Report from Japan: Bus industry is shrinking

By Doug Jack

A pair of super high deck Isuzu coaches in the yard of Hato Bus.

I recently visited Japan to meet operators and manufacturers. It was a fascinating experience, with many surprises. Until recently, with a very strong motor industry that features household names like Toyota, Honda, Isuzu and Mitsubishi, Japan was the second largest economy in the world. But now China has overtaken Japan, and it is clear the country is concerned about its much larger neighbor.

Japan’s production of buses and coaches is shrinking, while the Chinese industry is expanding rapidly. It’s a complicated story and one difficult to predict the eventual outcome.

The Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association divides buses and coaches into two categories: up to 29 passengers, or 30 and above. Over the last two decades production and registration of buses and coaches for 30 or more passengers has declined from a yearly average of 10,000 to half that level, and to an all-time low of 4,234 in 2009. That was partly attributable to the global financial crisis.

Over the years, the Japanese authorities have introduced legislation on the construction of buses that has made it difficult for importers to supply the market unless they receive special dispensation. This is normally only for types of vehicles which are not built in Japan, such as articulated city buses. Japan also has emissions regulations which are different from those in Europe and North America.

There are four manufacturers of larger buses and coaches. Hino is a subsidiary of Toyota. GM no longer has any shareholding in Isuzu, but there are still close links. Daimler owns 85 percent of Mitsubishi Fuso. Nissan Diesel, now known as UD Motors, is a fully-owned subsidiary of Volvo. The last independent bodybuilder, Nishi-Nippon Shatai Kogyo (NSK), closed at the end of August.

Faced with declining market volumes, Hino and Isuzu merged their bus development and manufacturing activities into the J Bus Group, which commenced operations in October 2003. Design, purchasing and manufacturing were all integrated, but each brand retained its own sales team. The former Hino factory now builds small buses, coaches and hybrid buses with Hino drivelines.

The former Isuzu plant builds city buses. Most of these are what the Japanese call non-step buses, with the floor one step above the ground from the front to just ahead of a conventional rear axle. Others are available with the floor either two or three steps above the ground, the latter used mainly for shorter inner-urban journeys.

Joint venture
In August 2006, Mitsubishi Fuso and Nissan Diesel started to collaborate on research, development and manufacturing. Fuso builds large tourist coaches, and higher floor city buses for the partnership. In turn, Nissan Diesel makes midibuses and large low entry city buses. In September 2009 the two companies agreed to explore further integration to control costs.
The bus factories are very well equipped, with considerable investment in tooling. They offer a wide range of vehicles from mid-size to 40-foot long. Various floor heights are available for city buses and there is even a choice of overall widths for midibuses. Similarly, coaches are available in various lengths up to 40 foot, and with different deck heights.

Despite pooling their manufacturing activities, the wide variety of models means manufacturers do not benefit from large-scale series production. This results in activities which are quite labor intensive in a high cost country. It makes complete Japanese buses uncompetitive in export markets, except for chassis, which can be bodied in other countries.

Passengers load on the bus at an old terminal in central Tokyo. Photos courtesy of Doug Jack

Traveling around Tokyo, I was very impressed by the network of tunnels, bridges and flyovers which kept traffic moving. On the other hand, I saw no evidence of any priority measures to help buses travel more freely. While there have been government initiatives to invest in new buses by introducing scrappage allowances, the larger fleets in Tokyo, both bus and coach, appear to keep their vehicles for around 15 years, after which they are resold in rural parts of the country.

Toei Bus, a city bus fleet owned by the Metropolitan Government of Tokyo, has 1,462 vehicles, of which 88 percent are low entry and include 141 CNG and 112 hybrid models. This includes 141 buses fueled by CNG and 112 hybrid models. Most are built to an overall length of 34 feet 5 inches and a width of 98 inches. Some are only 90.5 inches wide for the remarkably narrow streets and tight corners in older parts of Tokyo.

It was surprising to find most buses had synchromesh gearboxes, rather than fully automatic. I was told that drivers preferred them because they thought they had better control.
Toei Bus believes the manual gearboxes give average improvement in fuel consumption of around 10 percent. However, they were looking at the latest generation of fully automatic gearboxes.

Hato Bus is Japan’s leading operator of city sightseeing and tours with a fleet of 136 coaches and one ship for cruising in Tokyo Bay. The company prints brochures in Japanese, Chinese and English, and carries around 700,000 passengers per year. One of its specialities is themed tours, including all aspects of Japanese culture and cooking. There are even tours for ladies who want to buy traditional Japanese kimonos.

In addition to management, drivers and maintenance staff, Hato Bus employs 180 tour guides. These are mainly young women who are recruited from high schools and trained by the company. Guides who speak Chinese and English are hired from language schools.

The coaches are kept in immaculate condition and include a mix of high deck, super high deck and double deck vehicles. Some of the super high deck models have as few as 23 seats, in a 2-plus-1 layout for extended tours. When not in use vehicles are parked in the open because of the high cost of buildings and the annual taxes. At all the operators on my tour, the only buildings were offices and maintenance areas.

The low driving of an Isuzu super high deck coach. Note the manual gear-shift.

I also visited JR Kanto, a subsidiary of Japan East Railways. JR Kanto runs 335 coaches, mainly on a network of express services. Many operate overnight. On the most popular routes, coaches are available with various standards of luxury. The highest level was on some double deck coaches with only four massive seats on the lower deck, which reclined to an almost horizontal position like aircraft seats in business class.

JR Kanto was particularly proud of its training scheme for drivers. New recruits who have a bus driver’s licence spend 240 hours of intensive training before they carry passengers.

Further training courses are held annually for the first five years and also for any driver who has an at-fault accident. The company faces competition from smaller and less scrupulous companies on some of its routes. Therefore, its safety record is an important consideration for passengers.

Tokyo’s Narita International Airport is nearly 40 miles from the city’s center. The price of a taxi is around $350, but fortunately there is an efficient coach service for one tenth of the price, which serves both terminals, a downtown city terminal, and all main hotels.

The two main Korean manufacturers, Daewoo and Hyundai, have recently targeted the Japanese market and started to import small numbers of coaches. They are well built and very competitively priced. Mercedes-Benz has imported small numbers of its articulated Citaro buses. Because they are wider than the Japanese standard, they require special dispensation and are restricted to specific routes. It will be interesting to see if these are isolated examples or the start of large scale imports which would cause further contraction of the beleaguered domestic industry.

Doug Jack is with Transport Resources in the United Kingdom.

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