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Regular Feature: Issue 350 21 Nov 2008

Bus manufacturers and operators debate design

The second meeting of the Young Bus Managers Network at this month’s Euro Bus Expo show saw both manufacturers and operators come together to talk about the importance of good bus design.

By Andrew Garnett

The recent Euro Bus Expo show in Birmingham gave manufacturers the chance to show off some of their latest kit and it was also the setting for the second meeting of the Young Bus Managers Network.

The meeting aimed to debate the issue of good bus design and the conflicting agenda of aspiration against the reality of day-to-day bus operation. This was a theme that was taken up by Stagecoach chief executive Brian Souter at the first meeting of the network during the summer. He criticised many of the larger manufacturers for displaying little appetite for innovation.

 “They just want to make the same axles, gearboxes and engines and they just want to put a few of them in buses,” he said. “They just never do anything unless you beat them soft.”

Although there is a growing belief in the industry at large that bus design must be improved to win over the sceptical motorist, manufacturers argue that price is an important factor, especially when many of the larger groups have hammered down on acquisition costs in recent years. They argue that good design cannot be at the expense of the economic realities of the industry.

Pressing this point of view was Alexander Dennis chief executive Colin Robertson. He kicked off the meeting by saying that he felt privileged to have been invited to speak. “I’ve got an opportunity to influence the next generation of leaders of our business,” he added.

Robertson spoke about some of the key challenges that both operators and manufacturers alike face. “Let’s talk about the real world,” he said. “The real world as I see it, like for many here, is of accident damage, perpetual vandalism, keeping vehicles on the road, asset utilisation, very difficult and onerous maintenance regimes.

“Meanwhile, there are also increases in fuel and operating costs, driver turnover and driver training and all of that at a time when there is a focus on driving profit for your shareholders.”

Robertson said that tomorrow’s world would be one of greener and cleaner buses  especially in light of recent fuel price increases and that led him onto the industry’s biggest challenge: getting people out of their cars and into buses.

Robertson said that in a world of increasing congestion there was a need to influence modal shift. “Whether it’s environmental facts such as global warming or ever increasing congestion, we need transport solutions that are acceptable to everyone,” he said. “Tackling these issues really does require a team approach, it does require us to get together and understand the key constraints. Only by doing that will we take significant steps forward in modal shift and improved profitability across the board and at the same time deliver comfort, quality and value for the riding public.

“But it has to be said that many of the constituents, be it government, be it operating companies, be it manufacturers, all have different agendas and that’s the real source of waste where we can make significant steps forward.”

Robertson explained that it was imperative to find a “unified agenda” of creating buses that are easy to drive and operate with a lower maintenance and whole life costs over 15 to 20 years. He continued: “A bus is a lot like a puppy, they are not just for Christmas, it’s a 15 to 20 year commitment. To do that we need to really focus on value as opposed to just price. It starts for us designing a solid vehicle that has been put together well and in a cost competitive way.”

He said that it was impossible to predict what the bus of the future would look like as they are so many factors that affect the process. He described how some vehicles on display at Euro Bus Expo were extremely stylish and that if he was going for style alone he may not buy Alexander Dennis products, but he recognised there were other factors at work.

“With an operator’s hat on you guys see different things - you see kerb and accident damage,” he said. “You see things that I don’t see in a vehicle design. But if I just let my engineers tell me what we can’t do then we won’t achieve anything. At the same time we need to be careful that we don’t stifle our creative instincts.”

Robertson said that increasingly onerous emissions standards were the key driver for his business. “There is a relentless focus on emissions reduction... and that is going to continue with us,” he said. “We’ve also got low floor and easy access compliance. By the end of 2014 every single deck bus must be DDA compliant and at the end of 2016 every double deck. That’s a huge financial commitment for the operator and it’s a capacity commitment for us so we can actually build enough vehicles to meet the legislation.”

But Robertson said there are also unexpected problems that can influence the industry, such as the current global economic situation, which mean it is impossible to predict what his company will be producing in 10 years from now.

“However, I think we’re in pretty good shape,” he said confidently. “I think if we can continue to see increased modal shift and increased ridership, we’re going to see relentless pressure on carbon footprint reduction and achieving that through smaller and more efficient engines and working with our partners there. We also have to look at being best in class by looking at maintenance and whole life costs.

“We’re focussed on being the lowest cost producer, but we need to make money and to invest in the future, but only by making a modest return can you invest in the product in order to take your business forward.

“The focus on value does remain the real criteria, quality, on-time delivery and being the lowest cost remains top of the Alexander Dennis agenda. Yes the buses of the future need to be stylish, fuel efficient and be environmentally acceptable, but we need to start designing a bus that we can actually manufacture. We have to keep coming back to what is good for our customer in terms of maintainability.”

Robertson said that recent technological advances had improved serviceability which would lead to reduced costs and component wear, while extending service lives. He also noted that hybrid vehicle technology promised big reductions in fuel costs.

“Yes there’s a whole bunch of blue sky stuff going on, but we need to continue to focus on making the product more attractive,” he said. “We are focused on making things more stylish, but the real focus will be on increasing innovation and helping you achieve your goals and objectives. I know what’s important to you and my team does too. We just might help you be a little bit more successful.

“There are some real emerging and clever technologies that offer some real opportunities. We’re seeing roof-mounted solar panels and that sort of thing. There are coming technologies that we can integrate into vehicles, the sort of stuff that was pie in the sky five or 10 years ago. We would not have even thought about biofuels 20 years ago. So how can we get this unifying agenda today to make your lives better and your businesses more successful? At Alexander Dennis we want to do our part to make that happen.”

