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.