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INEEL helps design winter wonder bus

Treading lightly

Yellowstone National Park may soon become more accessible in both winter and summer, thanks to collaborative efforts to develop a new alternative fuel vehicle.

Kerry Klingler, the INEEL project manager on the bus project, has been working with Yellowstone National Park officials, the automotive industry and other private companies to develop a new mid-sized bus for use in national parks. Last fall, the over-the-road version of the bus was unveiled and tested in Washington, D.C. and national parks throughout the United States. Late last year, the bus was redesigned to operate on tracks, similar to the snow coaches being used in some parks.

Since early January, the team has been testing the winter version of the yellow bus over the snowy back roads in Yellowstone National Park. The team is looking for ways to improve the vehicle before actual production begins later this year.

"Response has been great," says Klingler. "We have proven the yellow bus can be used as a year-round vehicle, which was one of our goals at the beginning of the project. During the prototype testing, we have received lots of positive feedback, along with recommendations for changes. We expect the improved versions of the yellow bus to start showing up in Yellowstone this fall."

Klingler says one of the more popular features noted by test riders is the unique 72x zoom camera added to the vehicle. The camera allows riders to view objects up to four miles away. "We have witnessed many wild animals on our ride through the park, while safely nestled in the yellow bus," he said. The bus travelers also enjoy looking out the glass top of the bus and seeing scenery not visible with some motor vehicles.

Bob Seidel of Idaho Falls spotted the snow coach version of the bus while on a recent visit in Yellowstone National Park and was able to take a test ride on the vehicle with a group of 14 invited friends. "It was so much fun, a real pleasure to ride in," Seidel says. "With the wide entryway, it is easy to get in and out of and you could easily see the wildlife and scenery through the large windows and just as easily take photos from inside the vehicle."

Seidel invited several friends with physical limitations for a once-in-a lifetime winter tour of Yellowstone on the newly designed bus. The participants ranged in age from 4 months to nearly 92. The four-month-old twins had a comfortable ride -- eating and sleeping most of the time. Ruby Black, who is actively going on 92, really enjoyed the trip and greatly appreciated the ramp entryway.

Charles LaFrance, at 70 and challenged by Parkinson's disease, and his wife, Marilyn, could enjoy the tour without worrying about how they were going to maneuver about. With the ramp entryway, Phyllis Mills, at 67 and recovering from two knee replacements, had a great time without any problems getting in and out of the bus.

Dennis Robinson, a photographer with limited mobility, welcomed the opportunity to not only see Yellowstone in the winter, but also take some photos from both inside and outside. All had a great time and repeatedly praised the big yellow bus as the perfect way to see the Park in winter, a trip they previously considered impossible.

The vehicle will continue to be tested in Yellowstone through March. The information from the tour and testing will be used to refine the vehicle and make adjustments in its design.

About the bus

The vehicle is a low-floor, 16- to 32- passenger bus that uses alternative fuel and complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). A low-floor bus has the passenger area built low to the ground so steps are not required for entry; it also has an entry ramp that can be extended to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.

The genesis for the national park vehicle is the historic yellow and red buses (found in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks, respectively) built by the White Motor Company in the 1930s. These vehicles, with their classic roll-back roofs, were very attractive to park visitors for decades.

The vehicle chassis and powertrain are being designed for the medium duty, community/transit/shuttle/school bus market in the United States. Market analysis indicates that a low-emission, fuel-efficient vehicle will have broad application in municipal transit and private-sector transportation. The national parks vehicle is a subset of this much larger market, which is making it possible to develop a vehicle at much lower cost than a park-specific bus.

Eventually, they will be manufactured using several optional engines, to allow use of alternative fuels like natural gas, propane, ethanol and biodiesel. One purpose of the collaborative effort is protection of the national park's pristine environment, combined with a drive to increase national security by reducing dependence on foreign sources of energy.

Partners in this project with the INEEL include the National Park Service, ASG Renaissance (vehicle consultants in Dearborn, Mich.), Ruby Mountain, Inc. (Alternate Fuel advisers in Salt Lake City, Utah), Heart International (a vehicle engineering firm in Michigan), Champion Bus Company (of Imlay City, Mich.), and Omni Track (of LaGrande, Ore.).

The estimated purchase price of the vehicle is in the range of $110,000 to $180,000, depending on desired features and if a track system for winter operations is specified.



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