by Hal Mattern
Motor Coach Industries (MCI) has wrapped up an eventful 2019 that included the delivery of two popular new coach models, and the manufacturer is heading into 2020 with plans to introduce its first battery-electric buses.
“As a company, we had a relatively good year,” MCI President Ian Smart said. “Our major accomplishments were the first deliveries into the market of the J3500 and the D45 CRT LE coaches. Those were two very large steps for us that we had been working on for a few years. It was very exciting for us.”
The J3500, the 35-foot version of MCI’s flagship J4500, features the same design and common components of its larger sibling while offering a basic 40-seat configuration with an option for 44. The new coach was a response to customer demand for smaller vehicles that are easier to maneuver in urban traffic and that better fit the size of smaller group tours.
Brent Maitland, MCI’s vice president of marketing and product planning, said the J3500s generally are purchased by operators that already own a fleet of J4500s and want to add a few of the smaller vehicles.
The D45 CRT LE features groundbreaking passenger accessibility via a second door with a low-entry automatic ramp system that simplifies the boarding process for riders using wheelchairs. The coach’s low-level entry vestibule includes seating for five passengers, allowing for up to two secured mobility devices and an attendant, and high-capacity 54-passenger seating configuration overall, with seating for 52 when there are two passengers using a mobility device.
Smart said the D45 CRT LE significantly improves accessibility and lowers dwell time, especially important in commuter and employee long-distance service.
“Sales of both new coaches have been good,” Smart said. “Customer feedback has been positive about their overall reliability and operator cost.”
Other positive 2019 highlights included the continued growth of two MCI customer segments: the employee transportation market, particularly in the California San Francisco Bay Area, and the limo/livery industry’s expansion into motorcoaches.
Smart said 2019 also was a challenging year because motorcoach sales were down about 10 percent industry wide. The slowdown began at the beginning of the year and continued into the second quarter before recovering a bit in the third quarter, he said.
“Sales have been recovering ever since,” Smart said. “And our market share has held steady during that time frame.”
MCI’s parent company, Winnipeg-based NFI Group, also had an active 2019, with a highlight being its acquisition of Alexander Dennis Limited (ADL) of the United Kingdom for $405 million.
NFI Group employs 8,900 people at more than 50 facilities in 10 countries. Its brands include New Flyer heavy-duty transit buses, MCI motorcoaches, Plaxton motorcoaches, ARBOC low-floor cutaway buses and NFI Parts. The ADL acquisition added single- and double-deck buses to the portfolio.
NFI Group, formerly known as New Flyer Industries, purchased Des Plaines, Illinois-based MCI in 2015.
MCI’s official entry into the battery-electric coach market is planned for 2020. The company has been testing battery-electric versions of its J4500 motorcoach and its D45 CRT LE commuter coach for more than a year. It plans to begin delivering the J4500e coaches to customers this year, followed by the D45 CRTe LE.
Smart said MCI has benefitted from NFI Group’s long-time battery-electric expertise as it developed its own electric buses. “Our battery-electric J4500e and D45 CRTe LE will give operators the most comprehensive choices in purpose-built, all-electric coaches to meet their environmental goals,” he said. “We hope to make battery-electric available across all models of coaches in the future.”
Electric coaches are estimated to account for only about 20 percent of all motorcoach sales for the next 10 to 15 years, Smart said, largely because battery driving range is only about 200 miles, while charter and tour buses can be on the road for 500 to 600 miles a day.
Battery packs large enough to handle a motorcoach also occupy a lot of space that is otherwise reserved for baggage, which prevents the use of battery-electric coaches on multi-day tours and airport shuttles. As battery range improves and a network of charging stations is established, electric coaches are expected to gain market share.
There is, however, already a market for electric coaches, especially in California, where regulators have set ambitious goals for conversion to zero-emission vehicles by both public transit systems and private operators. Companies with strict corporate environmental policies also are in the market for electric coaches, Maitland said.
“Customers include public transit agencies with commuter applications and private companies that are doing employee transportation,” he said. “Generally, they are getting people from a suburb into a city center in the morning and then back out at the end of the day.”
Maitland said MCI also would continue to focus in 2020 on advanced driver assistance technology aimed at reducing incidents and lowering operational costs. He added that the company is testing the MCI Connect telematics system, which collects data in real time on key performance metrics, including distance traveled, time on the road, the physical location of the coach, how its mechanical systems are operating and whether it needs servicing.
MCI’s technical teams are working to perfect the system with a focus on elevating responsiveness and improving coach uptime.
The battery-electric D45 CRTe LE will be equipped with MCI Connect telematics, which also measures battery efficiencies related to grade and ambient temperature.
Smart said another 2020 goal for MCI is to continue working to upgrade its system of parts and service centers. “We are always exploring different cities and locations to improve our support system, and we will continue to do that,” he said.
“With our new models and enhanced service and support, combined with a solid economy, we are looking forward to a successful 2020. Ultimately, if our customers are running hard and we support them properly, we’ll all have a good year.”