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This article appeared to get enormous interest from US investors ....

 Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"....then we take Berlin". Designline in the Middle East, Alexander Dennis lands in NZ, Go Bus crosses the strait ....

Designline Eco-Saver IV - on trial in New York. Source Wikimedia Commons

I am just flogging that catchy line from Leonard Cohen to tart this blog post up!

His lyric "First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin" keeps lolling around in my brain as I think of some quite big shifts in the "whose doing what to who" category of the bus world.

Firstly there is some good news for DesignLine, which has been drving a pretty rocky road the last year or two. Inventor of the gas turbine hybrid (and early pioneer of using the fossil fuel engine to recharge the batteries rather than as an auxillary drive system) and various other innovative bus building technologies John Turton, hails from Ashburton NZ (population 13,000). Over about 20 years he built a small town bus building firm into New Zealand's largest bus builder. He created his iconic hybrid "Olymbus" bus as part of a design contest for the Sydney, Australia Olympics back in 2000. It didn't win the Gold (so to speak) but it certainly got a metaphorical silver and was picked up as a great addition to the idea of creating a free central city circulator bus by the Christchurch City Council back in 1998. Three of the buses (I believe they cost about $750,000 - twice the normal bus cost) have been employed as city circulators paid for by the City Council but operated by the local Metro system and operator Redbus. These have been a huge success, carrying over a million short-trip passengers per year (free). This seems to compare very well to far more expensive circulators in other cities, which use streetcars or conventional buses, often far less cost-effectively.

The Olymbus buses [see photo on the sidebar] are slightly comic, cartoonish in style, round and good natured, but this makes them feel very stranger/tourist friendly and lends to them an iconic quality that must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in Christchurch city imagery and tourist identity. Apart from the occasional humming or low whistling noises they are quiet - quieter than even trolley buses.  My feeling is the main failing has been not to complement the three yellow buses with three of some other bright or distinctive colour, on an added route, overlapping the core route up Colombo Street (to give a core city axis service of every five minutes, ten often being too long for the walk/wait distances involved) but branching off to serve other areas within the "four Avenues" (the mile wide square of Avenues enclosing the Christchurch CBD) such as the Arts Centre and North Hagley Park or Avon Loop -Madras Street north.

This said, as far as central corridor frequency goes,  most regular local passengers know, you can catch any bus through the central city area, and know that the amount charged covers virtually all subsequent bus travel during the following two hours; de facto in most circumstances this means a free trip home after shopping.

Just as the car and many other inventions took a decade or two to take hold, so it may prove with Designline technology. After sales to Hong Kong and Newcastle in the UK [where a recent change in which bus operator won the tender saw the Quayside circulator system Olymbus hybrid buses replaced by diesel] a few years ago John Turton decided to try to crack the US market. US government laws require a high portion of local content and involvement in products of this nature, so John Turton had to look for local US based partners and capital and found them with a high powered semi-retired group (including a former State Governor and a retired high ranking miltary officer and his son as major investors). In 2006 the New Zealand born firm DesignLine was purchased and the head office moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, with John Turton retaining position in research and development and as an excutive vice-president. The NZ production line was retained and not long after bus building factory in Ashburton - which had often struggled to get adequate skilled labour in this small town -  moved 80km north to a new purpose built, all functions at one site factory, at Rolleston, in IZone (advertised as New Zealands largest new industrial estate) on the outskirts of Christchurch city.

Back stateside New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority, trialled one, then eight, then 30 of the latest Designline hybrids...Leonard Cohen's famous words "First we take Manhattan ..." could almost... almost, just, ...well a tiny bit... be coming true for this boy from "Ash Vegas" (the Canterbury nickname for this rural centre where Designline began). But it still remains to be seen whether these buses will be embraced on a larger scale. A year back Baltimore purchased 13 (more conventionally styled) "EcoSmart" Designline buses but after the first year of operation have decided the hybrids do not handle the summer heat well and/or the supply chain is too uncertain and will choose other vehicles for future replacement. I am no mechanic but I understand turbines typically tend to have complications with heat and technical management of this is central to their long term potential as simpler, faster motors. 

Nonetheless the rocky state of Designline finances could also have played a bigger part. Partly no doubt because of the recession (which hit USA so much harder than NZ it seems) Designline was beset by financial problems and then that most terrible of yankee diseases, extended litiginous cases about payments (or not) and supply of goods as defined in the contract (or not). In New Zealand delays in meeting orders was further exacerbated by the major earthquake in Christchurch in September, dropping part of wall onto a bus assembly line. Other potential customers may have been dispersuaded by Designline's uncertain financial future at the time.

