Today is the start of a new era in public transport in Oxford, with the first fleet of ‘electric’ buses taking to the city’s streets, The Oxford Times can reveal.

The £7.5m fleet of 26 double-decker buses will be the first in the UK to use pioneering green hybrid technology on a large scale outside London.

And the new ‘super green’ buses are being viewed as the first fruits of the county council’s groundbreaking deal with bus companies to cut pollution levels and reduce by a quarter the number of buses in Oxford city centre.

The buses, each costing £300,000, are being unveiled by Stagecoach, which says it represents Britain’s biggest single investment in hybrid bus technology. The Department of Transport’s Green Bus Fund has contributed £2.3m towards the cost.

The 78-seater buses will advance the new public transport strategy of having fewer buses but more seats.

There have been repeated calls to reduce the number of buses on the High Street and other historic roads, with colleges and traders complaining about noise and pollution resulting from 2,500 buses a day travelling up and down the High.

The hybrid buses produce 30 per cent less carbon emissions than standard vehicles, Stagecoach claims, running on a system developed by BAE Systems that is already widely used in the United States.

A battery-powered electric motor provides traction, with a small diesel engine charging the batteries. Power is also derived from a regenerative braking system, where energy is diverted back to the batteries.

The new buses will begin running on some of the busiest city-centre routes into Oxford, starting today with route 1 to Cowley Road and Blackbird Leys. In August they will be used on routes to Summertown and Kidlington, then later introduced to the 7C route to Headington and Barton.

Martin Sutton, managing director for Stagecoach in Oxfordshire, said: “This is a great day for Oxford. We believe the introduction of these groundbreaking new buses on the busiest routes in Oxford will make a major contribution to reducing carbon and other emissions, and will encourage more people to travel into the city by bus.

“New technology, coupled with other measures to give bus users faster journeys, is crucial if we are to maximise the potential of buses here.”

Mr Sutton said the new fleet formed part of a package of improvements being brought about by the new partnership between Stagecoach, the Oxford Bus Company and Oxfordshire County Council.

The deal, the first of its kind in the UK, uses new powers allowing councils and bus operators to work closely together to provide co-ordinated services.

In the autumn, joint timetabling will be introduced, along with a new multi-operator integrated smartcard ticketing system, to speed up boarding and allow passengers to use either Oxford Bus Company or Stagecoach buses.

But the new technology comes at a high price, with the hybrid buses said to cost about 85 per cent more than ordinary buses.

Mr Sutton said 12 hybrid buses had already been delivered, with an official launch at Oxford Castle due to take place this morning. The remaining 14 will come into service in August. Stagecoach said it would consider adding to its hybrid fleet in Oxford as other buses needed replacing.

Nationally, Stagecoach has invested a total of £16m in 56 green buses, all manufactured by the British bus manufacturer Alexander Dennis. Manchester will benefit from 30 new hybrid vehicles from September.

Hybrid vehicles are viewed as being most effective operating in towns and cities. Stagecoach said there were no plans to add any to its Oxford Tube fleet. The company introduced 26 new Oxford Tube coaches only last summer, fitted with Euro 5 engines. The company has 180 buses operating in Oxfordshire.

Oxford Bus Company managing director Philip Kirk said: “We are very pleased to see this type of vehicle coming to Oxford. We have kept a very close eye on the results from similar buses run by our sister company in London, and we hope hybrid technology takes things forward.

“For the last 15 years we have been concentrating on the control of potentially harmful emissions from buses, and we want to make sure that our efforts and investment are squarely focused on the difficulties with nitrogen oxide (NOx) in central Oxford.

“Between Oxford’s two main bus companies we are setting the standard for others in the UK.

“By the end of 2010, 91 per cent of the Oxford Bus city fleet will be compliant with the city council’s low emission zone standards, three years in advance of the deadline.”