Van Hool vs Wrights

Michelle McIlveen announced the award of the contract for the Belfast Rapid Transit vehicle supplier earlier today, and to the surprise of probably most observers, Wrightbus wasn’t the winner.

Let’s go back in history a little.

Robert Wright Coachworks Limited was established in 1946.  They first came to my notice in the 1980s, when they broke the near monopoly enjoyed by Walter Alexander & Co (Belfast) and its predecessors Potters and MH Coachworks in supplying bodywork for buses when it bodied several generations of minibus for Ulsterbus Town “Busybus” services followed by several rather boxy midibuses and a short series of Goldliner coaches.

Alexanders having offered the “Q” type bodywork for the final form of the (by then Volvo-engined) Leyland Tiger in 1988, appeared to unify its bodywork offering between the Belfast subsidiary and the main factory in Falkirk, and provided the considerably uglier and angular “Ultra” body for Ulsterbus and Citybus’ first low floor vehicles in 1995.  For the next batch Wrights offered the “Renown”, a body that regained some of the style that the “Q” type Tiger had had, and better passenger comfort than the Alexander Ultra body – and didn’t look back.  Wrightbus now supplies the majority of buses to Translink, and Alexander Dennis’s last buses in NI were the Schoolrun high capacity single deckers of 2009, three years after the last of the (not very pretty) ALX400 double deckers.

Now in the 2010s, Wrights no longer provide minibuses to Translink (now supplied by Optare), and coaches appear to be supplied from Europe (still through Dennisons of Ballyclare for Volvo and Roadtrucks of Larne for Scania) – Optare have provided the most recent full size single deckers to Translink, but Wrights are providing large numbers of double deckers throughout the British Isles, including the Boris bus.

They have done really well.  On a UK scale, they may have less than half of the market share that Alexander Dennis has but are still growing, and their presence in Northern Ireland appears to have helped them get a lot of business from Translink, particularly since Alexander’s Belfast plant closed in the wake of the collapse of Transbus and its renaissance as Alexander Dennis.

Van Hool is long established, and has provided vehicles to Ulsterbus in the past, including four articulated coaches.


So why did a company with the reputation which Wrightbus holds not win the contract for Belfast Rapid Transit?

The immediate answer is that we’ll never know the whole story.  Wrightbus have already indicated they’ve accepted the decision, so a court challenge which might have revealed some details of the process appears extremely unlikely.

We know that preference can be shown for local suppliers in certain circumstances, as part of the qualitative considerations of an open competition – indeed, Wrights has to compete with suppliers in GB and possibly elsewhere in the EU for every bus supply contract for Translink.  We don’t know to what extent proximity is a factor, and to what extent Wrightbus are simply generally the best value for money as a bus supplier.

But this time round?

Well, the Belfast Telegraph article linked above indicates that Wrightbus have not manufactured the type of vehicle required for some years, and Wrightbus themselves have indicated that they proposed a new vehicle concept.

It may be that Translink and DRD simply weren’t convinced that the risk of a new solution only partially tested to date was sufficiently mitigated to choose it over a tried and tested solution, regardless of cost saving, given the existing delays to the implementation of the system which has made the potential of early delivery (late 2016) irrelevant, and the time lapse since Wrights last delivered a Rapid Transit vehicle – but that is only an attempt to synthesize two opposing viewpoints.

Wrights will get more bites at the cherry, with the requirement for new buses to provide feeder services to the Rapid Transit system, and ongoing regular bus fleet replacement.  In the meantime, it seems from the DRD statement that if they had been awarded this contract, and contrary to the implication of Unite’s Davy Thompson, the first responsibility of maintenance (for at least a fixed period) would have fallen to Wrights and not to Translink.

Two other notes to close.  Firstly, would jobs created have helped those made redundant at JTI and temporary staff laid off by Schrader?  Almost certainly not, as many of the skills required are different.

Secondly, one would hope that the questions being asked in the Tele today will almost certainly already have been asked of Translink and the Department by Michelle McIlveen as part of her normal duties before any public announcement was made.

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  • murdockp

    my observation is this is all about the solution selected not the actual bus contract.

    This is a typical NI fudge. they are delivering a solution on the cheap that won’t work do any more that busses will. all they have done is ask for the busses to look like trams to hoodwink the public.

    everyone forgets Boris Johnston got rid of the busses from london as they are dangerous. that is why wrights have not but any for years no one wants them accept for belfast.

    belfast needed a modern mass transit rail system link all its commuter zones and airports.

    Manchester is the model they need to follow.

    but they won’t as they are too short sighted and civil servants or politicians won’t entertain alternative financing.

    so in summary this is a typical northern ireland fudge. all look and no substance.

  • AndyB

    Well, I’m in favour of a light rail solution myself, not least because it will do an awful lot more to get non-essential drivers off the road and therefore make more room for the many who don’t have the luxury of choosing public transport to go into Belfast. Rather more to the point, I like trams.

