China shows its diversity at Busworld Asia

By Doug Jack

Busworld Asia is one of the great events on the annual exhibition calendar. This year in Shanghai, May 6-8, visitors had the opportunity to also take in the World Expo.

At any exhibition one expects to see some new models and innovation. The pace of change and the variety of new vehicles and components coming out of the world’s largest bus and coach building industry marks the difference between Busworld Asia and other exhibitions.

The average Chinese city bus built 15 years ago sat on a high truck-derived frame with a front mounted gasoline or diesel engine and very basic bodywork. Since then the industry has made tremendous advances with lower frames, air suspension, rear mounted diesel engines and automatic transmissions, as well as the option of air conditioning.

In cities in China the vast majority of people rely on buses to travel to and from work and for leisure journeys. More than one million people relocate each year from the countryside to the cities in search of work, which creates further demand for public transport.

Major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai continued to invest heavily to replace older polluting vehicles. China has adopted European emission standards, running one step behind in the cities, and two behind in the rest of the country.

China also is investing heavily in high-speed long distance rail, which will likely take business from the intercity coach sector. Demand for sleeper coaches is falling. It is quite amazing to see these vehicles in broad daylight with three rows of double height bunk beds front to rear, and people sleeping so soundly.

A welcomed stimulus

During the global financial crisis last year, the Chinese economy stumbled, but did not go into recession. The government made funds available for the acquisition of up to 1,000 alternative fuel vehicles in 11 major cities — a welcomed stimulus to the bus manufacturing industry. During the first quarter of this year, the economy recovered at an astonishing 11-percent growth rate.

China has large reserves of natural gas in the west of the country, delivered to Beijing and the east coast cities through recently constructed pipelines. This allows most transit bus builders to offer natural gas propulsion as an option to diesel. They also build a small number of vehicles to run on LPG and LNG.

Cummins is a partner in a number of joint ventures with Chinese companies for various sizes of diesel engines. Cummins Westport has supplied several thousand CNG engines to Beijing Municipality, which has a fleet of more than 24,000 buses.

The Shanghai World Expo also stimulated demand for zero emission buses. A small number of traditional trolleybuses run in some Chinese cities, but the new demand is for vehicles not connected to overhead wiring.

China is spending massive sums of money on battery technology and scientific development at specialized universities production facilities. Their challenge is to develop quickly rechargeable batteries that can serve a reasonable mileage range. Lithium-ion batteries hold a large amount of electrical charge for their size, and are ideal for packaging in a city bus, but they are expensive. On the other end of the scale, the large number of required traditional lead-acid batteries is unsuitable because they cannot fit into a low floor bus. Their weight also restricts the number of passengers.

The range for battery-powered buses at Busworld Asia was around 120-150 miles, and anything from 3 to 6 hours for a complete recharge. A range of 120 miles is equivalent to 6 hours working on city routes, with lots of stopping and starting. On some models the batteries require only 10 minutes to change out. One spare battery pack should be able to keep two city buses in all-day service.

Another method of extending the operating range is to give the batteries a fast boost charge at each terminal and at major stops. For instance, in Shanghai, there are some trolleybuses, which can operate without overhead wiring. When they stop to pick up and set down passengers, a boom on the roof rises to take current from an overhead contact plate, mounted on a post similar to a streetlight. This system enables the vehicle to work an 18-20 hour day.

Hybrid drive systems are another way to extend battery life. Chinese-designed hybrid systems are also coming onto the market with the Eaton parallel system proving popular. Most use diesel engines for their thermal power, but CNG also is also available. Companies have also developed series hybrid systems.

The Times Electric Group (TEG), a subsidiary of the China Southern Railway, specializes in the manufacture of alternative fuel systems.

TEG brought its expertise and components to the bus industry three years ago, developing both series and parallel hybrid buses, as well as an all-electric battery powered bus. The company started building its own city buses and produced around 1,000 in 2009.

Two new trends cropped up at Busworld Asia. The authorities have evidently banned double deck coaches from highways but operators on some of the busiest routes still wanted to be able to maximize passenger capacity.

They accomplished this through over-deck buses built to a height of 12-1/2 feet.  The driver and courier, and in some cases up to five passengers, sit in a lower deck with its floor just one step above the ground. Passenger seating takes up the upper level. The vehicles are normally with ample luggage space between the axles.

The other interesting trend is the development of special school buses to carry young children — obviously American-inspired. A bus from FAW Bus & Coach Co painted in traditional school bus yellow featured a chrome grille, chrome mirror arms and a fold-out stop sign – in English, not Chinese.

Because annual tax for using buses on the roads that increases with their length in increments of approximately 20 inches, examples in Busworld Asia were only a little over 20 feet.

As the first vehicle factory established in China in 1956, It is ironic FAW takes its inspiration from an American product. As First Auto Works the company received technical help from the Russian engineers who provided designs for the 5-ton trucks America shipped to Russia during World War II. China founded its motor industry with American products already 20 years old.

While Chinese manufacturers are encouraged to export their products they seem to be quite selective. They prefer building for fleets, and are particularly adept at handling large orders from neighboring nations in eastern Asia, central Asia, Iran, Syria, the Gulf States, sub-Saharan Africa, Cuba and some of the countries on the west coast of South America.

Most are cautious about coming into Europe, because of the strength of the European manufacturers and the service support networks that they have established. Curiously, Zhengzhou Yutong, the largest manufacturer by quite some distance, has established Yutong Eurobus in Iceland to lead its attack on European markets. Iceland is about as remote as one can be in Europe.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.