Importers target Russian market at Comtrans
By Doug Jack
The distance from London to Moscow is 1,560 miles, less than half the distance from London to New York. Yet the three-and-a-half-hour flight takes one to a completely different and fascinating part of the world.
I made the trip this year because I could not pass up the opportunity to visit Comtrans, said to be the largest commercial vehicle exhibition in the world, held in the Crocus Expo Center adjacent to a motorway that encircles Moscow. The journey from the center of the city was an opportunity to observe the various types of vehicles in Moscow.
Like many former Soviet cities, Moscow has an extensive metro network with some of the most splendid stations anywhere in the world. There are also trams and trolleybuses. Although buses are used on some city center routes, they generally act as feeders to the metro and trolleybus networks. The services are frequent, but a typical cross-city journey may involve two or three changes of transport at major hubs.
In the old days it was practically impossible to obtain any statistics about the Russian market, but that has changed, thanks to ASM Holding. It reported that registrations of new buses and coaches of all sizes rose to 23,227 units in the first half of 2011 compared with 18,229 in the first half of 2010. That represented a healthy increase of 27.4 percent, but it sent out an alarming signal to the domestic manufacturers.
Their share of new registrations declined from 74.35 percent to 55.04 percent. All the gains were by new imports, some assembled in Russia, and a small number of used imports. This last category included relatively young coaches still carrying the names and colors of their previous German owners.
Registrations include all sizes of buses
with a large number of minibuses that typically seat 16-18 passengers in a very cramped layout. They run on fixed routes at regular intervals in the cities, charging higher fares than full-size buses and trolleybuses because they offer faster point-to-point journeys. With minimal driving standards and little control from the authorities, they seem to be very popular.
There are various reasons for the rise in imports to Russia. Geographically, Chinese and Korean bus builders are closer than domestic builders in European Russia to customers in the vast Asian region of the country. Six of China’s leading bus and coach manufacturers made this point very clear. Between them they added models in all the main segments of the Russian market from large luxury coaches and midi coaches to low-floor city buses.
Another factor is the municipalities that buy most of the city buses are short on money. Although this situation is improving, they have tended to buy basic 25-foot vehicles with high floors.
With five subsidiaries that build different sizes and types of buses and coaches, the GAZ Group is by far the largest domestic manufacturer. One of those subsidiaries, LiAZ, the Likino Bus Factory, has developed full low floor rigid and articulated buses with
the option of compressed natural gas (CNG) engines.
Russia will move to Euro 4 engine emission standards for vehicles put into service beginning January 2012. Many of the importers can already meet the more strict Euro 5 standards. The step from Euro 3 to Euro 4 proved significant, because there was a change from traditional mechanical engines to electronic control systems.
With Russia aspiring to Western standards in all sorts of products, the major challenge for the GAZ Group is to update the powertrains in all its models. It also sees the need for new and more stylish designs. Sadly, most GAZ designs look rather plain and dated. It is hardly a defense to say that vehicles have to stand up to tough operating conditions, because importers are winning significant market share.
The largest factory in the GAZ Group is the Pavlovsky Avto Zavod, or PAZ. It builds up to 10,000 medium size buses per year, seen all over Russia in urban, rural and school services, work transport and for the armed services. As the same boxy shape has been around for years, it was good to see a more stylish midi coach with a large one-piece windscreen and bonded glazing.
Transport for workers in the oil, gas and mineral industries in the remote northern regions is a major challenge in Russia. Bus travel requires traversing rough gravel roads in all climates. The largest vehicle on the GAZ stand was a rugged Ural truck chassis/cab, with three driven axles and air suspension to improve the ride quality, along with double glazing and additional heating and ventilation for the tough Arctic conditions.
KamAZ is the largest truck builder in Russia, with Daimler having a 15 percent holding. On buses, KamAZ works closely with the Neftekamsk Avto Zavod, trading as NefAZ. One of itsexhibits was a hybrid bus, using a Cummins Euro 5 engine and a Voith DIWA hybrid drive system. Russian manufacturers have announced two or three other hybrid buses previously, but the concept is still very much in its infancy.
It is hard to understand why Russia wants hybrid buses with so many cities still running large trolleybus systems inherited from Soviet days. Three or four Russian manufacturers build in small volumes, as well MAZ and Belkommunmash from neighboring Belarus. A number of low-floor trolleybuses run the streets of Moscow, with a greater number of old high floor models still in use.
Even the older vehicles appeared well maintained and free from minor accident damage. Labor rates are still relatively low in Russia. The larger bus fleets have central workshops where they can carry out the heaviest of repair and maintenance work. Russian fleets have not caught on to the Western philosophy of service exchange units, which minimizes vehicle downtime.
Volzhanin is one of the smaller bus builders, which trades as Volgabus. It offered a very interesting example of international collaboration at its stand. Several years ago Ashok Leyland of India bought Avia, a manufacturer of light and medium trucks in the Czech Republic. Volgabus had taken an Avia chassis powered by a front-mounted Cummins engine and fitted a simple body intended for suburban and rural transport. A large segment in Russia uses vehicles of this type. It also caught the attention of two executives from a factory of Ashok Leyland in Dubai. One can hardly get more international than that.
Russia is becoming an increasingly important market for Western European manufacturers. Many private companies want top quality products and are prepared to pay for them. One of the most popular makes, Neoplan, earned the Bus of the Year Award for its Cityliner coaches.
Russia permits vehicles up to 49-feet long on three axles, which are well suited for service on the long wide streets. One of the vehicles on the MAN stands was a tri-axle interurban coach. The floor is about 32 inches above ground with a reasonable amount of luggage space in under floor lockers.
Many of the smaller stands offered a wide variety of components and equipment, much of it imported. Suppliers came namely from Western Europe, Turkey and China. While Russia has undoubtedly opened up over the last 20 years, it is still not the easiest country in which to do business. It is in need of strong, well-connected local partners. Nonetheless, with registrations for all vehicle sizes forecasted to exceed 55,000 this year, no one can ignore Russia. BR
Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.