    However, we are where we are, and Wesley Johnston’s site goes into why the economic case stacked up in favour of buses. I have my doubts about whether the methodology (done independently by people without a financial interest in the solution) took enough account of the cost of congestion caused by drivers who might take a tram but won’t take a bus even if it looks like a tram, but that’s something I don’t yet have sufficient knowledge or experience to challenge in a meaningful way.

    To be clear, London never had a tram-styled bendybus. The bendybuses which Boris had withdrawn from service were similar to the bendybuses which operated in Newtownabbey, and there is no suggestion that they were dangerous – just not great on narrow streets with tight corners, and they have been reused elsewhere in GB. The Citybus ones later found their way to Derry City services, but have been withdrawn due to age.

    The articulated vehicles proposed aren’t traditional bendybuses. http://www.vanhool.be/ENG/actua/index.html will show you their latest design, and issues with turning envelope on corners will be less relevant in Belfast as sharp corners simply aren’t present on most of the routes until the city centre box and the left turn into May Street.

  • 23×7

    Love the way the mass transit system is going through DUP and SF dominated areas.

  • chrisjones2

    Its not juts the danger these buses pose. Read the DOE site. They expect that on the main routes they serve – perhaps 2 of the 4 busiest in Belfast – their introduction will severely disrupt rush hour traffic until they force motorists our of their cars. These huge monstrosities will destroy the traffic flow into Belfast, kill cyclists and drive business out of the City Centre – and all as a specific Government policy.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Chris, I don’t understand any of this. it’s just a bus dressed up to look like a tram.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Belfast is a DUP and SF dominated area, yes.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    It’s interesting how the “economic case” is not to build any kind of serious public transport infrastructure. I’m sure there was a similar “economic case” not to double the railway line over the Dargan bridge as part of the Westlink/M2 interchange project.

    They went through all this in Dublin in the mid 1990s, and in the end decided to spend the cash and go ahead with the more expensive Luas option. It is true that a proportion of the passengers it attracted were already using the buses, and there’s an ongoing problem with the bus driver’s union stiffly resisting reworking bus routes which substantially duplicate Luas routes. Nonetheless, it has been an overwhelming success and they haven’t looked back.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    On a separate note, I’ve seen these buses in use elsewhere. In the other implementations, the driver does not handle the fares. Instead, like a tram, you must be in possession of a valid ticket while you are on the bus, and the tickets are subject to enforcement checks. This speeds up the boarding process. Also, the bus/tram does not stop at all the regular bus stops; only designated stops which are more widely spaced. Together these aspects should make journey times a lot quicker.

    I would imagine that when these buses are finally deployed – (I don’t understand why it is taking so long) – the system will operate in a similar way. It remains to be seen how the fare enforcement aspect will work out.

  • AndyB

    That’s my understanding of what they intend for Belfast.

    I think that deployment is a matter of cash to complete the enabling road works, and also timing for when Van Hool will have to be paid for their services.

  • AndyB

    Now there’s something I don’t understand. If bus drivers are not in danger of losing their jobs or having their hours changed, and the service offered to the public will continue to be attractive, what’s the problem with changing a bus route?

  • AndyB

    On the point of the Dargan bridge, I think that Translink accept that doubling the actual bridge isn’t going to make an awful lot of difference compared to doubling the line as far as Donegall Quay. The shoring up of the piers will be charged back to railway infrastructure, rather than roads.

    I understand that the marginal cost of building the viaduct for double track between Yorkgate and Donegall Quay wasn’t that much greater than what was actually constructed, but it was very strictly “single track or no bridge at all” according to the Tory NIO ministers.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    I should have said “doubling the entire section”, forgetting that there are two single track sections with a passing loop in the middle.

    Not sure if I can blame the Tories on this one – it was, of course, on their watch, but rail has always been a poor relation in this corner of the world, for many decades.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    it’s the drivers trying to soak money out of the state.

    Same thing happened when new DARTs were introduced. The drivers refused to drive them until they got a payoff. So they sat unused for many months until agreement was reached.

  • AndyB

    That’s true, but when the Tories decided to do “something” they were very strict on what the “something” could be. See also the 450 class DEMUs…

  • 23×7

    Not South Belfast.

  • AndyB

    It’s more accurate to say that the mass transit system is initially being directed along the two corridors with the highest public transport demand…

  • 23×7

    Sure it is. No need for public transport in South belfast.

  • chrisjones2

    Its the length and with the width of the lanes. As other posers have pointed out the articulation poses risks for pedestrians and cyclists. Once the go live the [peak hour bus lanes will go 24/7 and the lights with change automatically to favour the bus – so sod the rest of you on the road

  • AndyB

    The width is the reason why the affected roads are being widened. Bus lanes I believe will be 7am-7pm, but none of the corners are tight enough to be an issue until Victoria Street/May Street, and it is already marked extremely wide as it’s tight for a 12m bus.