However, after all these problems - a nice Christmas present - the Designline parent body in USA finally secured much needed extra finance package in December last year. According to The Press [20th Dec 2010] quoting the Charlotte Business Journal sources of the $US14 million plus package include the Guggenhein Foundation and Orix Venture Capital and this will now allow over $300 million of sales orders to be met. In Christchurch delays and problems with suppliers - including supplying the new buses for Metro's "Selwyn Star" service to be operated by Leopard -  should also be resolved.

Last year Designline USA sold two of the Christchurch-style gas hybrid buses (the model has now renamed Eco-Smart 1) to a luxury resort in Abu Dhabi. Also a major long standing automotive dealer, Liberty Automobiles, was appointed agent for Designline in the Middle East. Mr Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz Al Qasimi chairman of Liberty Investment Company, holding company of Liberty Automobiles, said that "Electric vehicles hold the key to green cities, and recent developments worldwide indicate that governments will increasingly switch to carbon neutral vehicles sooner than later." The idea of building a Designline bus building factory in the United Arab Emirates recently raised, an idea with obvious appeal to those oil states seeking to evolve towards a post-oil economy. In this light it seems probable at least some of the Designline latest financing package may also be coming from Middle Eastern sources. Established first in Bagdad in 1923, Ernst and Young claims to be the largest assurance and business advisory firm operative in the middle East. Although I know even less about finance than I do about mechanical matters, it  seems to me to be of huge significance that someone of prestige and standing of the managing partner of this major global conglomeration in the Middle East , Fouad Alaeddin, appeared listed as a Director of Designline on the registration of the new financial deal, quoted in the Charlotte paper.

Last week it was announced the a Designline Eco-Saver hybrid bus would be one of four tested in conjunction with fuel cell trials by the US Government Federal Transit Administration in conjunction with other Ohio University and other major research bodies. According to a report in Metro magazine the grant will "combine DesignLine's existing lightweight chassis and robust, mature hybrid-drive train system with an advanced Ballard fuel cell, further chassis mass improvement research and next generation component development".

So they may not take Manhattan, or even Berlin, but the radical concepts behind Designline buses do look likely to spread across the globe, notwithstanding all the early teething problems, earthquakes, recessions, lawsuits and locusts!! CEO of DesignLine Corporation USA, Brad Glosson told a Middle East news site "DesignLine electric vehicles are the world's only zero-emission vehicles that are deployed for daily passenger service, proving that we don't make just concept buses," added Glosson. "Our batteries are easy to charge and fully recyclable at the end of their life, and the Drive-train is based on DesignLine's proven and proprietary system."

In the words of a New York Metropolitan Transit Authority official back in 2008."It's the most advanced vehicle we have."

But back on the New Zealand homefront  a whole new player in bus building enters the equation...UK's biggest bus builder Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) wins the contract to build 120 buses for NZ Bus for Auckland and Wellington urban bus services....the buses will be built in kitset form at ADL's Falkirk (Scotland) factory and then be shipped to NZ where they will built up by Kiwi Bus Builders based mainly in Tauranga.  It is perhaps indicative of how badly the recession has knocked the UK  - bus production was down 35% - that this relatively modest number of vehicles seems crucial in the survival of the Falkirk operation, though it has now been joined by a larger Stagecoach order too.

NZ Bus said they looked at proposals from 38 bus builders around the world before choosing ADL. A report in an English newspaper notes "The £25 million order is a significant win for the UK’s largest bus builder and gives it a platform for further growth in the region." In Scotland they were even more excited "The Scotsman" headline Scottish bus builder sees New Zealand deal as 'springboard' 

Despite the large number of possible bus building contractors to choose from seems to me that may not be entirely chance (or at very least it may be convenient ) that control of ADL appears to be essentially in the hands of Stagecoach  founder, Brian Souter, who privately bought 38% of the shares and saved the enterprise when Alexander Dennis almost went down the gurgler a few years back. Souter sold Stagecoach to Infratil back in 2005 and Souter Holdings and Infratil - the money behind NZ Bus - both have (or had) shared investment in 120 bus operation Mana Coachlines in Wellington. Souter Holdings also purchased the Howick and Eastern bus company in Auckland in 2008. Despite being a new name on the local scene, Alexander Dennis has plenty of connections in NZ.

