The French bus market remains strong

The RNTP public transport exhibition took place in Bordeaux, France in November. The weather was warm and the atmosphere very convivial. It seemed far removed from the trouble and strife caused by an inadequate president whose only solution to France’s problems is to raise taxes.

It is perhaps surprising to report that France is still the largest market for buses and coaches in Western Europe, comfortably ahead of Germany and the United Kingdom. Italy and Spain have fallen away steeply because of their severe financial problems.

Part of the reason for the consistent strength of the French market is a law that imposes a maximum age limit of 15 years on vehicles used to carry school children. In a geographically large country, the daily demand for school transport is high so there is regular fleet renewal. Most of these vehicles are to a multi-purpose specification with floors about three feet above the ground, enabling underfloor luggage capacity for rural routes and short distance weekend charter.

In France, the cities of Paris and Marseilles own and operate their own transit systems. The Paris system is multi-modal, in which buses, some trams and a very extensive metro system all connect with one another.

In towns and cities throughout the rest of France, the public authorities own the transport infrastructure (including the vehicles) and put the operation of services out to competitive tender for a fixed contract period. The two largest contractors are Transdev and Keolis. The cities of Cannes and Nice on the Riviera have opted to end contracts and operate their own services.

Iveco Bus has extended its Urbanway city bus range to include an articulated model, an option powered by compress natural gas (CNG), and another using BAE Systems hybrid drive.

It also offers two higher models with customized options. The BHNS can be fitted with customized seating, additional glazing and wood-effect flooring. Targeted for Bus Rapid Transit systems, the top-level Crealis retains the basic structure of the Urbanway but has new external paneling and glazing at the front and the rear, giving an appearance more like a tram.

Heuliez Bus is 99 percent Iveco-owned but has its own factory at Rorthais in central west France. Its full size and articulated city buses use common underframes with Iveco Bus, but it also has its own distinctive and narrower midibuses with full length low-floors. Heuliez Bus builds its structures in stainless steel and its range includes hybrid buses, again using BAE Systems. It has delivered more than 160 vehicles, mainly in France, including 102 to the city of Dijon, one of the largest hybrid fleets in Europe. The latest hybrid drive from BAE Systems has an “Arrive and Go” facility that enables a bus to arrive at, and depart from, a bus stop in wholly electric mode.

Iveco Bus and Heuliez Bus have a very interesting construction system. The underframe is fully prepared not only with all the running units, wiring and piping, but also the floor and floor covering. The two main sides are assembled flat on large tables and are fully completed with all paneling, glazing and interior trim. Similarly, the roof assemblies are built inside and outside on large rotating tables. The same process applies for the front and rear-end structures.

A Heuliez with BAE Systems hybrid drive for RATP, Paris.
A Heuliez with BAE Systems hybrid drive for RATP, Paris.

Comparatively late in the day the six main sections are bolted together, leaving only a few final operations like fitting seats, doors and hand rails. The benefit of this unusual method of assembly is that employees are normally working in a comfortable position. The result is excellent productivity and quality.

There is quite a lot of interest in France in all-electric vehicles. It started in areas with narrow inner city streets but the vehicles have gradually become larger, with some 40-foot all-electric buses entering service in Nice. They receive a fast charge of electricity from an overhead gantry at each end of the route.

One of the most interesting exhibits was from Safra, a company best known for repair and refurbishment of buses, trams and rail vehicles. The company is about to go into volume production with the 34.5-foot Businova low-entry midibus, which features a combined diesel, electric and hydraulic power system contained in a separate module beneath a raised rear lounge-type area for passengers, as well as independent front suspension, a ZF drive axle, and a third independently suspended axle for the power module. Safra claimed that this combined hybrid system is more economical than any other diesel or hybrid bus on the market.

The world premiere of the Setra S 415 UL Business, made in Turkey.
The world premiere of the Setra S 415 UL Business, made in Turkey.

CNG is popular in some French cities. As the authorities permit up to 13 tons gross weight on the rear axle, CNG buses do not suffer a penalty in passenger capacity. However, they are no longer a benefit in terms of emissions because the latest Euro 6 engines are exceptionally clean.

The hybrid hydraulic Businova midibus from Safra.
The hybrid hydraulic Businova midibus from Safra.

Mercedes-Benz is strong in the French market. One of its factories fits city bus structures from the parent company in Mannheim, Germany, for its French customers. Of the 588 city buses Mercedes Benz built last year, 384 were for customers in France with the balance exported to 17 countries.

The all-electric BlueBus minibus built by Gruau.
The all-electric BlueBus minibus built by Gruau.

The multi-purpose sector of the European market is keenly contested. Iveco Bus has a major factory in the Czech Republic that benefits from much lower labor rates. Mercedes-Benz supplies many vehicles from its factory in Turkey into France, but also offered a new model for its loyal Setra customers.

During the exhibition, Setra launched the S 415 UL Business built in three overall lengths in the factory in Turkey. It is not the first time that Setra models have been built outside Germany, but the Business version has a simplified specification in order to make the price as attractive as possible.

France is rightly famous for its very high-speed TGV trains that can travel at speeds of up to 200 mph. They are frequent, comfortable and the fares are highly competitive.

However, much of the rest of the rail network has been sadly neglected. In order to reduce great losses, many unprofitable rural lines are being closed down. Bus manufacturers are filling the gap by offering interurban vehicles with higher levels of comfort and a reasonable amount of luggage space. Many of these have a single-width door at the front and a double-width center exit ahead of the rear axle. As an option, a wheelchair lift can be fitted in this second stairwell.

In the last few years, quite a number of tramway systems have opened in France or been extended. Some of the cities have quite compact areas with high-rise buildings, so trams can make sense on the busiest routes. However, the capital cost remains very high and there is also considerable disruption to businesses and residents during the construction period.

Although there were no signs of tightening of the transport purse in the exhibition, there is always the risk that more expensive projects will be cut back, and that could be to the benefit of bus sales.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.