BusCon Brings New Things to Light

Posted on January 12, 2007 by Steve Hirano, Editor, And Janna Starcic, Managing Editor

BusCon’s return to the Navy Pier in Chicago was the catalyst for the unveiling of a wide variety of products for the bus industry, including a new line of commercial buses by one U.S. manufacturer and overseas entries by other bus builders.

BusCon also featured an educational program that included four tracks and delved into hands-on issues for bus owners, operators and maintainers, as well as motivational themes and regulatory issues. It also featured a separate conference specifically designed for university transit officials.

The conference and trade show — sponsored by METRO Magazine and its parent company, Bobit Business Media — met from Oct. 23 to 25. The 12th annual event drew a record number of participants, with approximately 2,500 attendees and exhibitors on hand.

Attendees represented a wide range of transportation interests, including transit systems, airport shuttle services, hotels, parking lots, limousine services, car rental agencies, colleges and universities, tour and charter operations, and bus dealers.

In addition to the trade show and educational program, BusCon offered ample opportunity for networking, including a cruise of Lake Michigan aboard the Odyssey II cruise ship. The event, sponsored by Krystal Enterprises, was complemented by an opening-night reception at the Palmer House Hilton Hotel sponsored by REI.

New products unveiled
BusCon has traditionally been the launching ground for many new innovative products and the 2006 event was no exception. Overall, nearly 140 exhibitors displayed their products and services at the Navy Pier’s convention center.

Chief among the new products on the show floor were buses, as you might expect. A total of 48 buses and five other vehicles and chassis were displayed, ranging in size from cutaway models to a 10-foot-wide, 60-foot-long people-mover-style bus.

Companies that displayed vehicles and chassis included ABC Companies, Ameritrans, Azure Dynamics, COBUS Industries, DaimlerChrysler Commercial Buses, Dallas Smith Corp., ElDorado National, Federal Coach, Freightliner Custom Chassis, Glaval Bus, GM Fleet and Commercial, Goshen Coach, Limelite Coach Works, IC Corporation, Krystal Enterprises, Midway Specialty Vehicles, Optima Bus Corp., Rexhall Industries, Stallion Bus Industries, Starcraft Bus and Startrans.

IC’s commercial line unveiled
Garnering much attention was the new line-up of commercial buses offered by IC Corporation. The new line includes a low-floor bus (LC Series) designed for easy accessibility, a medium-duty bus (HC Series), a front-engine transit model (FC Series) and a rear-engine transit model (RC Series).

At BusCon, IC announced that it is offering hybrid propulsion in its new commercial buses. “Hybrid buses provide two distinct advantages,” said Michael Cancelliere, IC’s vice president and general manager. “With its reduced fuel use and emissions, it is environmentally friendly. Secondly, a significant increase in fuel efficiency can dramatically improve the bottom line of many businesses.”

The hybrid diesel-electric system features Enova Systems’ post-transmission 80-kilowatt hybrid drive system. The powertrain incorporates a transmission, batteries and an electric motor. The system is based on a parallel architecture, utilizing both diesel and electric power in an efficient manner.

Other debuts on the floor
Also making its debut at BusCon was the Friendly Bus distributed by the Dallas Smith Corp. Built on a Ford F-450 chassis, the paratransit shuttle bus offers easier access for customers in wheelchairs because its low-floor configuration allows for a side or rear ramp and avoids the need for a wheelchair lift. The vehicle also has an independent wide-track air-suspension system that enhances stability and control. It’s assembled by Detroit Chassis.

Meanwhile, Ameritrans displayed its new Spirit of Mobility low-floor touring bus. It’s built on an International Truck and Engine Corp. chassis and features an Allison transmission. It is easily accessible by mobility-impaired customers because of its low-floor entry and kneeling feature. It’s also Altoona tested to 10 years and 350,000 miles and offers retro or conventional body styling.

An international flavor
Three new entries into the market were products by overseas manufacturers. The COBUS 3000, by COBUS Industries, is a 10-foot-wide, 60-foot-long bus designed to move large numbers of people short distances. Designed in Germany, the bus has a standee-dominant interior that resembles automated people movers found at some airports and can carry up to 112 passengers, with 14 seated. The low-floor bus also features three extra-wide doors on each side. It’s powered by a Mercedes 904 engine and comes standard with an Allison 2000 transmission.

