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Guest Article: Spring: the start of the coach tourism season ...

With the spring sun we’ve been promised in The Netherlands and Belgium (and possibly elsewhere), you’d almost forget we are leaving a grim two years of corona measures behind us. The opening of the flower show at the Keukenhof traditionally marks the start of the coach tourism season for Dutch and many foreign operators. Soon the vast Floriade Expo in Almere will be welcoming its first visitors – many arriving by coach. In Belgium the coach industry’s own initiative BusFan has re-started and re-ignited its promotion of national and foreign travel in both linguistic areas of the country.

Inventive sectors

In both countries the bus and coach sector have – even with some, often rather measured government support (given the fact that the coach industry is a capital intensive sector) weathered the corona storm. Many operators had to be extremely inventive to keep their businesses ticking over until the ‘all clear’ was given. Most operators slimmed down their operations or branched out in support to other ‘neighbouring’ sectors: delivery services and in a supporting role to public transport.

Although somewhat slimmed down depending on the corona measures, public transport kept offering most of its usual services. For most companies the major headache was retaining staff. In a very tight employment market, keeping drivers was the most critical factor, given the already existing extreme demand – well before corona - for drivers in the coach and bus sectors.

Houses instead of buses

Suppliers of buses and coaches also had to be inventive, coping with a rapidly dwindling demand in the coach sector from the start of corona and a continuing demand in the bus industry, mainly clamouring for electric buses. In this light the moves of Dutch bus and coach producer VDL Bus & Coach was somewhat remarkable. At the start of February the workforce of VDL’s Heerenveen plant (well known for brand names like Berkhof and Hainje) posted a photo of a new bus on LinkedIn: “Yesterday, on February 1, the last bus we produced as VDL Bus Heerenveen rolled out of the factory.” The now renamed company (VDL Shared Spaces) went on to say: “A special moment for all colleagues. In all those years we have produced more than 13,000 buses here in Heerenveen of approximately 125 different bus types. In the coming months we will be converting our factory and focusing on producing construction modules for the homes of construction company Van Wijnen. Together with our partner, we will contribute to solving the housing shortage in the Netherlands.”

Construction company Van Wijnen’s plant is nextdoor to VDL’s. When a restructuring operation was obviously on the cards, VDL set its sights on producing modules for mass producing houses instead of buses. By focusing on pre-fab housing and joining Van Wijnen, both companies’ workforces obviously fitted well and job losses at the VDL plant were largely avoided.

Photo: From February 1 production in Heerenveen shifted from this last bus to modules for prefab-houses. Illustration VDL Shared Spaces.

Photo: From February 1 production in Heerenveen shifted from this last bus to modules for prefab-houses. Illustration VDL Shared Spaces.

Photo: An artist’s impression of VDL Bus & Coach’s new factory and knowledge center for e-buses in Roeselare. Illustration by VDL Bus & Coach.

Photo: An artist’s impression of VDL Bus & Coach’s new factory and knowledge center for e-buses in Roeselare. Illustration by VDL Bus & Coach.

One door closes….

But where VDL closed one door – in the north of The Netherlands –it opened another one, this time in the south, in Belgium. A few days after the closure of the Heerenveen plant, the groundwork was laid for a new production and knowledge centre for the production of electric buses in Roeselare, replacing the old Jonckheere plant.

For many bus specialists, 'Roeselare' has always been a well-known name. Until 1998, when VDL took over, the Jonckheere buses were produced in this West Flemish city.

Four years ago, VDL Bus & Coach announced that 'Roeselare' would become the knowledge center for bus electrification. The corona crisis and the weak bus and coach market plus internal 'competition' with the VDL-plant in Valkenswaard in The Netherlands caused some uncertainty in Flanders. At the Valkenswaard plant, traditionally supplying coaches, production came to a standstill. But when VDL, in December last year, won part of an e-bus order from Flemish public transport operator De Lijn (the larger part of the order went to Van Hool), preparations for the construction of the new ‘Roeselare’ location started.

For most of the time and despite six weeks of lockdowns, Roeselare has been working flat-out, only shifting an order for a 100 e-buses to Valkenswaard.

….and another one opens

The target for Roeselare is 800 buses a year, which is double the current production. To achieve that VDL will apply a completely revised production process in the new energy-neutral factory, with shorter assembly lines and shorter production times. The factory should be ready early next year and the first Flemish E-Citeas should be leaving the plant not much later.

By the way, like for many bus and coach manufacturers, the corona crises was difficult for VDL Bus & Coach. For example, the market for coaches, which are traditionally built in Valkenswaard, came to a complete standstill. That caused some fear in Roeselare that 'their' production would be completely shifted to Valkenswaard. Because the plant in Flanders had its hands full, only one order of 100 buses was shifted to the Netherlands.

But the city bus market was also ailing due to sharply declining passenger numbers in public transport in the Netherlands and Belgium and delays in the tendering of new concessions in the Netherlands. But there, climate support programs ensured that sales of e-buses did not come to a complete standstill.

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