By Doug Jack
The British market for city buses fell back badly in 2010, not just because of the global financial crisis, but also two of the major groups cut back heavily on their normal procurement of new vehicles. The effect was still felt in the first half of 2011.
Recovery came in the second half and forward order books for 2012 are looking healthier with a recent boost by the British government’s decision to give a further $40 million US toward the purchase of hybrid buses, which will make up much of the difference between a standard diesel bus and a hybrid version.
Since 2004 Alexander Dennis (ADL) has concentrated on its design, manufacture of double deck buses for British, and export markets, as well midibuses, which have proven very popular.
Colin Robertson became chief executive officer for Alexander Dennis in the spring of 2007 following a number of senior executive positions with Terex, including a stint in the United States. Within a matter of weeks of his arrival ADL bought out Plaxton, the only remaining builder of luxury coach bodywork in the United Kingdom, giving the enlarged company a turnover in excess of $350 million US per annum. As it turned out, Plaxton gave ADL valuable additional capacity to build city buses.
Under Robertson’s leadership, ADL further modernized its product range, including hybrid buses with BAE Systems. This program has been so successful that ADL is currently the largest producer of hybrid buses in Europe with nearly 500 in service or on order at the turn of the year.
Proven very reliable even in the heaviest of traffic in London, some of the earliest deliveries already have accumulated nearly 200,000 miles with savings in fuel consumption of around 30 percent.
ADL and BAE Systems are working closely on further refinement of the hybrid drive system. They plan to introduce a stop-start function very soon and anticipate that it will give a further 10 percent saving in fuel consumption.
During his press conference at the recent exhibition in Birmingham, UK, Robertson stressed the importance of export business to compensate for the fluctuations in the British market. ADL has developed a new version of its 40-foot Enviro 500 double deck bus, which is 13.5 feet in height for the North American market. The floor is only 14 inches above ground, helped by the use of smaller wheels and tires. A Cummins ISB engines fits vertically in line coupled to fully automatic Allison gearboxes. The engine can be either four or six cylinder depending on overall length and the customer’s power requirements.
ADL describes the new product as a “Go Anywhere Double Deck” that opens up new opportunities across North America for transit routes previously hindered by low bridge constraints and the need for special height permits.
Robertson was delighted to announce orders and options for a total of 220 of these new 99-passenger vehicles to operators in Ottawa and Toronto for Q3 2012 delivery. ADL also is delivering the shorter two-axle Enviro 400 double deck buses with open tops for sightseeing to Hawaii.
ADL already has double deck fleets running in New York, Washington, D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.
“I believe that after a brief rebound the global economy is back on its heels,” said Robertson, speaking to the economic state. “The persistent stagnation in Europe and renewed weakness in the U.S. means that global output from the developed world for the medium-term will not be better than anemic – and the risk of another slowdown is very real. Those who stand still, in good or bad times, are dead in the water.”
Robertson has driven a major cultural change in ADL with results clearly seen in the product range. He says his company has re-calibrated the way it plans, resources, designs, engineers, manufactures and provides whole-life support for its customers.
Financially, ADL has performed extremely well. The group has increased its output 60 percent from 2009 to 2011 with a record order book equivalent to $560 million US. Robertson forecasts that number rising to $700 million in 2012, justifying his claim ADL is the fastest growing bus manufacturer in Europe. The icing on the cake is the fact that the company is also become debt free.
Dennis chassis are assembled in a factory at Guildford, which is about 25 miles south west of London’s Heathrow Airport. They are designed for close integration with the group’s bodywork, but can also be supplied to other bodybuilders.
All models use Cummins engines of various different sizes, coupled to Allison, Voith or ZF fully automatic gearboxes. Axles are a mixture of Dana and ZF, making it relatively easy to source these components in North America for customers needing to comply with Buy American requirements. Bodywork can be supplied in kit form for assembly by local labor.
The Alexander factory at Falkirk in Scotland principally builds double deck city bus bodywork, not only on ADL chassis, but sometimes also on Scania. Other products include a full-size, heavy-duty single-deck transit bus body.
All the construction is in Alexander’s own time-tested bolted aluminium system. Although aluminium is much more expensive than steel, the savings in weight are particularly important with a double deck bus. There is also complete resistance to corrosion and the ease of recycling, an important factor with Europe’s end-of-life regulations which are affecting all kinds of automotive products.
The assembly of midibus bodywork was transferred two or three years ago to the Plaxton factory at Scarborough on the north east coast of England. These are also built in the same bolted aluminum and range in length from 29 to 38 feet. The Plaxton factory has traditionally built luxury coach bodywork, principally on Volvo chassis, but also on Iveco, and more recently on Scania.
Plaxton is also the principal supplier of coaches to the British operations of megabus.com. Although they run some double deck coaches on UK services, the main work horses are 49-foot tri-axle coaches mounted on Volvo chassis.
Most coaches in the UK are built to an overall length of 40 feet on two axles. Plaxton is the market leader. When megabus.com introduced its tri-axle giants, many wondered whether they would be able to work in our congested towns and cities, with narrow streets and tight corners. They are in fact remarkably maneuverable, with the third trailing axle also steering, giving great operational flexibility. Two tri-axle models can handle almost the same number of passengers as three 40-foot coaches with considerable savings in running costs.
With ambitious plans to grow further, ADL says it is heavily committed to new product development and is not resting on its laurels.
Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.