    Speaking as a cyclist myself, a competent cyclist will have the sense not to go up the inside of any vehicle clearly signalling to turn – or which is in a lane where they must turn left anyway. Just as with jaywalking pedestrians, it’s an exaggerated danger, and we would have seen deaths in both situations in Belfast long before now if it were more than a small risk – for example, what is the safety record for pedestrians and cyclists on routes where the Wrightbus Streetcars operate in York?

    I’ve said this before, but the point is not “sod the rest of you.” I still maintain that those really saying “sod the rest of you” are those who could perfectly reasonably use public transport and drive anyway.

    The more people who realise the impact on others of choosing to drive when they have a choice, the better for those who don’t have the luxury of getting about their business using public transport.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    what about the length and the width of the lanes ? I still don’t get it.

    “sod the rest of you on the road” – is the transport approach taken by any major city. The idea is to encourage people to stop using their cars.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    not North Belfast either, where the DUP and SF control five out of the six seats between them.

    South Belfast has several stations on the Belfast-Dublin railway line where there is a regular train service.

  • chrisjones2
  • AndyB

    So Channel 4 debunked the figures by comparing like with like (result: not much greater risk on similar routes) and Swansea shows no evidence that it’s the bendybuses rather than pedestrian behaviour…

  • AndyB

    Actually, reading into the Swansea situation, the deaths were linked to an unconventional confusing road layout, rather than any fault in the articulated buses.

  • Neil

    They will have bus lanes running the whole way along the corridors, hence in places where there are currently two lanes and traffic is abysmal there will then be only one lane and the traffic will be twice as abysmal. The Falls is going to be a total nightmare, yet another reason if one were needed to steer well clear of Belfast City centre altogether, unless working.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    again I don’t get this.

    It looks like about 90% of that route is already a bus lane. The parts that have two traffic lanes (eg the spot approximately between the City Cemetery and La Salle Park) benefit drivers very little as they have to proceed to a single lane section anyway. And looking on Google maps I see a lot of parked cars, which effectively rules out the second lane anyway, although I’d assume the pictures were taken when the clearway was not in force.

    West Belfast is going to have much faster and better access to the city centre as a result of this scheme going ahead.

  • Neil

    I’m working on the principle that’s it’s dire now, and the removal of the remaining stretches where drivers have two lanes to use will make things worse.Some people are religiously in favour of public transport, but sadly some of us have little choice but to drive, and find the bus slow, uncomfortable, more expensive than driving and inconvenient. I work on the east side of the city so if I do opt to catch a bus I will be dropped off 20 minutes away from work, later and poorer than I would have been in my car.

    Should we address the crap service perhaps? No, why bother, Translink has the monopoly anyway so like it or lump it, plus even if they perform particularly badly we’ll cover their salaries; let’s just make driving impossible for the people who bail out Translink annually and pay for the actual roads to be created and maintained then they’ll have to get the crap bus service. Liverpool is getting rid of bus lanes, and making urban clearways across the city. Sounds very sensible to me, but unfortunately the people in charge here at the moment have their own agenda and are pushing it on the rest of us.

  • Bedhead1157

    You know yourself Andy, overtaking bus drivers will pull in on a cyclist as soon as the cyclist is behind the front axle of the bus. The Albert Bridge is a prime spot for this.

    Does a category D licence still cover the articulated buses?

  • AndyB

    According to direct.gov.uk it does, possibly because the bus is not divisible in the way that an HGV trailer can be detached from a tractor unit.

    My main problem on the Albert Bridge is car drivers who ignore the signs and road markings telling them to give priority to traffic in the bus lane!

  • AndyB

    Neil, you sound like one of the people who cannot conveniently use public transport, which is fair enough.

    However, I need to address your misconceptions about Translink.

    1. Whoever runs the buses is going to have a monopoly on their routes, and will have only provide a better service than Translink if there is enough money in it for them – there will be no competition.

    2. The only subsidy Translink receives towards their bus services is a tiny sum towards the Rural Transport Fund, and concessionary fares.
    3. All operators of local bus services in GB (ie not express services) receive a rebate of 89% on the duty paid on diesel. That is what was the “bailout” last year, as it was initially intended to be withdrawn from April 2014 – it’s been abolished in NI since April 2015.
    4. Most (if not all) operators of local services in GB receive subsidy to run unprofitable services – be it for an entire service, or to run off-peak/evening services. Translink is expected to cross-subsidise all of their loss-making bus services with profitable services – this just does not happen in GB.

    As for bus lanes, if you take out the bus lanes, the buses will get slower. If the buses get slower, fewer people will use them, and they will need more subsidy – and because more people will drive, the traffic will get worse again.

    In the end, your enemies are not the buses and bus lanes. As with everyone who drives because they need use their car to get about their business, your enemy is people who drive simply because they own a car, regardless of the impact on people like you.

  • Bedhead1157

    Cheers Andy, I always wondered how that worked with the licences. Had a look at the Van Hool site, the body of the trailer section has a pretty long overhang past the axle, going to be a bit of tail swinging out! I take it that it’s a trailing axle only and doesn’t steer?

  • AndyB

    I honestly don’t know the answer to that one!