Busing down under

Busing down under

The general perception is that South Africa’s bus market is something of a disaster area. Annual sales peaked at 1 816 units in 1982, then dropped to just a few hundred units per annum during the early 1990s and have only shown significant signs of recovery in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup. FRANK BEETON takes a look at the market down-under by comparison.

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There were three main reasons for the intervening decline in South African bus sales: the mirror-image rise of the informal minibus taxi as a popular mode of public transport, Government’s reluctance to restrict this growth, and its enthusiasm for cutting funding for formal public transport. Since 2008, however, total bus sales volumes have improved dramatically with the roll-out of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) systems and government-funded bus and coach procurement programmes in support of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A total of 1 434 units were sold during 2009, only slightly less than the 1 516 units recorded the previous year. 2010 should see the tempo rise again as South Africa gears up to host hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors during June and July and puts the finishing touches to BRT systems in cities where implementation has been delayed.

In Australia, things have been very different. For starters, a well-organised, formal public transport regime of suburban train and tramway services has been in place for over a century – and there are no minibus taxis. But there are several other important factors to bear in mind when comparing the two countries. At 7.69 million square kilometers (more than six times the size of South Africa), Australia has only about one-third the population of our country and most of it is concentrated in fairly narrow coastal strips on its western, southern and eastern perimeters. Also, because distances between cities on the different coastlines are so enormous, air freight has tended to take precedence over road and rail haulage when transporting goods across the Australian outback or interior, where the development of a modern road network has been relatively slow. And to this day, each of Australia’s six states continues to operate its own rail transport system, making a unified rail network virtually impossible.

Despite its well-organised, efficient urban public transport system, private car ownership in Australia is among the highest in the world at 542 units per 1 000 population (The Economist’s “Pocket World in Figures”, 2010 edition). South Africa lags far behind at 110 units per 1 000 population. It is this combination of high private car ownership and efficient suburban train and tramway services that is responsible for Australia’s fairly modest bus market. Total bus and coach sales volumes during 2009 only reached 1 839 units although they were nevertheless 30% up on the previous year’s figures when the global economic downturn first began to bite.

Unlike the Australian truck market, where American and Japanese brands prevail, European-sourced bus chassis are favoured by Australian buyers. In 2009, Scania sold 403 units for just less than 22% market share. This pushed the 2008 sales leader Mercedes-Benz – with 359 deliveries and 19.5% market share – into second position, ahead of MAN with 280 deliveries and 15.2% market share. Other participants were Volvo (15%), BCI (12%), Hino (5.6%), Bustech (3.64%), Iveco (3.7%) and Daewoo (1.57%). In Australia’s thriving local body building industry, the leading participants during 2009 were Volgren, Custom Coaches, Bus & Coach International (BCI) and Bustech. BCI is an Australian company headquartered in Perth that draws its products from a factory located in Nanchang, China; Bustech is a body builder located in Queensland that also builds its own integral, chassis-less units.

According to Australian media reports, rising fuel prices have undoubtedly impacted positively on the Australian bus market, which has also benefited from historically high levels of infrastructure investment by Government. This trend is expected to continue, so the outlook for bus and coach sales in Australia is positive. Geographically, recent sales activity has been concentrated mainly in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, with extensive deliveries to state, municipal and privately-owned operators.

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