Notes from Busworld: Kortrijk banishes the gloom

By Doug Jack

Exhibits took up every square inch of available space at the 20th edition of Busworld held in Kortrijk, Belgium in October. Busworld Kortrijk is a truly global event. The 381 exhibitors from 27 countries that included 70 vehicle manufacturers saw the largest tented pavilion ever erected in Belgium. It allowed 20 percent more space than at any previous exposition.

The final count was 28,159 visitors from 115 countries, both records.

For the first time that I can recall, there was not a single chassis. The European industry is steadily moving towards complete vehicles. Those manufacturers who still offer chassis are trying to work more closely with a smaller number of bodybuilding partners, which will put pressure on countries with large bodybuilding industries, such as Spain.

The impact of the global financial crisis appears to vary from country to country but all closely linked to the reckless banking behavior. As a result, family-owned companies now find it generally more difficult to obtain financing to purchase new coaches. Having said that, many manufacturers reported that they were doing deals. The component suppliers were out in force.

Few totally new models

Although Euro 5 exhaust emission standards came into effect for vehicles registered on or after the first of October, a comparatively few totally new models were at the show. We will probably not see a large number of new models in Europe until the introduction of Euro 6 around the end of 2012.

Scania sprang the biggest surprise. With its reputation for excellent engineering and quality while still managing to make a profit, Scania launched its new touring coach built in partnership with Higer of China. Higer currently makes around 18,000 buses and coaches annually, and has laid down a separate facility to build up to 3,000 vehicles a year with Scania.

Scania has had considerable input into the styling, design, development and construction of this new coach, while meeting all quality control requirements, and offering full customer support through the Scania worldwide after sales network. The plan calls for 500 units next year and includes select markets in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Scania meets the latest emission standards using Exhaust Gas Recirculation without the need for any additives.

The announcement set alarm bells ringing for Scania main competitors. The price of the new beautifully finished Higer coach is highly competitive, and sends a very serious warning to the European bodybuilding industry, and Scania makes no secret of its ambitions to expand.

Though executives say they will continue to work closely with their principal European partner, Irizar, it would be surprising if that relationship were still as strong in five years.

A courageous decision

For the first time, Irizar took its own stand and launched integral versions of its i4 interurban coach and its top-of-the-range PB luxury coach — a courageous decision by the Spanish builder. Until now Irizar has worked with all the main chassis manufacturers in the Spanish market, with Volvo in Greece, and with Scania in more than two dozen other European countries.

Irizar is already facing stiff competition in the European coach market and in its home country from Turkish imports from MAN and Mercedes-Benz. Going integral may be the only solution in the medium to longer term. Irizar faces the challenge of putting in place a parts and service network to support the new range. The launch models had engines by DAF, part of Paccar, and ZF axles and gearboxes. Those units are widely known throughout Europe.

Irizar will carry out a series of proving trials on the new integral models over the coming months and expects to start volume production later next year.

During the show Tata of India announced it had increased its shareholding in another Spanish bodybuilder, Hispano, from 21 to 100 percent.

In many European countries, coaches used on regular interurban services qualify for a subsidy, provided the gangway is no more than 34 inches above ground. Where the floor height in Mercedes-Benz and Setra touring coaches normally start at 52 inches, the two companies bridged the gap with multi-purpose vehicles with 41-inch floor height that allows greater luggage capacity.

Improves forward mobility

Van Hool showed several examples of its extensive range. The popular Astron coach now features a gradually sloped theater-style that improves forward visibility. The new version is the Astronef.

For a comparatively small company, Van Hool has done a lot of work on alternative fuels and drive systems. These include CNG, LPG, diesel-hybrid, fuel cell hybrid and trolleybuses. One exhibit was a second-generation fuel cell hybrid bus built completely in Belgium — one of 12 for AC Transit in California. Four similar vehicles are going to a customer in Connecticut.

Stuart Jones, chairman of the International Coach of the Year jury, presented the 2010 prize to Michael Gopfarth, head of the Mercedes-Benz brand. The Travego coach won for its numerous safety features — many not yet required in European legislation.

Solaris of Poland has built a number of 60-ft articulated buses with Allison hybrid drive systems, but launched its first 40-ft bus using an Eaton hybrid drive and super capacitors. Through clever packaging, most of the system fits into a compartment at the rear with some storage under seats. Solaris also launched the InterUrbino, a coach aimed initially at the extensive intercity market in Poland. This vehicle had unusually deep overhead open luggage racks intended to encourage passengers to bring parcels onto the vehicle rather than have the driver jump in and out to put them in under floor lockers.

Just one year ago Temsa launched its Avenue low-floor city bus, a CNG-fueled option at UITP in June, and unveiled its first hybrid example in Kortrijk. Temsa occupied all of the new Hall 7 and also launched a new corporate logo. Temsa has developed an extensive range of medium and full-size vehicles and is now active in 46 countries, mainly in Europe and Central Asia.

Innovative and expanding rapidly

Turkish manufacturers are innovative and expanding rapidly. Otokar is one of the largest builders of military vehicles in Turkey, but well known for many years for its midi coaches. The range has expanded rapidly over the last three to four years, culminating in the appearance at Kortrijk of the Kent full-size low-floor city bus.

The British company Optare demonstrated its all-electric midi bus to top politicians in Brussels the day before the show opened. This attractive vehicle has a large area of easily accessible low floor and a range of up to 100 miles on a full charge. Although there is a high price premium compared with a conventional diesel midi bus, Optare CEO Jim Sumner believes there will be further development in battery technology, leading to extended range and faster charging times.

There is a small niche market in Europe for open-top double-deck buses for city sightseeing. Ayats, a Spanish builder, has developed a range of integral double decks, including a sightseeing model that meets U.S. regulations with either a diesel engine or diesel hybrid.

I was in Busworld Kortrijk from start to finish and still did not manage to visit every stand. It was a tremendous exhibition. If you want to put your finger on the pulse of the world industry, and meet many of the leading manufacturers and component suppliers, make a point of coming to Kortrijk in two years

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.