BusBank's acquisition of Buster expands the range of meetings, events, and group motorcoach and minibus business, especially for smaller fleet companies.
North America’s bus industry gathered in Chicago in late September for BusCon, held at the Navy Pier for the third time since 1995. Sponsored by METRO magazine and its parent company, Bobit Business Media, the annual event brings together buyers and sellers of buses of all sizes for dozens of transportation applications.
More than 1,000 attendees took advantage of a large display of buses and equipment at the Navy Pier convention center and also enhanced their knowledge of rolling stock and related products and services. Educational sessions were presented by experts in operations, maintenance, procurement, finance and university transportation.
Billed as “the medium- and light-duty bus show,” BusCon celebrated its 10th year with a record number of attendees and exhibitors. The final tally of attendees was 1,239. In addition, more than 125 companies represented by 742 people, exhibited products and services. Virtually every major bus manufacturer was present, displaying more than 70 vehicles in all.
Challenges are numerous
BusCon attendees came from all parts of North America and operate a wide array of vehicles, but they face similar challenges, such as rising insurance and fuel costs as well as personnel issues.
Daniel Clark, president of Muscatine Trolley & Tours in Iowa, said his current concern is the high cost of insurance.
“As far as I can tell, I get rated as though I were a larger operation with more vehicles traveling greater distances,” Clark said. He pays a little more than $18,000 annually for liability coverage on three vehicles and has raised rates to offset this increased cost. “I can charge what the market can bear, but on the other hand, I have people seeing even a modest price [increase] as outrageous.”
Fuel prices and retaining quality drivers are challenges faced by Michael Davis, president of Beltway Transportation Service in Forestville, Md. Fairly new to the business, Davis said he discovered the hard way that it’s important to do thorough background checks on drivers. “I found out that one of my drivers had a less than stellar past after he was denied entry at a government installation,” he said, adding that it’s difficult to attract quality drivers for what he can pay.
Howard Ende, vice president of paratransit for New York City Transit, tries to balance improving customer service while containing costs. “We try to reduce costs in ways that are invisible to our customers,” Ende said. “We in-housed part of our liability insurance to reduce the premiums.”
Bus security examined
What is being done to secure the nation’s public and private transportation systems was the topic of discussion at BusCon’s general session, moderated by Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association (ABA). Greg Hull, American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) direc-tor of safety and security programs, and Jane Bass, deputy branch chief with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), discussed current transportation security initiatives and those that are still under de-velopment.
“The motorcoach industry was a strategic transportation reserve post-Sept. 11, as it was the only form of transportation still running,” Pantuso said. After Sept. 11, the ABA worked with security experts to develop an industry anti-terrorism action plan, provide training for bus company employees and work with lawmakers to secure grant funding - $30 million to date - for operators.
“Public transit service in the U.S. is, by design, an open infrastructure, which makes it a challenge to secure,” Hull said. “The elements of a safety plan should include security, training, emergency response planning and preparedness, and hazard and risk assessment.”
In addition to numerous security initiatives in place prior to Sept. 11, some of APTA’s security task force work following Sept. 11 included development of an oversight group for security research. The group was funded through the Transportation Research Board’s Transit Cooperative Re-search Program with more than $2 million in allocated funds. The task force also developed an emergency response planning and security checklist. APTA has taken the role of federal liaison to communicate the industry’s needs.
The TSA’s Bass discussed past transportation-related terrorist incidents and what could be learned from them. Awareness and identifying suspicious behaviors is key, Bass said. “It is important to identify gaps in vulnerability.” She also discussed current security initiatives under development, including a risk-based evaluation tool.
A conference highlight included a historical presentation on the life of Clessie Cummins, founder of Cummins Inc., one of the pioneers who helped propel the popularity of the diesel engine in America. The presentation, given by Cummins’ son Lyle, followed Clessie’s 56-year career from building his first steam engine at age 12 and leading up to the creation of America’s first diesel-powered automobile. Lyle called his father “a creative genius, who was never satisfied with pioneering inventions.” Clessie was always eager to put his inventions to the test by racing or driving cross-country for publicity stunts.
Keep rolling along
Tire management was discussed at a session conducted by Kevin Rohlwing, senior vice president of education and technical services for the Tire Industry Association (TIA), and Harvey Brodsky, managing director of the Tire Retread Information Bureau (TRIB).
