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16 buses that travel everywhere

Bus company owner Heser explains what technological progress and policymakers should deliver

Heser’s company in the Fichtelgebirge region has 24 employees, 20 of whom are bus drivers. Now in his mid-fifties, he and his wife do all the office work together with his sister and another employee. The annual turnover of Heserbus is 1.6 million euros. Public transport generates 40 per cent of that figure, while private services and bus hire account for 30 per cent each.

Bischofsgrün to Weidenberg in Upper Franconia/Fichtelgebirge is a public transport route that the company operates daily and which accounts for 270,000 kilometres per year. Heser is also a contractor for RBO (Regionalbus Ostbayern) on routes in and around Wunsiedel, Selb, Marktredwitz and Schirnding, which account for 200,000 kilometres.

Heser’s view is that in general local public transport will increase, including in rural areas. “Ever since the decision some years ago to extend train operations between Bayreuth and Weidenberg to the Fichtelgebirge region, thereby connecting with other services such as radio cabs, passenger volume has increased again. School bus runs are also on the rise. All this means that one can now travel from Fichtelsee, a popular lake at the foot of Ochsenkopf, to Nürnberg five times a day. If conditions are favourable the slightly over 110-kilometre trip takes only 90 minutes.

Heser also points out that the Bavarian government is investing heavily in public transport. “A low-floor bus costing 200,000 euros is subsidised to the tune of 70,000 euros.“ His fleet is made up of 16 standard 12-metre long buses which on average are four years old. Four of them are coaches, ten are low-floor and raised-floor buses which operate on regular bus routes. They meet the Euro 6 emissions standard for diesel-engined buses. Two other buses which meet the Euro 2 standard are kept in reserve and can be used for school runs during peak periods.

As regards the drivetrain technology of the future he says: “We have to quickly consign diesel engines to the past.“ Geopolitically speaking, that is a must. Oil is too valuable a resource to simply be burnt. He hopes that in future “manufacturers will undertake more than they have to date“, and finds that they are dragging their heels where alternative energy sources are concerned. He believes one reason is that fuel costs remain low.

Mention the Dutch Province of Limburg, where zero-emissions public transport will soon become reality, and he says: “That is a good thing. However, unlike the Netherlands, where we are here the roads are very hilly and in winter we have to contend with minus 20 degrees.“ He is uncertain as to whether electric power will eventually win the day. “It may be hydrogen.“

In Heser’s view HGVs must lead the way. The A2 autobahn, for instance, which carries heavy traffic between Poland and Rotterdam could show the way. Hydrogen filling stations could be built on stretches where goods volume is high.

As regards bus technology, he sees it as the responsibility of large companies to take the lead. “Anyone with a fleet of 300 buses can afford to run four or five with experimental systems and keep conventionally powered buses in reserve.“ Heser points to Hamburger Hochbahn AG which has set an example in this respect.

Peter Heser in the interview.
Peter Heser in front of his bus.
Peter Heser driving his bus.

Lowering emissions takes priority

According to Heser, by planning ahead and keeping an eye on the future one can avoid problems with new vehicle regulations. However, diesel engines are unlikely to disappear any time soon.

He also says there is a lot of life left in diesel technology yet: “I definitely believe diesel-engined vehicles will be with us on the roads for another 20 to 30 years.“ Fuel consumption and emissions are two different things“, he says. Euro 6 was the first standard where lowering emissions took priority over reducing fuel consumption.

The transition will begin in cities. “It is impossible to plan a trip around France with an electric bus“, he says. However, it is in cities that reducing emissions has top priority. He “fully understands“ that it may no longer be inconceivable to ban certain vehicles. At the same time he has little sympathy for workshop owners who complain that their diesel-powered vehicles do not meet current emission standards and that buying new vehicles would put them out of business. “The standards have been common knowledge for years. Anyone who invested with foresight should now have the vehicles they need.“

Heser’s coaches are equipped with safety distance warning systems, a feature the driver cannot switch off and something that is regularly debated in the wake of autobahn pile-ups. A lane departure warning system is another feature. That, however, can be switched off, which has to be the case on bendy roads in the Fichtelgebirge, as unnecessary warnings would otherwise make the driver nervous, Heser says. “Our buses are equipped with all the latest safety devices, many of which we purchased before they became mandatory. “When we sell a bus after eight years, if in the meantime regulations have changed we can get a better price.“ That includes fire alarms as well as engine bay fire extinguishers on coaches.

More than an electronic ticket printer

Heser is happy with what digitalisation has achieved, certainly with the systems that are already installed on his buses, and especially with the computer-based guidance system (RBL) developed by DB Regio. It is much more than an electronic ticket printer. “It allows drivers and in particular passengers to reach their connecting bus, for example if one driver tells another driver to wait at the connecting stop in order to take on his passengers. A touchscreen-operated monitor in the driver’s cabin makes it possible to communicate with computers in other buses. Heser thinks that in a few years time all this could happen automatically without the driver having to intervene.

Heser’s buses do not automatically count passengers boarding and leaving the vehicle. He “would introduce“ photo sensors providing they were available and there were no longer any data protection issues, such as tracking passenger movements without passenger approval.

With coach passenger numbers having risen so significantly there is now a huge demand for drivers, something which has also affected Heserbus. That is why Heser is planning to give driving lessons and to pay for drivers getting a licence.

That is certainly not something one should take for granted. “For my generation and possibly for those who came later over the next ten years, conscription into the German army made it easy for us. It was the same for me and many other young men. They left the army with an HGV driver’s licence and so too did another 30 from the same barracks every three months.“ This greatly helped haulage and bus companies. “Adding a bus driver’s licence to the HGV licence cost 1,200 deutschmarks at the time.“ Today the whole package comes at 10,000 euros. “However, over the first few months a new driver receives trainee wages so that the cost is written off quite quickly.“ Obliging a trainee to stay with the firm a number of years to let his boss recoup the money spent on him would be illegal, according to Heser. 20 is about the right age to start driving a bus, he says.

An urgent appeal to policymakers

Heser agrees with the direction technology is taking. However, he has this to ask of policymakers: “Achieve as much European integration as possible with as little bureaucracy as necessary. An overall framework at European level is just as important as administrative freedoms at regional level.“

For Heser the so-called A1 form presents a problem. Employees must carry this when they travel abroad, similar to the green insurance card before the EU. It is proof of a driver’s social insurance status and that he is legally entitled to the job. Unlike the green insurance card it has to be issued individually to each driver on every trip. “It says where and when he is working and where he is travelling to. What happens if the driver I have applied for falls ill the day before he is due to work and another driver has to replace him on the trip?“, says Heser. He also questions the card that stores every bus driver’s trip data over the previous 28 days. “If a driver gets routinely stopped in France and the card reveals that 26 days ago in Germany he was at the wheel five minutes longer than allowed or was five kiliometres too fast, then he gets fined under French law. That could be ten times as much as in Germany. That is why it is urgently necessary to introduce the same driving penalties across the board.“

A job with a future

For Heser, the bottom line is that driving a bus is definitely a job with a future. He does not see driverless vehicles posing an immediate threat. Nor is the question as to who will take over the company at Heserbus a real issue, despite it being widely discussed. He looks forward to being able to count on his family’s next generation.

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