Another overseas manufacturer, FAW Bus and Coach Co. Ltd. in Jiangsu, China, displayed coach and transit-style buses that are priced well below buses manufactured in North America. The buses, distributed by Rexhall Industries, a motorhome manufacturer in Lancaster, Calif., offer Cummins engines and Allison transmissions.

Two other buses — the Express Bus and the Sunliner from Stallion Bus Industries — also have Chinese roots. Designed in China, the buses are assembled in Atlanta. The Express Bus features a Freightliner MB-55 chassis, a Cummins ISB engine with 190-horsepower and an Allison transmission. Another U.S.-manufactured component is the Thermo King air conditioning system. Complementing the shuttle bus is the Sunliner Coach, which is built on a Freightliner XBR chassis, with a 275-horsepower Cummins ISB engine and an Allison transmission. It also boasts a Thermo King air conditioning system.

Ride-and-drive offered
To give attendees the opportunity to experience first-hand the new line of commercial buses, IC Corporation put on a ride-and-drive event in a parking lot at nearby Soldier Field. The course was marked with cones, and attendees each got a chance to drive each of the new commercial models, as well as a hybrid-powered school bus.

One participant said the ride-and-drive was the highlight of BusCon: “To have a hands-on experience is far superior to viewing only,” said Bruce Adcox, fleet manager of Agenda USA in Mission, Kan. “I hope IC does it again next year. If they do, I will recommend bringing more associates from my office, including my mechanics.”

One of the standouts during the ride-and-drive event was the hybrid HC Series bus, which participants said handled well and offered good acceleration and power.

Another praised the hybrid school bus: “I was very impressed by the hybrid school bus and have been trying to spread the word,” said Mary Frances Folz Donahue, an operator for the Gainesville (Fla.) Regional Transit System. “As an operator, I found the hybrid assist to be everything I would want and more in terms of performance.”

How to get to the top
One of the highlights of BusCon’s educational program was the keynote address by John Amatt, an international adventurer who’s led climbing expeditions on some of the highest and most dangerous mountains in the world, including Mount Everest.

Amatt emphasized the importance of taking risks in today’s challenging business climate. “If we fail to adapt to the changes that are happening around us, we run the risk of becoming complacent, which can be dangerous,” he said.

In 1982, Amatt led the first Canadian team to Everest’s summit, but not without extreme hardship and the deaths of three Sherpa guides and a member of the Canadian expedition. Amatt said the tragic deaths shook the team to its core, but also shattered its complacency. Rather than call off the climb, the team renewed its commitment and brought greater focus to the effort. When members of the Canadian team finally made it to the peak, they credited their willingness to adapt to the challenges created by the mountain and the weather.

“The challenge of change today is forcing us to rethink our values and, hopefully, to rekindle the spirit of adventure,” Amatt said. “Change represents a great opportunity and we must welcome it.”

Minimizing fuel costs
A challenge facing all transportation professionals these days is the high cost of fuel. This issue was addressed in a session featuring Joe Mras, director of fleet administration for Laidlaw Education Services, and Larry Braun, division manager of maintenance and technical services at Pace Suburban Bus in South Holland, Ill.

Mras said the temptation to experiment with gadgets and additives that are touted to improve fuel economy should be resisted. “Like miracle diets to help people lose weight, these fuel-saving pills and devices just don’t work,” he said. “A good fuel-savings program, just like exercise and a good diet, will get you the results you want.”

Mras said a key element of any fuel-saving program is to get the drivers to buy into it. “Driving habits can affect fuel savings by as much as 30%,” he said, making driver awareness and education efforts an essential part of any bus fleet’s training program.

Using technology can also help to reduce fuel costs. Mras said some new transmissions, for example, with six-speed automatic transmissions have a second overdrive. He also pointed out that many fleets are identifying fuel savings through vehicle tracking and data collection using GPS and performance reporting. “This can be used to improve efficiencies by measuring engine performance and driver performance and by optimizing the routing and scheduling of buses,” he said.