Keys to effective tire maintenance include applying the right amount of clamping force to fasteners, repairing tires properly and ensuring that technicians are trained.
“Keeping the wheels on a bus is more complicated than ‘good and tight,’ ” Rohlwing said. Applying the proper torque does not guarantee the correct amount of clamping force. “Worn, corroded or otherwise damaged fasteners will cause a reduction in clamping force,” he said. “The threads must be clean and carefully inspected.”
Tire repair is also a key component of an effective maintenance program. The goal of tire repair, Rohlwing said, is to restore the original condition of the tire. “There is only one approved method for repairing a radial bus tire,” he said. It involves removing the damaged cables to stabilize the area around the injury, sealing the injury from outside moisture by filling it with a cured rubber stem and restoring the inner liner by vulcanizing a repair unit to the tire. “Improper tire repair methods include string plugs, sealants and standalone patches,” Rohlwing said.
Technician training is not only a good idea, it’s the law, Rohlwing said. OSHA requires training for any employee who handles an inflated bus tire. “This training has been proven to curtail accidents and improve tire and wheel performance,” he said, “and it’s the best protection in the event of a lawsuit.”
Rohlwing said the TIA provides entry-level and advanced training for tire technicians. In addition, industry suppliers provide free training videos and service manuals. For more information about TIA, visit www.tireindustry.org. Brodsky emphasized the importance of maintaining proper tire inflation. Under-inflated tires are especially dangerous because they can overheat and create destructive temperatures. “With under inflation, it’s guaranteed a tire failure will occur, given enough time,” Brodsky said.
Brodsky recommended that tire pressure be checked at least once a week with a properly calibrated gauge. “Trying to determine if tires need air by thumping them is the same as trying to determine if a vehicle’s engine needs oil by thumping on the hood,” he said.
The use of retreaded tires was also discussed. Brodsky said they have a safety, performance and handling record compara-ble to the best new tires. “They cost less, help reduce the scrap tire problem and save oil,” he added. “Yet, many fleet managers are still under the misconception that re-treads are simply old tires with new tread glued on.” For more information, visit TRIB’s Website at www.retread.org.
Controlling risk factors
The financial arena was also explored at BusCon. The rising cost of insurance, in particular, has created a growing burden for public and private bus operators.
Jack Burkert, a bus industry consultant and former Lancer Insurance executive, conducted a session on insurance, liability and safety. The main thrust of the presentation was on how to gain control - of your fleet, loss rates and, ultimately, costs.
First, it’s important to recognize the different “parts” of an insurance price, Burkert said. “Your insurance rate is built like a truck,” he stated. “Pieces and parts come together for assembly.” These include the following:
Burkert said recent increases in premiums follow a 12-year decline with a continuous increase in loss costs, which include liability and damage payments, establishing reserves for future payments and claims adjustment fees. “Loss dollars truly dominate the ultimate cost of coverage,” he said. “For you, loss costs are the most controllable of the premium factors.”
Getting control of loss costs can be accomplished through traditional methods, such as tightening driver hiring and training practices, or through minimizing exposure by establishing workplace standards or transferring risk and work to subcontractors. Another alternative is to improve claim management by establishing crash investigation processes, cost controls and communications with the insurer.
Safety is the other area where costs can be controlled. Improving safety starts with the right drivers. “Attitude has everything to do with safety,” Burkert said. “You can’t afford to hire drivers who change jobs frequently or those with less than ‘good’ records.”
Once hired, drivers need to be closely monitored for performance issues. “Never assume that your drivers have skills or abilities unless you can account for them,” Burk-ert said. “We tend to be hopeful and give more safety credit than is deserved.”
To ensure drivers are meeting performance standards, managers should train, test and document. “Create standards with the workforce, not in spite of the workforce,” Burkert said. “Then review and evaluate everyone.”
Transporting the troops
In the wake of the Iraq war, more and more troops require transport throughout the U.S., which has created a new market for motorcoach operators. One session outlined how motorcoach operators can become certified to transport military personnel. To qualify, operators must be in business for more than one year and register with the central contractor registration database online at www.ccr.gov or call 800-227-2423. In addition to providing certificates of insurance and financial statements, operators must review the military agreement and pass certain inspection program components.
