Most motorcoach operators do every preventive maintenance measure under the sun to keep their coaches on the road and out of repair shops. Still, the occasional and unexpected breakdown occurs, whether it’s a failed air conditioning system or an electrical short. That isn’t so bad if your operation is nearby, but usually that isn’t the case.
Tour and charter buses often travel miles outside of an operator’s region or headquarters, making service by in-house mechanics oftentimes something short of impossible. Independent maintenance facilities, with their diverse service offerings and sparsely disseminated locations, have become industry lifesavers.
Heartland Motor Coach, a maintenance facility whose primary function is charter service, has operated out of St. Louis, Mo., for 15 years. Its closest competitor is situated 50 miles north in Kansas City.
“Clients of ours have come as far as 40 to 50 miles for our service,” says Chuck Hill of Heartland Motor Coach. “If they’re on the interstate in our proximity and they call us, we’ll help them if we can. We’ll help them with a replacement coach if we have one available and a replacement driver too, if necessary.”
Jim’s Truck and Trailer Coachworks is located in Winona, Minn. Its closest competitor once operated out of Chicago but has been out of business for two years. Jim’s Truck and Trailer enjoys a stream of business that keeps its mechanics busy.
“Our local area is about a 300-mile radius that covers Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas,” says Jim Remlinger, president of Jim’s Truck and Trailer. “Business has been pretty decent. In the last year we haven’t grown and we haven’t shrunk either. Business is even all year.”
Remlinger has operated Jim’s Truck and Trailer for 33 years and recently expanded his center of operations by adding a 15,000-square-foot paint facility. “The paint facility has a 60-foot down draft bake oven booth,” says Remlinger. “We also had hydraulic lifts installed and Hunter computerized alignment equipment.”
Terry Spahr, chief executive officer of The Bus Service Center, conducts business at his maintenance facility with a limited clientele and in a confined area of Los Angeles. “Our service area is pretty much limited to the short driving distance around Los Angeles International Airport [LAX],” says Spahr. “I have customers that come from the San Fernando Valley, but not very many.”
Whether or not they cover a large expanse or a small section of a particular city, independent maintenance facilities offer a range of services that benefit the motorcoach industry as a whole.
Independent maintenance facilities can be just as competitive in service quality and quantity as some of the larger, big-named facilities. Most are certified by OEMs to provide warranty services for their equipment and are backed by the OEM’s parts and service guarantees.
“We are an authorized Prevost center and Prevost coach operators are our most frequent customers,” Remlinger says. “That work can only be performed by us unless you are Prevost or you’re another certified service center.”
Jim’s Truck and Trailer Coachworks specializes in steering, suspension, electrical and A/C work. “We also specialize in collision repair and structure and frame repair. Pretty much everything but the engine itself,” says Remlinger.
At the Bus Service Center, Spahr keeps his specific service menu down to a minimum and does not extend his business to the general public. “The primary service that our customers require is preventive maintenance,” he says. “In the state of California, most of the vehicles that we work on are called regulated vehicles. They are inspected by the California Highway Patrol and are required to maintain a certain level of preventive maintenance and record keeping.”
Preventive maintenance at the Bus Service Center consists of four major components, says Spahr. “That includes brake adjustment, brake components, tires and wheels, steering and suspension. Those are critical items,” he says. “From there you have the minor things, from exhaust, glass and upholstery to lights and a variety of other things.”
Heartland Motor Coach specializes in emergency services. “We perform emergency service in the form of electrical problems, flat tires and A/C work,” Hill says. “We’ve also worked on a few blown engines.”
Much of Heartland’s service work comes from Northwest Missouri State University, which has five MCI coaches. Heartland performs all heavy-duty maintenance to the university’s coaches.
As many independent maintenance facilities are certified service centers for specific bus manufacturers, their mechanics have received first-hand training from the OEMs.
“All of our guys are trained through the manufacturers,” says Remlinger, who operates one facility with a total of four mechanics. “Not only are we a Prevost service center, but we also do a lot of the warranty repair work for MCI.”
Spahr, who also operates a single facility with a total of 12 technicians, contracts with The Parking Lot, a terminal parking and transport service at LAX. The Parking Lot has two facilities with a total of 23 buses. The Bus Service Center also does work for a group of small private schools in the Los Angeles area. Spahr conducts in-house training for his staff.
“We’ve trained everybody that works here specifically for the jobs that we do,” he says. “They, of course, come to us with specific backgrounds and experience, but the best people here are people that we’ve trained.”
Because of the size of many independent maintenance facilities and the number of parts they carry, they are usually better suited to handle certain jobs, and more efficiently than some individual operators.
“While the operator with one mechanic is dealing with his everyday operations, it would be tough for him to handle certain emergencies,” says Hill. “But we can handle those very well.”
Heartland Motor Coach has one service center and employs two full-time and one part-time mechanic.
Coach operators interested in locating independent maintenance facilities can, of course, visit their local yellow or white page directories. But some facilities, such as Spahr’s, will only list with specific industry directories.
“I’m in the Bus Book yellow pages,” says Spahr. “We get asked a lot of times to advertise in other publications, but if they don’t target the vehicles that we’re interested in servicing or if they distribute to the general public, then we don’t advertise there.”
Jim’s Truck and Trailer Coachworks has ads in the Bus Pages and in the Garage Index as well as in some coach industry magazines. “We also do direct mailing to charter and insurance companies,” says Remlinger. “We probably send out about 800 to 1,000 flyers about our service per month.”
Some maintenance facilities, especially those with other business interests, such as Heartland Motor Coach and its charter service, choose to keep advertising to a minimum.
“We advertise in the Bus Pages, through the United Motorcoach Association’s membership directory and through the American Bus Association only,” says Hill, who stressed the importance of cooperation between motorcoach companies.
“We have breakdowns occasionally, too, and there are companies that come to our rescue,” he says. “That’s what there needs to be more of in this industry, motorcoach companies that will not beat each other to death over prices and instead work together to make the industry grow.”