Photo credit (banner): Christophe Recoura

Fébus: Pau launches the world’s 1ˢᵗ hydrogen-powered BRT

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5-minute read

Re-inventing bus transport

The big glass doors open, and passengers board the bus at both front and rear, each contactless ticket validated with a single beep. The smell of new leather is in the air. Once everyone is seated, the bus sets off, silently travelling up the steep streets of the old city with stops at 14 strategic locations: municipal offices, universities, shops, the hospital, the railway station and more.

With its fleet of eight new BRT buses, the Fébus network has repeated this daily routine every 8-10 minutes since 17 December 2019, when it was launched by Idelis—Pau’s public transport network—with technical assistance from our subsidiary Keolis.  

Light rail on wheels

The new system has a lot to offer. Pau railway station, on the south side of the city, and François-Mitterrand Hospital, on the north side, are 6 km apart: Fébus covers that distance in just 17 minutes, with the superior comfort and service that passengers can expect from light rail.

The new line is a success, says Diana, a temporary worker in aeronautics production who’s familiar with Pau’s bus service. “I can buy my ticket at the bus station and get real-time traffic updates from the app or at the stops. The buses come frequently, and there’s plenty of room on board. They’re so comfortable and reliable, it really feels like riding a tram in Bordeaux,” says the former Bordeaux native, who moved to the Pau area in the summer of 2019.

  • 17

    minutes to travel the length of Line F (6 km from railway station to hospital)

  • 8

    hydrogen-powered Fébus BRT buses serve Pau 7 days a week

  • 1

    bus every 8 minutes in peak periods, and every 10 minutes off peak

  • 14

    stations are served by Fébus Line F, and all have WiFi.

Elegance and passenger service

The sleek black-and-grey buses measure 18m long by 2.5m wide and weigh 19 tonnes. Specially created for the City of Pau by Belgian manufacturer Van Hool and designer Julian Gaubert, Fébus is a model of understated style.

The ergonomic seats are covered in saddle-coloured leather, with wooden tray tables and power points on either side.   “It’s really convenient when my battery is running low,” says Thomas, smartphone in hand. “And they’re a lot more comfortable than the old T2 buses. It’s still crowded at rush hour, but the dedicated bus lanes save us a lot of time,” adds the 24-year-old accounting student, as our Fébus sets off briskly from the Condorcet-University station, a crowd of students aboard. 

  • Inside each black-and-grey Fébus, passengers can choose from 32 brown leather seats. Ceiling fixtures cast soft light on the wood-finish Formica panels and warm white walls.

  • Thanks to wooden tray tables and power points, passengers can recharge their smartphones in transit.

  • Dedicated lanes account for 85% of the Fébus route, and buses have priority at traffic lights and specially configured roundabouts. From start to finish, it takes only 17 minutes to travel the 6-km F line.

  • At 18.23m long and 2.55m wide, each Fébus can carry up to 125 passengers. The buses run on electric motors, powered by hydrogen fuel cells with a range of 240 km.

  • Eight buses serve 14 stations. Most are covered, and all offer a self-service ticket machine, WiFi, and real-time passenger information on traffic conditions and Fébus timetables.

1/5

Fast and accessible

“They’re cooler, they’re bigger, they’re easier—and at €1 a ticket, the price is right. And we don’t have to wait behind lines of cars at stoplights,” says 25-year-old Zélim, an apprentice pastry-cook enrolled at the local vocational college. With dedicated lanes accounting for 85% of the route, free parking to encourage motorists to leave their cars behind, and priority at traffic lights and roundabouts, Fébus is much faster than a conventional bus line. 

At the back of the bus, Suzanne, 82, and Emmanuelle, 40, are discussing the system’s accessibility for people with limited mobility. “Having the bus pull up at platform level is a real plus,” says Emmanuelle, her arms full of shopping. “But I’ve never lived in a city with trams, so I still don’t have the nerve to board at the back. It’s probably just habit!” “I’ll get on anywhere as long as they don’t leave me on the platform,” replies Suzanne with a smile. A retiree, she takes Fébus “three times a week” to attend her “exercise and yoga classes” and to go for strolls in the city centre.

1

euro per ticket², sold at self-service machines, in participating shops and on line.

A name from the past. Power from the future

The buses are named after the powerful 14th-century nobleman Gaston III, Count of Foix and Viscount of Béarn, who adopted the nickname “sun god”—Phoebus or Fébus, as it was written in Occitan, then the language of the region. But the innovative technology that powers them points clearly toward the future. Hidden in the roof of each BRT is a hydrogen fuel cell that generates the energy for its electric motor.

This technology, never before used in an 18-metre bus, emits no greenhouse gases—only water vapour—and enables each Fébus to cover 240 km per day without refuelling. “Fébus hasn’t revolutionized my life, but I do care about the environment. If choosing this bus over other forms of transport can help the planet even a little, that’s a good thing,” says Emilien, 27.

Made in Pau: Generating hydrogen

To launch this innovative BRT line, the city had to build a station to produce and distribute hydrogen fuel. Located in Pau’s Idelis bus depot and inaugurated in September 2019, it generates up to 268 kg of hydrogen a day.

How? An electrolyser uses electricity to break water molecules down into their components: oxygen and the hydrogen needed to power the buses. For now the station runs on electricity from the local grid, but soon it will draw energy directly from solar panels set up nearby—a green and fully renewable power supply.

  • 1,000 litres of water (in the form of vapour) are released by Fébus every day

  • 2 tonnes of oxygen are released per day—as much as a 62-ha forest releases in a year

Silence is golden

“You have to admit, it’s a lot quieter too,” says Diana, 45, as our Fébus accelerates up Avenue Bonaparte with a soft hiss. “And I don’t know whether it’s the motor or the driver,” she adds, “but the ride is a lot smoother too.” 

That’s an important point. Before the line could operate, 48 Idelis bus drivers had to learn how to “tame” Fébus and its innovative power system. Training included getting to grips with new indicator lights and an all-new driver’s compartment, completely isolated from passengers. And the buses are so quiet that the drivers had to learn special safety procedures, such as routinely using the horn to alert pedestrians and motorists to their presence.

Over €74 million invested

In all, the Fébus project required €74.5 in investments, including:

  • €50 million for building the network
  • €10 million for the buses
  • €4.5 million for the hydrogen station

The Pau Béarn Pyrénées Mobilités transport partnership provided €58 million in financing, and the project received €16 million in subsidies from the French State, the Pau Béarn Pyrénées conurbation, the City of Pau and the European Union.

Learn more (in French)

1 Each bus has 32 seats and can carry up to 125 passengers.

2 A ticket costs €1, with a one-time fee of €0.20 added to the first purchase to fund responsible disposal of the buses at the end of their working life. Tickets are sold at self-service machines in Fébus stations, in participating shops and on line.