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The Brandon School Division covers a large area in Manitoba, stretching from the Shilo military base in the east to Highway 21 near Sioux Valley in the west – some 1,300 sq. kms. For Ron Harkness, supervisor of transportation, that translates into 34 buses transporting up to 3,000 students daily.
In a region where wind chills can reach minus 50, you might think cold starts would be a big challenge. And they were, until about 2014, when the district became one of Manitoba’s early adopters of propane buses.
“We started exploring a switch to propane probably in the fall of 2013,” says Ron. “We used a demo bus and put it through some severe cold trials. It performed exemplarily. Now we’ve been using it for about eight years,” with 28 of the 34 buses currently running on propane.
“Certainly, we’ve seen a greater reliability with cold starts, and greater comfort in the cold with buses heating up more quickly and staying warm compared to diesel,” he says. “Starting up with a minus 50 windchill, you wouldn’t get that with a diesel bus. In the past, we had 30 to 40 per cent of buses not starting in extreme cold weather.”
Ron says drivers have been “very positive” about the switch to propane, for a multitude of reasons – from the warmth and easy start to the reliability of starting and reduced noise.
“Today we had a minus 47 windchill,” he says. “One of the drivers was wearing short sleeves. The students were asking him to turn the heat down… That’s the kind of heat it generates.”
That comfort on the ride to school is a priority for both parents and the school district. “Comfort of the passengers was a big concern when we first changed. It’s so important that the kids start out the day on a positive note because that will carry out throughout their day. Buses are part of that. It’s one of the unseen benefits that is hard to put a dollar figure on, but it’s certainly there.”
Health reasons were another impetus for the change. “We have a central yard where all our buses are parked,” says Ron. “Having all those diesel buses starting up in cold weather together caused a diesel fog, which is not healthy at all. We have a huge increase in air quality now with the size of the propane fleet we have.”