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Meet the New Bus

Metro unveils new Richmond Highway Express buses with greener engines, better seating.

More of the 3,225 people on average who ride the Richmond Highway Express (REX) bus line every day are going to be staring straight ahead, instead of out the rear window or at the face of the person across from them. Metro is replacing its old Orion buses on the route with versions that have more forward-facing seats. But the biggest change will be beneath the seats and in the atmosphere.

Metro is rolling out twelve new buses in the next few weeks. Several are already on the road. The new buses run on compressed natural gas (CNG), rather than the low-sulfur diesel of the older buses.

Bob Golden, the Metro’s Manager of Bus Engineering, said the CNG buses produce only 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions that a standard diesel bus would.

The two-year old REX route, an express running from King Street Station down to Fort Belvoir, is currently one of Metro’s most popular, said Steve Petrocelli, Acting General Superintendent for Bus Transportation. And the new buses are coming at a time when ever-higher rider numbers are predicted. “We think it will become more popular with the [Fort Belvoir] base realignment,” Petrocelli said.

Petrocelli said the three most heavily used stops are Huntington Station, Beacon Center and Walmart. Rides cost $1.25.

THOUGH OIL PRICES are rising, the decision to switch to compressed natural gas was not made for economic reasons. The price of natural gas has actually overtaken diesel, according to Golden. “We feel it is worth the additional cost to provide these environmentally friendly buses,” Golden explained.

“Ridership is so high right now we’re hoping that will offset some of [the added fuel costs],” Petrocelli said.

Golden said the Metro’s next generation of buses are of three types: CNG, hybrid electric and clean-technology diesel. Petrocelli said the decision to make the REX fleet CNG was based on the wishes of the Virginia representatives of the Metro Board.

Petrocelli said the fleet of REX buses was ordered several years ago, when hybrid technologies were still immature, and Metro did not think it would be prudent to place a large order of them.

Both types of buses are believed to be about equal in their greenhouse gas emissions, Golden said. CNG buses are cheaper individually than hybrids, but require a retrofit to their garage that can cost between $12 and $20 million. CNG buses in Virginia will use the Four Mile Run refueling station.

CLEANER ENGINES are not the only upgrades to the new buses. Each is equipped with an automated monitoring system programmed to send a report to the fueling station when the bus is about 1,000 feet away. If the bus is okay, a green symbol appears on a screen at the station. If it needs maintenance, but can continue to run, a yellow symbol appears. If the bus needs to be taken out of circulation immediately, the symbol is red.

The buses also talk. If the bus needs service, it will complain of its condition while being refueled, according to Golden.

The biggest change riders of the new bus may notice will be the removal of rear-facing seats in the back, and a decrease in the number of side-facing seats. Golden said they expect this to be popular. Riders had complained of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and facing backwards. The initial REX buses were some of the first of that type manufactured by Orion, Golden said. To maximize space, some awkward places, like the rearward facing seats, had to be built in. The new bus has slimmer seats that are still comfortable but less padded. They are also less susceptible to vandalism. Cutting them will only leave a slice, not a surge of stuffing. Total seat numbers will bump up from 38 to 41.

There are also acoustic sensors by the doors to keep them from closing on people, larger windows, more reliable air conditioning and security cameras. The graphics on the sides of the bus are painted on, instead of wrapped like an enormous decal, which means they will be more durable and less likely to scratch. The drivers have also been thrown a bone. Their pedals are now adjustable, so they don’t have to pull the seat forward to the point that their bellies are rubbing against the steering wheel.

All of the changes were carefully premeditated. “Since this was a premium service route we wanted to give [customers] a real comfortable ride,” Golden said.

ANNA GARCIA and Maria Huarcaya said they use the REX frequently to connect to the 9A route. They sat down in some of the new REX bus’s forward-facing seats. “It’s good,” pronounced Garcia. Huarcaya concurred.

Treva Barksdale, who also said she rode REX frequently, said the interior of the old bus was “dull” and “dreary.” She said she did not like the sideways seats that dominated the old version. “I like looking forward,” she said.

But Barksdale was concerned about the potential for the fuzzy seat-covers of the new version to absorb spills. Petrocelli assured her they were stain-resistant.

“It’s a very nice bus,” said Barksdale after being shown all the new features for passengers. “I like it.” When told it was environmentally friendly, she replied “Well that’s the best thing.”