The secrets of spec’ing
Other conference highlights included a session on tips for writing successful specifications. “Your objective is not to buy the cheapest equipment,” said Bob Petrovski, manager of Schetky Northwest Sales Inc. It is important to seek out the best value over the life of the vehicle, not the lowest cost at purchase, he said. Before writing specifications, conduct thorough research and take advantage of relationships with qualified vendors. While researching, consider whether the manufacturer and distributor have longevity in the industry, financial stability, are reputable and offer after-sales support.
“Seek out opinions and experiences of colleagues in your area to find out who has what type of equipment and what their experience has been,” Petrovski said. When factoring the product itself, consider its performance, reliability, durability, and fit and finish. Technical specifications should be assembled in order of a specific flow, Petrovski said. “Paying attention to detail is important to the production and completion of the vehicle.”
Macy Neshati, vice president of sales and marketing for Complete Coach Works, explained how to write vehicle requirements clearly to prevent any problems after deliv-ery. He provided samples of ambiguous specifications and explained how they could be clarified. “Carefully proofread the specs. Does it make sense?” Neshati said. “Would I know how to respond to this specification?” Have other staff members review the specifications as well. Also look to adopt other property’s specifications if they have done similar work with a positive outcome.
Dennis Elefante, maintenance manager for the Orange County Transportation Authority in California, reviewed his opera-tion’s specification-writing process and showed detailed samples. Based on his experience, Elefante said, specifications should anticipate mid-life technology up-grades, expanding base of technology templates, multi-year optional contracts and multi-agency procurement projects.
On the show floor
The impressiveness of the educational program was matched by the trade show and its array of exhibits. Products on display included, among other things, shuttle buses, motorcoaches, medium-duty buses, chassis, engines door controls, roof vents, wheel-chair restraint systems, seating, mirrors and video surveillance systems.
Notable product unveilings included a pair of medium-duty low-floor chassis#&151;one by International Truck and Engine Corp. and the other by Workhorse Custom Chassis.
International unveiled a low-floor kneeling chassis designed to fill a gap between cutaway shuttle buses and larger transit buses.
The International 3200 Integrated Mobility bus, which incorporates a chassis design by Heart Industries, has a capacity of 19 to 35 passengers. With its low floor and air-suspension kneeling system, it makes boarding and disembarking easier for customers, especially those with mobility problems.
The rear-wheel-drive product is designed to fit several markets, including paratransit, assisted-living facilities and airport and hotel shuttles. To provide flexibility to customers, the chassis will be available to a variety of bus body manufacturers.
The chassis will come standard with International's VT 365 engine and already has begun Altoona testing. It was expected to be available at International dealers in early 2005.
International wasn’t alone in debuting a new low-floor chassis. Workhorse Custom Chassis unveiled the LF72 chassis, a front-engine platform built specifically for the bus industry. The chassis has a standard 9-inch step-in height, which can be reduced to 7 inches with the kneeling option.
Workhorse officials said the LF72 is ready for a body on delivery. It has a gross vehicle weight rating of 19,000 pounds and standard front air-leaf springs and rear air springs. The chassis comes with a Durama 6.6-liter engine that generates 210 horsepower at 3,100 rpm.
Low-floor buses are especially useful in transporting mobility-impaired riders. People in wheelchairs appreciate the shortened process of entering and exiting the vehicle using a ramp rather than a lift. Further shortening the dwell time, Q’Straint introduced its QRT Max retractor system at BusCon.
The QRT Max offers several user-friendly features, including lower profile, automatic self-tensioning and self-locking. The system allows a bus driver to secure a wheelchair or other mobility aid with one hand in as little as 10 seconds.
In addition, the ADA-compliant system has a positive lock indicator and is serialized for traceability. Q’Straint is making available a free video instruction guide that will train drivers on how to use the system.
Industry leaders exchange views
The challenges of private bus operators, such as transit encroachment and competition from cut-rate competitors, were discussed at a BusCon breakfast attended by key industry leaders.
The breakfast, hosted by Ty Bobit, president of Bobit Business Media, and Frank Di Giacomo, publisher of METRO magazine, brought together a who’s who of the North American private bus industry.
