De Lijn: ‘Emission-free bus driving in cities by 2025 not feasible’
It is not feasible to have buses from De Lijn drive completely emission-free in city centers by 2025, as the Flemish government wants. That is what Ann Schoubs, the director-general of the Flemish public transport company, said on Thursday in the Mobility Committee of the Flemish Parliament.
The problem is not so much the number of emission-free buses that need to be purchased, but rather the challenges involved. “I stand by the target,” Flemish Mobility Minister Lydia Peeters (Open Vld) responded. “I think we should remain ambitious.”
“In the current context, completely emission-free driving, 100%, in the city centers by 2025 does not seem entirely realistic to us today,” said Ann Schoubs. “The plan has been drawn up to do this as much as possible; we will achieve 75 to 89% nitrogen reduction in the city centers.” The CO2 emissions of the buses would fall by 41% (for the whole of Flanders) by 2025.
Completely emission-free driving in the city centers by 2025 would mean that 70% of the fleet – or 2 550 buses – would have to be emission-free by then. That high percentage has to do with “the nature of the network,” says Schoubs. Many buses on regional lines also pass through city centers and, therefore, also need to be made emission-free.
Schoubs emphasizes that “e-hybrid buses” are, therefore, also necessary as an interim solution. This mainly concerns the longer, articulated buses, which cannot drive far enough on electric power alone. The e-hybrids would then drive electrically when passing through city centers and switch to diesel when not used. Later, they can be converted to fully electric vehicles.
Conversion of the depots
The problem is not so much the number of emission-free buses that need to be purchased, but rather the challenges involved. An international market survey carried out by De Lijn last year in the Netherlands, Germany, and Norway, among other countries, revealed that the conversion of the depots required more resources than the purchase and commissioning of the e-buses themselves. “Buying buses is not the problem. The problem lies in getting those buses to run,” Schoubs says.
Therefore, placing, connecting, and testing the charging infrastructure at the depots is a critical element. That is why De Lijn initially chose to deploy the first 62 e-buses from an order of 200 e-buses in the course of 2023 in the technically least complex depots in Kortrijk, Destelbergen (near Ghent), and Genk-Winterslag.
3,9 to 5,2 billion euros
De Lijn also provided an updated estimate of the cost of fully electrifying De Lijn throughout Flanders by 2035. The transport company estimates those costs at 3,9 to 5,2 billion euros. The largest part of the investments would go to new buses (around 2,6 billion euros). The biggest uncertain factor is the cost of equipping the depots for e-buses: between 870 million and almost 2,2 billion euros.
“The cost of electrification represents an increase in investment resources compared with the current scenario (with diesel and hybrid buses) of some 70%,” says Schoubs. “In an average scenario, this corresponds to about 2,5 billion euros extra investment over a period of fifteen years,” added De Lijn chairman Marc Descheemaecker in committee. Or an average of 166 million euros per year.
De Lijn is asking the Flemish government for a stable long-term financial commitment to make the implementation of greening possible. If all goes well, by 2035, there would be 3 430 e-buses driving around in Flanders, accounting for 675 000 emission-free kilometers per day, notes the Belga press agency.
The opposition already reacted with surprise, or “baffled” in the words of PVDA member Jos D’Haese, to announce that the 2025 target is unachievable for De Lijn. “Quite hallucinatory” was also the opinion of Els Robeyns (sp.a).
“This reads like one big political blunder file. An ambitious objective is written into a coalition agreement that the minister has maintained for one and a half years is perfectly feasible at the cost of 1,3 billion euros. Now De Lijn is puncturing this balloon and saying that it is not realistic, neither operationally nor in terms of budget.”
“After the solar panel debacle, the nitrogen dossier, and the drought problem, the Flemish government is already hopelessly under the green bar again,” thought Green MEP, Stijn Bex.
Pressure from the minister
In a reaction, Flemish Minister of Mobility, Lydia Peeters (Open Vld), says she is sticking to the objective from the coalition agreement to have De Lijn buses drive completely emission-free in city centers by 2025 (in January, the minister also urged De Lijn to redo its homework for the tender for 200 (of 970) electric city buses).
“In December and January, I wrote several letters to the board of directors of De Lijn to step up the pace and invest in greening the fleet. We are lagging enormously compared to our neighboring countries. If they can do it, so can we. I have the impression that the message has been received well.”
More public-private partnership
The minister also admits that it has not yet been decided how to finance the fleet’s greening. De Lijn and the government are thinking of deconsolidation, whereby investments would fall outside the budget and the company would be given more financial freedom. However, Descheemaecker himself says he is “a cool lover” of the tool.
Peeters says she is open to other financing forms, such as PPP (public-private partnership) constructions. For example, the minister also wants to strengthen the role of the leaseholders, private companies that ride on behalf of De Lijn. “At the moment, they account for around 40% of the kilometers traveled. That can go up to 50%.”
According to the minister, these private companies can buy more flexibly. “There are already several leaseholders who are committed to greening and driving around with e-buses. I want to make the most of that and see how we can respond to it in the contracts with them.”