Going for a ride on Revelstoke’s new electric school bus

Mountaineer staff took a ride on Revelstoke School District 19's new electric school bus, driven by long-time school bus operator Sonia Cinelli.

Revelstoke School District 19 newest edition to the school bus fleet, a 76-passenger electric school bus. Photo: Nora Hughes

The jangle of chains and a low hum were the only sounds heard as Revelstoke School District 19’s new electric bus pulled up.

Sonia Cinelli, a long-time bus driver for the district and real-life embodiment of Ms. Frizzle,  welcomes us aboard. For many of the school board staff, this is their first time riding the electric bus.

“I’m a little eccentric, I guess you could say,” says Cinelli. “Kids love to call me on my route Miss Frizzle. I own up to that quite a bit. Especially on Halloween.”

Sonia Cinelli will operate the new electric bus on her Arrow Heights route. Photo: Nora Hughes

We settle in as the bus silently lurches away from the station and emits an electronic hum as it accelerates. Cinelli says the sound is an added feature so you can hear the bus coming; otherwise, it would be completely silent.

All of the district’s drivers underwent special training paid for by the Association of School Transportation Services of B.C. for the new bus, but Cinelli will be its primary operator.

“You don’t really hear it,” Cinelli says at the start of our ride. “You’re gonna hear the jingle and the jangle of our drop-down chains more than anything as we go along for a little

The chains resemble mop heads and extend at the push of a button when the driver needs extra traction; they’re called on-spot chains.

About the bus

An electric bus costs $394,000, a higher price than a normal diesel bus, which costs around $190,000.

School Secretary-Treasurer, Bruce Tisdale, says the Ministry of Education and the Provincial School District Bussing Association encouraged school districts to give electric buses a try and helped secure third-party grants as an incentive. The ministry also helped fund the installation of a charging station.

“It’s going to cost us about [$20,000 to $24,000] more out of our own pockets than a regular bus would,” Tisdale explains. “But it’s reduced operating cost, and the maintenance is about 80% less than a regular bus.”

Tisdale estimates that the maintenance reduction is equivalent to $8,000-$10,000 annually, meaning the district will recoup the cost of the bus in two to three years.

The bus has three sections of batteries stored underneath the centre aisle and a 20-litre diesel fuel tank just for the heating system.

Cinelli says learning to drive the electric bus was nerve-wracking at first. The electric bus has a few features that differ from a normal school bus. For instance, the drive power is in the front wheels instead of the back, which Cinelli says makes it feel like driving a car rather than a bus. Additionally, the batteries make the bus extremely heavy. When stopped on a hill, the bus will roll back if Cinelli isn’t firmly on the brakes, and it won’t move unless she pushes the pedal and the brake at the same time before accelerating.

“I’m just as confident feeling driving this than I am a diesel. I have no problem with it,” Cinelli says.

She adds one major drawback of the bus is its lack of cargo space. With the batteries taking up so much space, there is no room for large equipment like skis and snowboards to be stored.

Sonia Cinelli will drive the new electric bus on her Arrow Heights school pick-up route. Photo: Nora Hughes

Range and charging needs

Tisdale says the bus can drive between 200–275 kilometres without needing a charge. For shorter bus routes, that means about three days. The distance the bus can travel depends on the energy it expends on hills and in variable weather conditions.

The bus also has a regenerative braking system that recharges the battery when going down hills.

“Certainly, from a district perspective, we’ve got students at the high school that are involved in environmental solutions,” Tisdale says. “So I think it’s good modelling for the students. It obviously has a positive impact on greenhouse gas emissions.”

He says the bus’s primary use will be local school pickup routes to start but anticipates the bus being used for sports games and field trips to towns like Vernon and Salmon Arm in the future.

Cinelli’s route is through Arrow heights. She picks up and drops off students all the way to the end of Greenslide and back three times a day, five days a week, totalling just over 100 kilometres at the end of each day.

“Truly, I do love it,” Cinelli says. “It’s awesome. I love the kids. They’re just great.”

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Nora Hughes is a recent graduate of the Thompson Rivers University Interdisciplinary Program, where she combined her passions for Adventure Tourism, Communications and Journalism. With a strong interest in community news, Nora is passionate about giving a voice and face to the people of Revelstoke through storytelling.