Association leaders included Peter Pantuso, president of the American Bus Association (ABA); Vic Parra, president of the United Motorcoach Association; Brian Crow, president of the Ontario Motor Coach Association; Gale Ellsworth, president of Trailways Transportation Systems; Steve Klika, president of International Motor Coach Group Inc.; and Ray Mundy, executive director of the American Ground Transportation Association.
Motorcoach operators attending the breakfast included Rick Hillard, co-owner of Tri-State Tours in Galena, Ill., and Tom Giddens, president of Pacific Coachways in Garden Grove, Calif.
One of the key issues discussed at the breakfast is the practice of transit agencies encroaching on charter work that could be provided by private carriers. “This is getting to be a hot issue all over the country,” Parra said. He cited a recent case in Southwest Virginia in which a motorcoach operator unsuccessfully appealed to the Federal Transit Administration that the local transit agency was unfairly competing for charter business.
“We are fighting transit in Ontario, too,” Crow said. “The transit agencies are getting back into the commuter business.” He said government officials have not been responsive to private carrier complaints, in some cases because they fear a backlash from the affected labor unions.
Concern about transit encroachment is heightened because public agencies do a better job of promoting themselves. “They have a grassroots approach; we don’t have that,” Klika said.
Pantuso agreed. “At the end of the day, most operators aren’t involved at the local political level,” he said. “It’s got to be at a grass-roots level.”
Another challenge mentioned by participants is dealing with cut-rate operators.
“Somehow we’ve got to get rid of the people who charge $200 or $300 a day,” Crow said.
“In many cases they’re not paying for insurance and they don’t follow FMSCA [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration] rules,” Pantuso added.
“Competition is great,” Klika said, “but just make sure that the playing field is level.”
Part of the problem is a lack of enforcement against illegal carriers. In California, Giddens said, state officials can take up to a year to shut down a bandit operator. “They have to build a case and don’t have personnel to investigate,” he said.
But all the news wasn’t bad. Several participants were optimistic about the outlook for the motorcoach industry. “There’s more opportunity out there than ever before,” Pantuso said.
Parra was also optimistic, but he cautioned that tour and charter operators need to diversify their revenue base and continue to “deliver a high-quality experience.”
AGTA tackles technology, funding issues
The Airport Ground Transportation Associa-tion (AGTA), which held its fall meeting in conjunction with BusCon in Chicago, explored several key issues, including technology utilization, vehicle advertising and insurance.
Applications such as data recorders can be powerful tools to improve operational systems and driver training. DriveCam Video offers an $1,100 unit that’s being used by airport vans, school buses and other fleet vehicles. It’s credited with helping to reduce insurance and maintenance costs, while providing evidence that could protect companies against lawsuits.
Airport shuttles are a good advertising alternative. “Ads in this market are seen by 30,000 to 40,000 people every day,” said Mike Rolfes of Cascio Communications. Shuttle advertising gives operators a new source of revenue, allowing them to offset growing costs such as airport fees and higher fuel prices. It’s also an opportunity to promote the shuttle service as well, offering Web site addresses.
Rolfes said shuttle advertising reaches a broad base of markets and does not cannibalize what airports are already doing. Advertising locations include illuminated shuttle tops, whole-vehicle wraps and back-end ads. “Revenue possible in various markets could be $500 a month for back-end advertisements or up to $1,000 a month for tops of shuttles,” Rolfes said.
During the insurance session, Jack Burkert, a bus industry consultant, explained the cyclical history of insurance and suggested that the cycle of rate increases is over.
Burkert also explained the types of insurance available to operators. The three types, traditional, self-insurance and captive, all depend on reinsurers, but not all are equally accessible, Burkert said.
One type of insurance may work better for a company than another. “Many operators place a lot of faith in their brokers,” Burkert added. “Companies owe it to themselves to look at each option every year.”
The AGTA meeting closed with a tour of the ground transportation operation at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Participants were able to view some of the tremendous infrastructure improvements made by landside operations at the airport.
On tap for AGTA is this spring’s April 2-6 meeting in Miami. The main topic for that meeting will be creating standards and guidelines for North America’s airport ground transportation.
For more on buses, please see the 2005 model bus roundup in LCT.
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