Destination Zero remains the Wright objective

Wrightbus is aiming to consolidate its reputation as a leading innovator in low emission technology at this year’s Euro Bus Expo with a new StreetDeck Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle, the first fuel-cell powered double-deck in the world.

World’s first fuel cell-powered double-deck leads Wrights charge at Euro Bus Expo. Steve Rooney reports.

The 10.9m, 64-seat show vehicle, which has already undergone trials in a shadow operation on Aberdeen’s fuel cell routes, has a Ballard FCveloCity fuel cell, a Siemens drivetrain and a 48kW traction battery pack.

Wrights Group chairman and CEO Mark Nodder says that hydrogen buses can provide a potential one-to-one swap with diesel vehicles given their 250m+ range and short depot charge overnight.

The StreetDeck FCEV has been produced as part of the EU-backed JIVE project (Joint Initiative for Hydrogen Vehicles across Europe), with Wrightbus appointed as the sole supplier of FCEV double-decks for the UK.

Three cities are earmarked to receive a total of 50 FCEVs in the project, London, Birmingham and Aberdeen.

“Working closely with key partners such as Ballard and Siemens, we have delivered another first and, in the process, given operators and the various authorities even more choice when it comes to choosing the low-carbon approach most suitable to their cities’ needs,” says William Wright, co-founder and director of Wrights Group.

The StreetDeck FCEV shares the same chassis as the EV models, with the rear module containing overnight charging, opportunity charging or fuel cell components as appropriate. The chassis offers a common platform for single- or double-deck models.

The hydrogen bus funding comes at an important time for the business which has acknowledged the tough conditions in its home markets in the past two years, with little sign of any significant upturn, according to Nodder.

Wrights produced 1,068 buses in 2017 and 290 CKD kits; the forecast for 2018 is a modest 1,000 buses. And referring to the continuing uncertainties about the impact of the Bus Services Act, Nodder adds: “My impression is that bus operators are still unnerved – it’s not an ideal backdrop for making decisions on investing in new vehicles”.

Some bright spots remain however, and Wrights’ stand at the NEC also features its latest StreetDeck HEV, one of 28 to be delivered to Translink. The show vehicle combines a hybrid drive with Wrights’ Micro Hybrid system that it claims will deliver improvements in fuel economy of up to 34 per cent, compared to a Euro 5 diesel double-deck bus.

The StreetDeck HEVs are already in operation in Leeds with Stagecoach, First Group in Sheffield and Go-Ahead in London.

The HEV concept is also available in the single-deck StreetLite with deliveries to date to First and Stagecoach in Sheffield; the later representing a particularly pleasing win for Wrights, given the close relationship that Stagecoach has with ADL.

On the international scene, Wrights continues to prosper with recently annnounced orders for Hong Kong including 150 for Kowloon Motor Bus and a further ten for sister company LongWin Bus, in addition to seven for New World First Bus and 46 for sister company City Bus.

These Hong Kong orders are all for Wright bodies on Volvo chassis, and unusually, Wrights has decided to build them in Ballymena, some of the first vehicles to be completed in its recently-acquired premises at Gracehill.

The decision to manufacture buses in the relatively high-cost location of Northern Ireland, rather than in its plant in Malaysia is perhaps a sign of the tough times for the Ballymena plant, given the challenges of the UK market, and follows redundancies earlier this year as Wrights sought to match its workforce strength to its current order book.

Other international wins include five Wrightbus-bodied Scanias for Japanese tour operator Hatobus. The vehicles include a sliding open top and Wrights expects the Japanese market to grow, given the 2019 Rugby World Cup and summer Olympics in 2020.

As well as body-on chassis (predominantly Volvo), Wrights is continuing to press its case as a complete vehicle builder overseas and currently has StreetDecks under evaluation with KMB in Hong Kong.

Wrights is also targeting opportunities in Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Chile.

The new Gracehills factory, the former home of Japan Tobacco International, was reconfigured to meet Wrights’ needs including an extended production line facility and relocation of staff and manufacturing began in January 2018 with 90 per cent of employees now transferred.

The former site at Galgorm has been retained and will be the new location for the Nu-Track operation, which is not part of the group, but shares ownership under the Wright family.

Wrights has also reorganised its top management team with a number of new directors emerging from its home-grown management development programme.

The new group business development and product development director is John McLeister, who heads up a team comprising Sam McLaren, David Barnett and Nathan Hodge.

Bryan Maybin, former group director of engineering has been recast as group technology director, alongside his role as a board member of the W-Tech in collaboration with Queens University Belfast, while David Murdoch heads up Customcare, Chris Knowles becomes managing director, Wrightbus UK & Europe, Mark Mitchell is Wrightbus International MD, Lauren Christie is commercial director, Kirsty McBride is group finance director, and Damian McGarry is the new MD of Systems Integration across the group.

Wrights’ theme for the show and the immediate future is ‘Destination Zero – the Journey Continues’, acknowledging that like the rest of the industry, the company is on a journey with a range of sometimes-competing technologies vying for attention.

“We set out a technology road map some years ago, to guide us as a company on how we would progressively develop and introduce a range of technologies that would reduce emissions and increase efficiency for bus operators,” says Nodder. “Clean diesel, ‘mild hybrids’, electric hybrid, full-electric and now fuel cell electric buses are all part of that roadmap as the journey towards zero emissions continues.”