Pace’s Braun said fleet managers need to take a hard look at their fuel usage, especially in regard to bus idling. “Idling has been identified as a major contributing factor of fuel waste,” he said.

Supervisors need to look at their practices and, if necessary, adopt and enforce policies with the goal of reducing idle time. Braun said some vehicles can be programmed to shut down after a set amount of idling time.

Braun pointed out that unnecessary idling has resulted in fines. One East Coast transit system, he said, was recently fined $1 million for idling violations. Fines can be as much as $5,000 per violation and can be incurred after just five minutes of idling.

Braun also recommended that fleet managers look at their spec’ing practices to determine if they’re burning more fuel than necessary. “Do you really need that 330-horsepower engine in that 30-foot bus?” he asked. Fleet managers need to understand the actual needs of their buses in regard to the application and external factors such as topography and climate.

Another common waste of fuel occurs during the fueling process. Spillage, Braun said, is just not acceptable. “We shouldn’t even need to discuss it, except that it does happen,” he said.

To minimize spillage, Braun recommended the use of “dry break” fuel nozzles. He also said that robotic fueling arms have been eyed as a possible way to improve efficiency and conserve fuel.

Finally, Braun said fleet managers need to remain open to all channels of information regarding fuel economy. “A good idea can come from anywhere,” he said. “You just need to take the time to listen.”

New ideas in recruiting
When it comes to hiring new employees, no single resource will always work every time in every location, says Pat Gerace, director of recruitment for Veolia Transportation. “As the economy changes, we need to change the way we find new employees.” During the University Transit Conference session on recruitment, Gerace discussed her experiences as a recruiter, and what practices were fruitful in her quest to fill job openings.

“A job board that works for drivers may not work out so well when hiring mechanics. A job fair that was packed last year may be a dud this year,” Gerace says. Be willing to try new things and accept the fact that some of them will not work, she adds.

Before looking for new hires, operations should examine their workplace and see if there are any changes that can be made to attract and retain good employees. “This will encourage employees to refer people to you that may be interested in employment,” Gerace says.

Other ideas given during the presentation included offering incentives other than or in addition to cash, Gerace says. People may value an additional vacation day, no weekend shifts for a month or a great parking space more than money. Promote employee referrals through paycheck stuffers or announcements at meetings. Reward people who have made referrals in that month or quarter with a bowling or pizza party. “Other ideas may include tickets to a ballgame or a gas card,” she says.

“Are job seekers looked on as an interruption or a welcome addition to the day?” asks Gerace. Candidates should be greeted and treated with respect. Whenever possible, interview every qualified candidate when they come in the first time. “If you don’t hire them, someone else will.”

When looking for candidates, it’s key to “fish in the right pond,” Gerace says. “If you are looking for mechanics, think about groups that they might belong to.” She also suggests searching for candidates through faith-based organizations, which may increase the chances of finding people who can pass the background check.

Meeting mobility needs
“I think transit agencies have learned to cooperate when it comes to paratransit service,” says Rene Luna, a team leader with Access Living. “I think that’s the feeling we have now — a feeling of mutual respect and cooperation.” Luna, a disability rights activist, spoke of his experiences using public transportation during the session on transit mobility needs. “We all want the same thing; we want the service to be smooth, dependable and safe.”

“Disabled people want things to go well when they ride the bus and we want to work with the bus operator, but sometimes both sides aren’t trained, aren’t aware, or they don’t have the knowledge of what the other is doing,” Luna says. Advances in technology have made a wide array of mobility devices available for customer’s needs — making training crucial for both operators and riders. “All it takes is one bad incident riding a bus or a train, and they won’t ride again.” Operators must also be able to handle different sorts of personalities and be flexible, since they are working with customers on a more personal level with paratransit service.

Chicago plays host again
For those of you who like to get a jump on your travel scheduling, mark Oct. 1-3 on your 2007 calendars. That’s when BusCon will be returning to Navy Pier in Chicago. We’ll post updates on the event at Hope to see you there later this year.

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