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On the road to electrifying America’s fleet of school buses

The iconic yellow school bus is undergoing a transformation that will save millions of tons of CO2 emissions, National Express North America is leading this change

The yellow school bus is an integral part of North American culture. Millions of families across the United States and Canada trust these vehicles to take their children safely to and from school each day. 

Gary Waits, CEO at National Express North America, says that these busses also have a role to play in making the US a more sustainable society:

“Each bus takes on average 36 cars off the road, contributing significantly to reductions in CO2 emissions, but more can be done. We are looking at cleaner fuels, cleaner technology, and we're also excited about the opportunity to electrify school buses to make further impact.”

National Express is a global transportation company, running services throughout Europe and North America. Specifically in North America, the company provides transportation services to children between their homes and schools.

Waits says that while these buses are contributing to carbon reduction, there is more that can be done, and he is determined to find improvements:

“Even though having a school transportation system already makes a sizable impact, we can look at the bus itself and ask how we can make it cleaner and more sustainable for the environment. With the advances in electrifying vehicles, that's the perfect option.”

The schedule of the school bus lends itself to electrification, with a two-hour period of work in the morning, time to recharge during the day and a further two-hour work period at the end. The low mileage and stop-start nature of routes are also ideal for electric vehicles. 

There are, however, a few obstacles on the road to electrification. Carina Noble, Senior Vice President of Communications and External Affairs at National Express North America, says that two challenges need to be addressed:

“First is vehicle availability: demand right now has outpaced supply. We've also got to work on some infrastructure challenges and work with all of the different utilities that manage the power grids in the cities in which we operate.”

 The big issue, says Waits, is scale:

“If you've got three buses on a lot, that's not a problem. But if you have 50, where and how are they going to charge? The delivery of electricity must be robust enough to give you enough of what you need. You also need technology to control the charging so that you've got enough range to deliver the service.”

As Nick Voisard, Senior Director of Electric Vehicles at National Express North America, explains, electrification in itself is not enough if the electricity itself does not come from green sources:

“The challenge with our current power grid system is that it's not fully clean: we use several different types of fuels which need to be transitioned to greener renewable energies. Further, the whole system needs to be updated to handle the additional power required for electric vehicles.”

Funding is a challenge, as electric vehicles can cost up to three times as much as a diesel bus. Noble says that this is a challenge for companies and school districts - but there are positive signs that are encouraging a faster pace of change:

“The US and the Canadian governments both have put dollars forward for electrification. States have as well, and sometimes local communities. But it is a tedious task pulling all of those pieces of the puzzle together.”

Fortunately, National Express is partnering with bus manufacturers and technology providers who are motivated to overcome these challenges. Voisard says:

“Every day when a child gets on an electric school bus, they're going to be healthier because of the choices that our company has made to improve their world.”

Noble says that the impending changes are an opportunity for the company’s leaders to think big and be ambitious about creating a better world:

“Our industry will change more in the next few years than it has in the past few decades, giving us a greater opportunity to have a stronger environmental benefit. I'm excited about the future of what we'll be able to accomplish. We want to make sure that we're making a meaningful impact in the communities in which we serve, beyond getting the kids to school.”

Waits believes National Express cannot afford to miss out on the chance to lead this change:

“We get this rare opportunity to do the right thing for the company, community, the environment, and for long term sustainability. To be a leader in this energizes all of us and gets us excited to go to work every day. For me as a father, to help solve this problem in some small part for my children and grandchildren is exciting and really motivating.”

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