Watts up? Hills stump new electric buses

Cape Town finds Chinese vehicles lack pep as it awaits result of tender inquiry

12 August 2018 - 00:00 By PHILANI NOMBEMBE

SA's first electric buses face an unexpected obstacle in the mountainous Mother City: hills. Cape Town councillors heard this week that the 11 buses in a R128m pilot project could not handle many of the inclines.
"The buses are required to be able to achieve 60km/h on a 4% gradient. The performance has not been met," councillors were told. "Tests are under way to increase the power to drive motors."
The buses were ordered for the MyCiTi bus rapid transit fleet, and are due to be evaluated as alternatives to their diesel cousins on the N2 Express route. This includes Hospital Bend, with a gradient of 6.5%.
The mechanical problem with the buses, manufactured by BYD of China, comes on top of a forensic probe after allegations that mayor Patricia de Lille and senior city officials set up meetings with BYD before the company clinched the deal.Suspended transport commissioner Melissa Whitehead was also implicated in the alleged irregularities. The outcome of the probe - by law firm Bowmans - is still outstanding, and De Lille has repeatedly denied the allegations against her.
The buses for the pilot project have been assembled on chassis imported from BYD, in the industrial area of Blackheath, and are parked there, emblazoned with "zero emissions" logos.
To accommodate the unmet "specification issue", councillors were told in documents that "funds will be rolled over in the August 2018 adjustments budget".
But Steven Chang, BYD's deputy GM for the Middle East and Africa, told the Sunday Times all was in order.
"The buses built for the City of Cape Town did meet the specifications, and the city did arrange a road test to verify performance," he said in an e-mail.
"Our understanding is this is just a normal process like our other customers did. Buses were signed off by the city officials after the successful road tests. Once the city starts to operate these buses, we would like to invite you to take a trial. You will have a much better feeling compared to diesel buses - quiet, nice-looking and no toxic smells."City of Cape Town spokesperson Priya Reddy said the city could take delivery only once the investigation of the tender was completed.
Asked about the specifications given to BYD, Reddy said: "The specifications called for battery-powered low-entry buses of 12m nominal length and a minimum range of 200km between charging, as well as depot-charging equipment. The specification was based on the city's.
MyCiTi bus specifications, but modified to incorporate an electric motor and battery-powered drive.
"The specifications also set out certain performance criteria such as range, speed on grades and maximum battery-charging time. Further, minimum local production and content values with respect to the manufacture of bus bodies was specified."
Bheki Hadebe, the ANC chief whip in the city's transport portfolio committee, described the revelation that the buses cannot cope with many of the city's hills as "shocking and surprising".
He added: "Another thing that we have raised, sharply, was [that] the procurement of these buses be put on hold pending the investigation into this tender.
"We have not received feedback on that investigation. We are concerned that by the time the investigators' report is tabled before us the buses will have been delivered to the city. It will then be difficult for us to reverse the process should the finding confirm that there [are] irregularities and bias in the procurement process."Deputy mayor Ian Neilson said Bowmans was still investigating. "I think they were due to report to us this month but my latest information is that it has been delayed. I don't have a date yet."
In August 2015, according to city documents, council contract manager Sidney Pretorius wrote to MyCiTi manager John Martheze saying: "We are in the process of facilitating procurement of electric buses from BYD." This was five months before the deadline for tenders.
The agenda drawn up for a visit to Cape Town the following month by two BYD executives, AD Huang and Brian Li, included a meeting with De Lille and the items "detailed finalisation of specifications", "finalise and conclude business agreement" and "confirmation of roll-out times".
The council accepted BYD's tender for the buses in August 2016, rejecting bids from GridCars, Zest WEG Electric, Marcopolo SA and Real African Works Industries.

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