Management & Operations

Robust Interest in Bus Buying Seen at BusCon 2003

Posted on January 1, 2004 by Steve Hirano, Editor, and Janna Starcic, Associate Editor

Affordable bus security, maintenance practices and vehicle spec’ing strategies were hot topics at BusCon 2003, but most of the interest was focused on the gleaming equipment displayed during the exposition at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Bolstered by promising signs of an economic recovery, attendees closely inspected the dozens of buses on the show floor with the hope of replenishing their fleets with medium- and light-duty models as well as larger motorcoaches. Ronald Reekes, assistant director for public works at Petersburg (Va.) Area Transit, said his agency recently received $2.5 million in federal and local matching funds for new buses. That funding represents a rare opportunity to replace a significant portion of the agency’s 13-bus fleet, Reekes said, adding that he was impressed by a 30-foot bus manufactured by one of the exhibitors. On a smaller scale, Jake Green, manager of campus transit for the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, said he’s also in the market for new rolling stock. In his case, he’s looking for one or two commuter coaches to supplement his fleet of 22 buses — 17 32-footers and five cutaway buses. This coach would be used for longer trips, most likely to transport athletic teams and other student organizations. “We also attended BusCon to learn more about in-house maintenance,” Green said. “Right now we subcontract our maintenance, but might want to do it in-house.” He said the workshops were helpful, as was the opportunity “to mingle” with other transportation agencies. Kevin Schweitzer, president of Amanda’s Transportation in Mesa, Ariz., said he’s looking for larger vehicles for his operation, which focuses on executive and limousine transportation. “Instead of taking a limousine, everyone’s going in bigger groups these days,” he said. “We want something with 30-passenger capacity rather than just 10 passengers.” Buses, buses, buses Buses and chassis on display included models manufactured or distributed by ABC Bus Companies, Blue Bird Corp., Champion Bus, DaimlerChrysler Commercial Buses N.A., ElDorado National, Federal Coach, Ford Motor Co., Freightliner Custom Chassis Corp., General Motors, Glaval Bus, Krystal Enterprises, North American Bus Industries, Optima Bus Corp., Prevost Car, Starcraft Bus and Mobility, Supreme Corp., Turtle Top and Workhorse Custom Chassis. A particularly interesting model displayed during the exposition was a medium-duty bus with a retractable roof. Designed by Heart International, the bus is built by Champion Bus on a GMT560 chassis. A prototype unveiled at Yellowstone National Park over the summer was designed for touring of the park, but the vehicle can be modified for other applications. To see more products showcased at BusCon, see the story beginning on pg. 50. Security in the spotlight The educational program at BusCon attracted large numbers of attendees and addressed a wide range of issues. In the opening general session of the conference, Steven Billings, a program analyst with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in the Department of Homeland Security, spoke about the federal government’s role in assessing security risks in the bus industry and establishing national standards. “Assessed risk analysis drives security planning and management,” Billings said, adding that transportation security standards would focus on passengers and protection of critical national assets. “We want to keep our risk-based focus while working toward creating good legislation and policy regulations,” he said. Billings stressed that the TSA isn’t focusing on the source of an attack on a transportation system. “Whether it’s a domestic or a foreign source doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “The driving point is significant disruption to transportation systems.” Involvement of bus operators in the process of developing a security management plan is essential, Billings said. “We need to leverage existing stakeholder relationships and continue to seek the invaluable support and contribution from our stakeholders.” Key security initiatives in the public transportation arena, Billings said, include the following:

  • Development of a national mass transit security plan.
  • Outreach to industry through site visits, conferences and workshops.
  • Identification of security needs.
  • Development of alternative screening programs.
  • Sharing of sensitive information. Within the TSA, the Highway Security Branch is responsible for protecting passengers in over-the-road coaches and school buses. Focus on equipment Some of the most popular sessions involved bus maintenance and specifications. In particular, Halsey King, president of Halsey King & Associates, moderated heavily attended panel discussions on best practices in fleet maintenance, how transit systems are successfully integrating small buses into their fleets, alternative fuels and how to specify the proper bus and components for a specific application. Basic diagnostics were the first topic on the agenda during the session on best maintenance practices. “Most problems seen deal with vehicle voltage,” said Ed Prokopik, vice president of Intermotive Products. “It’s important to check your charging system voltage and your ground circuits,” says Prokopik. “We do a voltage-drop test, check across the ground wire for loose connection or corrosion. This seems to get overlooked.” Having the proper tools for diagnostics, such as a digital voltage meter, was also covered. Another good tool to have, Prokopik said, is an LED test light, which pulls very little current and won’t damage the system. Schematics for particular vehicles often can be downloaded from the Internet. Making sure that all components are weather tight is another basic rule. Interior splices should be stripped. Prokopik recommended a product called heat shrink tubing used with adhesive, which is good for weatherproofing and available from many suppliers. King finished the seminar by talking about the importance of bus specifications. “Specifications mean everything when buying a bus,” King said. “There are so many things to take into consideration.” King recommends asking manufacturers for an as-built diagram. “We are going through a tremendous technology revolution in our industry,” he said. “The challenge is to educate people, to get ASE transit-specific certifications.” King also touched on the little things that can make a difference in a maintenance program, like putting dialectic grease on wheelchair lifts, which reduces downtime and saves money. He also discussed future industry trends, including the coming prevalence of relays — a short run of wire to locate it closer to an accessory. “I expect to see 42-volt architecture to support new accessories,” he said. Lastly, King discussed the importance of inspecting buses after they’ve been delivered by the manufacturer. “Make sure you get the bus you want.” First, when you receive a bus, do an inspection. And have a good inspection program or method in place and update people doing the inspecting to make sure they know about new issues in the industry. “If you are a manager, train people to do this — bus inspectors aren’t born,” he says. King provided a list of resources: TCRP (Transit Cooperative Research Program) 202/334-3213 SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) 724/776-4841 ASE (National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence) 877/ASE-TECH STS (Surface Technicians Society) 800/STS-9596 Meanwhile, Jack Burkert, an expert in risk management and a former executive with Lancer Insurance, shared his expertise during two workshops: “After the Crash: Litigation Realities” and “8 Secrets to Reduce Your Insurance Costs.” Two articles on these topics were penned by Burkert for this bus management supplement and start on pgs. 59 and 62. Challenges are plenty METRO Editor Steve Hirano moderated a panel discussion titled “State of the Industry: Meeting the Challenges of a Changed World.” The discussion focused on the challenges brought about by the economic downturn and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Pete Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association, said the terror attacks certainly added to the woes of motorcoach operators but did not precipitate the problems. “Many of those problems already existed,” he said. Despite the additional pressures placed on tour and charter operators over the past few years, Pantuso said it shouldn’t be forgotten that there are many “success stories” in the industry. “This is an industry that goes through peaks and valleys,” Pantuso said. “Despite the challenges, there’s lots of reason for optimism.” Godfrey LeBron, vice president of Paradise Trailways in Hempstead, N.Y., said his charter coach business on Long Island was hard hit by the terrorist attacks, especially since he’s headquartered in the New York area. “People have been gravitating more toward their cars,” he said. The key to winning back business, LeBron said, is to provide great customer service. “Now more than ever, we have to have everyone in the industry being a salesman,” he said. Cliff Henke, external affairs manager for North American Bus Industries, said the transit industry has been harmed by the recession much more than the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “Budget deficits at all levels of government, particularly at the state and local levels, have a great impact on public transportation,” he said. “We’ve seen a 15% drop in bus procurement since mid-2001 because of the tightness in capital funding.” Of critical importance, Henke said, is the current reauthorization of TEA 21 (the Transportation Equity Act of the 21st Century) and how much federal funding it makes available to the transit industry over the next six years. “We need to increase the funding pie,” he said. “There’s simply not enough money for New Starts projects in the pipeline, which will affect new service such as bus rapid transit. Because of this, there might be opportunities for privatization.” Curtis Myles III, deputy general manager of the Southern Nevada Regional Transportation Commission in Las Vegas, said the terrorist attacks have had an impact on his operation, mainly in complying with federal requests for security audits. One of the keys to moving forward in public transportation, Myles said, is to create public-private partnerships such as the Las Vegas monorail project. University transit This year’s BusCon featured a session that drew participants from around the country. The inaugural University Transit Roundtable focused on topics such as program funding, budgets, bus advertising and promotions and coordination of service. Sherry Lewis, general manager of fleet and transit services at UCLA, and Martin Gombert, partner at Mobility Advancement Group, moderated the session. Competition with local transit agencies was one subject that elicited diverse opinions. “You are seen as taking money out of the farebox,” Lewis said. “It can be a very tenuous relationship.” The majority of other participants said they didn’t have a problem with their local transit systems. Recruitment and retention of bus drivers also generated interest. Some participants said they did not want to employ students as drivers because they are less reliable and more prone to turnover than non-students. Having a mix of full-time and part-time drivers works well, especially during the summer when fewer drivers are needed and many students leave their positions. High accident rates among student drivers were also mentioned. To reduce this risk, attendees suggested that drivers receive rigorous behind-the-wheel training and be required to take refresher courses, especially after an accident. Another topic on the agenda was vehicle procurement. Lewis said that it can be more efficient to work with a local transit agency if you’re in the market for similar vehicles. “Piggybacking on their order can save money too,” she said. By the numbers BusCon 2003 drew an estimated 2,000 conferees and vendor representatives, including attendees from 48 states. More than 120 companies exhibited during the two-day trade show. The conference and exposition has been sponsored annually by Bobit Publishing and METRO Magazine since 1995, when it was launched in Las Vegas. Several associations sponsored this year’s event, including the American Bus Association, the Mid-Size Bus Manufacturers Association, the Airport Ground Transportation Association, the National Limousine Association, the California Bus Association, Trailways, Gray Line and the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association. Next year’s BusCon conference and expo will be held at the Navy Pier in Chicago. The dates are Sept. 28-30, 2004. For more information about the event, call (310) 533-2453 or visit
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