Infratil previously had a 41% share  in Go Bus which recently "took" almost a third of the bus routes in Christchurch - mostly off well established RedBus (fresh from buying $19 million worth of new buses and thus very vulnerable to a financial knee collapse!!). The "invasion" from Go Bus the fairly aggressive Hamilton based bus firm which has rapidly won many urban - provincial city - and school bus tenders throughout the central North Island over the last decade was made possible after Clive Peters, owner manager of Christchurch Bus Services donned the Kamakazi headscarf. Peters came roaring in below the big guns (Leopard and Redbus) at tender prices that Metro officers themselves have since said they believe were "unsustainable" - but was granted multiple routes nonetheless, which I think raises very serious ethical and fiscal responsibility questions in many Ecan ratepayer's minds. 

This gave CBS sufficient routes, for sales to a larger organisation to be attractive for purchase by a larger operator, even those without a foothold in the Te Wai Pounamu, the south island (luckily Go Bus just happened to be passing!!!). Next step of course might be moans that Go Bus has "saved the city" (a superior bus service is certainly expected) but  - oh dear - just Go Bus  just can't afford to run buses at the unsustainable tendersput forward by a certain retired banzai pilot - a nice thank you from the city is surely now needed.

Yeah right. Ha Ha ha (sinister laugh)   ......then we take Berlin!

Definitely not Manhattan!! A bit of classic kiwiana - the Go Bus HQ in central north island town Taihape,  as made famous by the song "First we take Taihape then we take Berlins"  [** Berlins = former west coast mining town on the steep sides of the Buller Gorge, reduced now to just a single country pub].  Who else would be silly enough to photograph something as obscure as this but the dwatted wabbit!



Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bus Rapid Transit - Getting the picture

One of Wright Streetcar purpose designed BRT vehicles operating in Las Vegas
Another Wrightcar vehicle, this one in Swansea, Wales

Malaysia has recently announced it plans to build 320km of busway lines to cover the five flagship zones of Iskandar Malaysia. This will start with the pilot project to cover three main lines -- Johor Bahru to Skudai (21.05 kilometres), Johor Bahru to Pandan (9.57 kilometres) and Johor Bahru to Nusajaya (13.93 kilometres). A total cost of RM469.5 million has been estimated for the BRT infrastructure, which covers bus lanes, terminals, stations, interchanges, stops, park and ride facilities and mobility centres, and it is targeted to complete by 2012. With the completion of the pilot BRT lines, ridership is expected to increase from the current 150,000 to 400,000 daily.

Said a statement from the transport authorities " Benchmarked against other developing countries, the BRT is a bus system with dedicated bus running ways and is expected to be a cost-effective way of providing high quality and high performance transit."

Even more recent is the opening of Bankok's first Bus Rapit Transit corridor. Check out the rather unusual lookng vehicle here. Some of the bus rapid transit vehicle designs being implemented around the world sure look strange to our eyes, and some critics wonder why it is necesary to create vehicles that look very imitative of light rail vehicles!
Is it just something - like many unusual woman's fashions that appear odd only for for the first few weeks - the world will adapt to and soon see as normal? Or is it a bizarre fad that will soon enough give way to a return to designs that keep more the integrity of a bus. Who knows? I know I prefer buses to look like buses myself. In the meantime, below I share a few images of brt vehicles and articulated vehicles from around the world. Underlying these images is the fact that diesel, hybrid and GNG engines and associated bus technologies have made huge advances in the last couple of decades and are more than capable of smoothly pulling large passenger loads - upto 300 passengers - in ways highly competitive with electric vehicles. These larger vehicles probably perform best operating on specifically planned busway corridors, but can also typically operate in conventional traffic too

Mercedes CapaCity in Warsaw - note three doors for ease of loading and for short-trip standing traffic
Healthline BRT vehicle in Cleveland USA

Mercedes CapaCity, (193 passenger capacity) one of 250 on Istanbul's segregated
busway system which carries several hundred thousand passengers a day

Hess bi-articulated trolley bus with five doors (at least) in Switzerland - at 24 metres too long for NZ roads, - dispensation might apply to run operate on designated busways, much as extended LRT vehicles would need such dispensation.

BRT vehicle used used in Los Angeles, albeit along an "on-street" BRT corridor

The power, acceleration, fuel economy, emission clenliness and relative noise level of modern buses allows far greater numbers of passengers to be transported easily and rapidly, including where the situation is right using double decker buses, such as in Victoria, British Columbia.