Continuing the vehicle theme was Trent Barton commercial director Ian Morgan. He began by explaining some of the history of Wellglade, Trent Barton’s parent company, with the initial acquisition of Trent Buses in 1986 and then Barton in 1989. Today Wellglade is owned by 153 staff, all of whom are employees or retired employees with a strict rule that anyone leaving the company to go elsewhere must pass their shareholding on to another employee.

Morgan explained that out of a fleet of 255 vehicles, the peak vehicle requirement is for 225 vehicles, giving a spare vehicle allowance of 30 vehicles. “Which is probably quite a high proportion compared to what many companies survive on these days,” he explained. “But we believe that to provide reliability on the road you need to have that level of spare vehicles.”

He said that research undertaken by the company indicated that bus passengers had four keys demands. These are:

  • reliability;
  • friendliness;
  • cleanliness; and
  • comfort.

“First and foremost is reliability,” Morgan continued. “Friendliness, cleanliness and comfort are our second tier of demand and we believe that these demands go some way to making up what is perceived as value for money.

“Our research suggests that price comes very low down the agenda and the customer feels that it is less important than these factors. If you can’t deliver friendliness, reliability, cleanliness and comfort, price will perhaps inevitably come into the equation and it will be an issue. But if you’re delivering something approaching those four criteria, then price doesn’t really come into the thinking at all because it’s considered to be value for money.”

Morgan then showed a slide of the interior of a bus from 1992 annotated with  ways it could be improved. He explained that he had first shown it at a meeting with a local authority in the early 1990s. “I showed it to demonstrate how we could move on with greater bus priorities. We were talking for the first time about bus quality partnerships and what I would do if they gave me more bus priorities,” he said.

“I said then that I thought we needed to improve our seating as what we had at the time was made of steel and pretty severe. I also suggested that we needed greater knee room - which I think is actually essential, and also wider seats, buggy zones, double glazing and better interior design going along with regular refits, new liveries and air conditioning.”

Morgan said that the first steps had been to improve the knee room on Trent Barton’s vehicles. Although the DiPTAC standard recommends 685mm knee room, he said that this was still pretty tight. “If anyone has sat in seats with that sort of pitch they will know that it is unacceptable,” he added.

“We started moving the figure up to reach 740mm minimum seat pitch today. I still think that’s a bit tight but if we are serious about getting motorists out of their cars then we have to provide decent space for our customers. 740mm is just about comfortable for the average person for 15 or 20 minutes. Personally I would not want to be sat in a seat with that sort of space for any longer than that, but for a normal bus journey that’s just about right.”

He then explained some of the internal changes and improvements that Trent Barton had made to its fleet since the early 1990s. The first move saw individual seating introduced with careful attention to seating upholstery (moquette). Morgan said that in the retail world it is common to find regular refits and refurbishments to ensure stores  reflect contemporary tastes. “Buses should be refitted or retrimmed every five years at the most,” he said.

“Fashions move on in that time as the retail world knows. Our customers use the bus to go shopping and they see stores changing through refurbishments and refits. Buses should really be the same and if we don’t do it it stands out.”

Another improvement has been to specify double glazing as standard on all new Trent Barton vehicle purchases. “I really can’t understand why bus operators don’t have double glazing,” Morgan said. “I know it adds weight and I know it has fuel consequences, but on a cold and damp day buses just mist up. Customers hate nothing more than not being able to see out.

“Buses are claustrophobic enough as they are but when they are steaming and when you get a wet elbow because you’ve rested it on the sill there is nothing more unpleasant, so all our new buses are now double glazed.”

More recently he said that the operator had looked carefully at creating more personal space and zoning new vehicles to create both communal and private spaces. “It does make a difference for people,” he added. “We’ve experimented with wider seats too but I’m not sure we’ve got that right yet.”

He also emphasised the need for good interior design that would appeal to both existing and new customers. “People we carry on our buses these days are going to work or to shops that are nicely designed with air conditioning and nicely fitted out and we need to provide an environment that fits in with those aspirations.

“We’re specifying leather seats at the moment as leather seems to be in vogue at present. I doubt that it will be forever, but for the moment that’s what we have gone with. I’m sure that in the future we will move away from leather and go with something else instead. What it is I don’t know at the moment. We also specify wood effect floors and the whole thing is what Ray [Stenning] calls the Caffè Nero effect. Cafes have the same wood floors and leather seats and that’s the type of ambiance that we are trying to create to make people feel comfortable.”

In conclusion Morgan said it was essential for any aspiring bus operator to use a designer. “Get someone in who knows something about design to look after the interior and exterior of your buses and, when you do, try and reach a concensus. Don’t end up thinking that everyone has to agree, just give the decision to two or three people and make sure you keep the managing director and finance director out of it! Keep them well away from it as the designer will not produce anything that they like.

“At Trent Barton neither the MD or FD see the inside of our buses until they go out on the road. ‘It’s too late! It’s done!’. You will never get consensus and if you do you will have watered it down and it will be completely ineffective.”

Morgan also said it was important to be bold, brave and to make mistakes (“I’ve built my career on making mistakes,” he joked. “You have to make mistakes to move forward, but make sure you learn by them.”). He continued that it was also important to regularly rebrand and refresh vehicles, with a real need to ensure vehicles are kept clean.

“Customers will not forgive you for dirty vehicles. Keeping something clean is easy, it’s not difficult and customers know that. If you can’t keep it clean they will interpret that as you just don’t care. I see some pretty dirty and grotty buses out there and it says a lot about what those companies think of their customers.” 

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