Congestion would be an even bigger problem in southeast Idaho if not for a fleet of 80 motorcoaches that haul about 3,000 employees–nearly half the workforce of the Idaho National Laboratory–to their work sites daily.
The motorcoaches ferry workers across a stretch of the desert in southeast Idaho that spans over 200,000 square miles. While some might be surprised that congestion is an issue outside of dense metropolitan areas, a lack of infrastructure creates bottlenecks along two-lane highways in rural regions.
“You can imagine on two highways with around 7,000 employees out there, it gets pretty congested,” explained Tad Pearson, Bus Operations Manager at Battelle Energy Alliance. “So the more passengers we can get off the roads and put into a bus, the better it is. And we have some pretty adverse weather in Idaho during the wintertime, so bus service is the safest and most economical way to travel.”
The laboratory in Blackfoot, Idaho, performs work in each of the U.S. Department of Energy’s strategic goal areas: energy, national security and science and environment. INL is the nation’s leading center for nuclear energy research and development. Day-to-day management and operation of the laboratory is the responsibility of Battelle Energy Alliance.
The buses run nearly around the clock. In the last 69 years, the buses have transported passengers almost 200 million miles without a fatality, Pearson said.
Safety is the primary reason the lab provides the free commuter service. The fleet is considered essential in case the facility needs to be quickly evacuated, whether related to a lab emergency or in the event of a wildfire fueled by the region’s dry sagebrush.
As an extension of a DOE facility, the fleet is required to run on clean fuels. Over the years, the R&D lab has worked on a variety of energy sources, from liquefied natural gas to renewable diesel.
“Our next goal is to go into electrified buses with hydrogen. We’re on the cutting edge of doing those types of things, too,” Pearson said.
Solar panels have been added to bus rooftops to power no-idling systems. They have their own battery packs that allow buses to keep the air conditioning or heat on without running the engine and burning fuel.
“We thought we would do this with the no-idle system as a way to save fuel. But that was a secondary benefit. What we found out is that by having these no idle systems, we are saving all kinds of maintenance costs by not having all the buses sitting and idling. It was a lot more than just the fuel savings,” Pearson said.
The operation has 74 drivers and a 24/7 dispatch center manned by a staff of five. There’s also a repair shop staffed with mechanics certified to service the MCI vehicles.
The full-size MCI J4500 buses are upgraded with better seats to make sure passengers have a comfortable ride, since they spend an average of two hours on the buses during their daily commutes. Buses travel between 45 to 130 miles each way.
While the buses are outfitted with Wi-Fi, the rural area doesn’t have good cell phone reception, making it difficult for passengers to use laptops or stream movies on the buses.
“So most of the time what our passengers do is sleep or they read,” Pearson said. “When one of my drivers looks in his mirror and he sees nothing but eyelids, he knows he’s doing a good job,” Pearson said.