When New Jersey Transit Corp. (NJ Transit) began taking deliveries of new commuter coaches in late 2000, some of its buses for intercity routes were nearly 20 years old. Critical to a historic modernization program, the replacements were part of the agency's $500 million contract with Motor Coach Industries Inc. (MCI) to supply 1,371 commuter cruisers.
"Unless there was a procurement I am unaware of, this was by far the largest bus contract ever in the transit industry in North America," said Tom Sorrells, president and CEO of MCI.
What's certain is that this order set a major precedent for public transit agencies looking to purchase motorcoaches for transit service. At the time, the contract was momentous, not just in size and financial terms, but also in the development of the buses themselves.
Special features on the vehicles include high-back reclining seats, LED reading lamps, passenger controlled air vents, multiplexing systems from IO Controls that cut down on road calls and electrical failures, wheelchair securements and lifts from Ricon Corp. and Detroit Diesel Series 60 engines.
Today, from all indications, the new buses are a hit with riders and employees alike. "Passengers have responded positively, but that was expected, as [the new buses] replaced 16- and 18-year-old buses," said James Gigantino, vice president and general manager of bus and light rail operations for NJ Transit. "Customers who had their routes switched from transit buses enjoy the greater comfort of a commuter cruiser."
According to NJ Transit officials, the decision to go with MCI coaches came after a long competitive procurement process of looking at bus specifications and manufacturers in order to obtain coaches that would meet the agency's demanding standards. NJ Transit wanted the new coaches to provide a quality of service not typically seen on conventional 40-foot transit buses.
Obviously, with such a high price tag, there were questions about the relative cost of commuter cruisers versus conventional transit buses. But Sorrells said that the MCI buses could actually reduce the agency's costs in the long run. "It's more costly to buy these buses up front, but the efficiency is greater compared to a standard transit bus," he said. "For example, with higher seating capacities, you can get by with nine buses instead of 10, saving the cost of the driver, insurance, maintenance, fuel and everything else that comes from having an extra bus."
In addition, a small portion of the MCI commuter cruisers delivered in 2003 are equipped with hybrid drive systems that were integrated into the MCI coaches by San Diego-based ISE Research. These models will be used to decide whether the technology can yield further fuel consumption savings.
"With the hybrid-electric buses, we hope to find better fuel and financial efficiencies that would further squeeze operating costs," said NJ Transit Executive Director George Warrington.
There can be cost savings in reliability, too, as the average distance between breakdowns is often greater in commuter coaches than with transit buses. Still, with all the unfamiliar technology and equipment on the new buses, one would think that functional or maintenance issues might be a problem. But to this point, that doesn't seem to be the case.
"There have been no significant operational or mechanical issues with the coaches," said Gigantino.
Sorrells concurs. "We addressed whatever issues came up at the start of the newest models, and to my understanding, NJ Transit is exceptionally pleased with the performance and reliability of the buses, as well as with the attention and help they've received from us."
Overall, it appears that NJ Transit has found success using commuter coaches for intercity service. So the question is, are large-scale deals between public transit agencies and motorcoach suppliers an emerging trend in public transportation? The answer remains unclear.
NJ Transit officials said there is no evidence of more deals like this in the near future. MCI's Sorrells agrees that orders of this magnitude are a rarity, but the company is anticipating continued growth as transit systems extend service further out into distant suburbs.