Whistler's five-year experiment with hydrogen fuel cell buses comes to an end roughly seven months from now.
There's no doubt the riding public agreed with the proposition to go with green transit. We're a green town. Let's give it a try. Hydrogen fuel cells are two to three times more energy efficient than traditional gas and diesel engines. The allure of the hydrogen buses was strong. Whistler's previous fleet of fossil-fuel guzzlers were "held together with duct tape and string," according to Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.
We'll take 20, please.
We can be forgiven for accepting the marketing strategy of timing of the demonstration with the 2010 Olympics. Adopting the world's largest fleet of hydrogen fuel-cell buses was good press for Whistler, B.C. and Canada.
Again, we said, let's give it a go.
But as we near the end of this project it appears the "go" is what's missing from the analysis. Too often the buses are stopped.
BC Transit doesn't hide from the statistic that hydrogen vehicles require maintenance every 3,000 kilometres, compared to every 5,000 kilometres with conventional engines, nor that the maintenance costs are also much higher by a factor of almost 40 per cent, and climbing.
But owning up to the numbers still doesn't address the real issue, the actual reliability of these buses and the impact they are having on the community.
Ten of the 20 hydrogen vehicles required repairs in the last week alone.
BC Transit called the chain of pit stops an anomaly, which may be the case, but looking forward no one can be certain.
In the event of a mechanical anomaly, on a good day a rider might experience a minor delay as the driver races 'round to the back of the bus to reset the battery. On a bad day, the bus might break down completely, requiring the dispatch of a Whistler Transit shuttle to get riders to their destination.
Anomalies or not, breakdowns like this impact the residents who can least afford it. They pay exorbitant rents and shell out for over-priced food. Part of what's left goes to the predictably expensive bus ride into town — $2.50 one way.
To be clear, every party involved in this project understood the challenges before jumping in. BC Transit spokesperson Meribeth Burton clarified that by saying:
“BC Transit takes innovation really seriously, it’s one of our core values, and we knew going into this with an untested product, in that we’re the world’s largest fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses, that there’d be a learning curve.,” she said. “We’ve learned a great deal about the technology but I don’t know that when you’re doing any kind of demonstration like this that you can be truly prepared for what’s ahead, because you’re leading the industry.”
It's fair to say everyone wanted to lead in this arena, including the municipality and residents. The province will decide the future of Whistler's fleet by March 31, but it's the riders themselves who will feel the impact. The community needs to ask itself if it wants to be part of an experiment, help push this technology to its next stage, or simply be content with reliable public transportation.
The RMOW's council representative on the municipality’s Transit Management Advisory Committee, Jack Crompton, said it best recently by praising the project, but adding the committee is most interested in a cost-effective solution "that helps our community get from point to point."
After all, getting from A to B, and being on time for work, is sometimes preferable to championing an eco-friendly transportation revolution.