry, many of whom realised the  huge challenges that faced such an ambitious target.

Now, unsurprisingly, Mr Constance’s successors have had to pull back from the original plan and push back the deadline to 2035

NSW State Infrastructure, Cities and Active Transport minister, Rob Stokes, appearing before a budget estimates meeting in Sydney  on Tuesday and said that the government’s aspiration was now to achieve “net-zero” across the state’s bus fleet by 2035, although he said that he hoped the revised target could be achieved earlier.

Former transport minister Andrew Constance at the time described the plans to electrify the state’s entire fleet of 8000 buses by 2030, as a way to “scale up our efforts towards tackling climate change”.

To achieve the plan NSW  would have had to  replace  an average of 800 buses a year over the next decade to deliver on the promise. For those in the bus industry there was a realisation that this number far exceeded  the annual production capacity of all local body builders combined and that  the demands of other states and private operators would further restrict capacity. Combine that with the global supply chain and the restriction that placed on electric bus chassis production meant the NSW plan was more than ambitious.

The other aspect that will hold back the electric bus plan is the inability to install adequate electricity supply and charging infrastructure at depots.

So far after two years the government only has about 100 electric buses on the Sydney fleet with only an additional 200 electric buses expected by June next year, leaving only another 7700 zero emission buses to be added in the next eight years if the original plan was still to be met.

Added to that, the number of electric buses to be bought next financial year is still to be determined by the outcome of a business case, which is not expected to be handed to the government’s expenditure review committee until November.

Opposition spokesman for roads John Graham  added further to the reality of the shortfall  by pointing out that the NSW budget had committed just $218 million towards converting the diesel-powered bus fleet over the next seven years. Part of that figure would also include early work on 11 bus depots to ensure they can handle electric vehicles.

“This is just initiating the procurement process of only 1100 electric buses over the next seven years – we are well short of minister Constance’s goal,” John Graham said.

NSW Transport Minister David Elliott  last week signalled that the plan to electrify  the bus fleet would not be met, saying there was “no way in the world” the government would meet the aspirational goal set by his predecessor.

David Elliott said at the time that he didn’t know why Constance had set the target describing it as a “song and dance”, which he said had been made more difficult  because of the pandemic.

Rob Stokes said he wouldn’t criticise his former colleague Constance for setting the “bold goal”, adding that the project faced complications with batteries and charging.

In the most alarming statement Mr Stokes  said that despite the fact that it was two years since Constance announced the plan strategic work was only now being done.

“We’re now doing the strategic work and it now appears that we are going to reach the target a little later than he suggested, but that is the nature of setting up targets,” Stokes said.

“Certainly, my aspiration would be to do everything we can to get there even quicker than the revised target of 2035,” he added.,

The state’s transport agency has said that it needs to upgrade electrical services and supply before it pushes into service more zero-emission vehicles and that it has a budget of about $30 million to upgrade 11 bus depots to handle electric buses.