Teamwork Keeps Industry on Track

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on December 1, 2004

Teamwork was the theme of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) meeting Oct. 28 to Nov. 1 in Cincinnati. The annual event brings together state pupil transportation directors, state association council representatives and members of the supplier community.

More than 80 people registered for this year’s meeting and were presented with the opportunity to attend enlightening educational sessions and a tour of BESI Inc.’s seat-cover manufacturing plant in nearby Hamilton, Ohio.

NASDPTS President Pete Japikse, who took over the reins from Deborah Lincoln, constantly emphasized the importance of sharing information, especially with such a challenging endeavor as safe and efficient pupil transportation. “We need to keep the channels open,” he said.

To punctuate his point, Japikse told the group that representatives of NASDPTS, the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and the National School Transportation Association have been meeting every six weeks for the past nine months. Although no formal coordination agreement has been approved, “We have created a communication device that has been working,” he said.

“The organizations have agreed to share information about regulatory and legislative issues.”
Key changes discussed
At one point during the meetings, the group was asked by Diane Wigle, who recently returned to a school transportation position with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about changes that have arisen in the four years during her absence. The responses provided insights into challenges facing the industry.

Charlie Hood, state pupil transportation director in Florida, said he’s seen an increase in parental traffic around schools during drop-off and pick-up times. “Parents just aren’t letting kids walk to school anymore,” he said.

Charlie Gauthier, executive director of NASDPTS, commented that he’s seen a rise in aggressive driving. “I think people just don’t care,” he said.

Pete Baxter, Indiana’s state pupil transportation director, agreed with Gauthier’s assessment. “We tend to look for equipment solutions to these issues, but I don’t think this is an equipment issue,” he said. “This is a silent epidemic.”

Derek Graham, North Carolina’s state pupil transportation director, put Wigle’s question in a different perspective: “Something that has not changed is stop-arm violations.”

Other changes mentioned by the assemblage: No Child Left Behind Act, choice transportation, homeless transportation, custody of children complexities and Head Start transportation regulations.

Trends in manufacturing
An interesting program change at this year’s meeting was the inclusion of reports from the three major bus manufacturers — Blue Bird Corp., IC Corp. and Thomas Built Buses. The presentations focused on industry trends, but included some information about the companies’ product development.

Jeff Bust, president of Blue Bird, told the group about the Fort Valley, Ga.-based company’s recent financial restructuring (for more on this topic, click here). Acknowledging the company’s recent struggles, he characterized 2003 and ‘04 as “rebuilding years” that were plagued by manufacturing problems and overaggressive design changes.

Bust said he expects the company to return to profitability in 2005. Cushioned by the recapitalization, he said Blue Bird’s debt levels are the lowest among bus manufacturers. He forecasts a modest market share increase in 2005.

Bust announced plans to develop a new conventional school bus. Project Victory, as the program is called, will start with a “clean sheet of paper,” he said, adding that the new product will help the company compete more effectively for state bids and the large-contractor market. {+PAGEBREAK+} Electronic revolution?
Randall Ray, manager of bus platform marketing for International Truck and Engine Corp. and IC Corp., took a different approach in assessing the industry, focusing on the role of bus manufacturers in helping operators meet their needs in driver training, bus routing and equipment specifications.

A key trend to watch, Ray said, is the development of data-gathering systems. “We see an enhancement on the electronics side,” he said.

Ray said the use of telematics can help to improve the efficiency and safety of school transportation programs. This would include route tracking, records of stops and idling, and fault-code reporting of engine problems, among other things.

Ray hinted that IC Corp. might enter the small-bus market, but didn’t go into details. Two days later, the company introduced the BE200, a 14- to 30-passenger bus, at the NAPT trade show (for more information, click here and scroll to the bottom of the page).

Costs heading higher
Meanwhile, John O’Leary, president/CEO of Thomas Built Buses, addressed some of the global issues affecting school bus manufacturing. Higher prices for buses, in particular, are tied to strong overseas demand for raw materials such as steel, plywood and copper wire (for more on O’Leary’s viewpoints, click here). China, for example, has been importing large amounts of steel to fuel its growing economy. “You have 25 million Chinese joining the job market each year,” he said.

Engines will also be costing more. Because of the re-engineering necessary for diesel engines to meet federal emissions standards for 2007, the cost will go up from $1,400 to $4,000 per engine, O’Leary said. Three-point restraint systems will also push the cost of a bus higher. He estimated the additional cost for a 12-row bus with three-point belt systems to be about $8,500. Adding to the real cost, he said, is a reduction in capacity.

“These additional costs are very steep in a time of flat budgets,” O’Leary said. He suggested some steps that transportation managers can take to lower their overhead, such as eliminating air conditioning systems when practical and minimizing the number of options during the specification process.

O’Leary also encouraged the industry to jointly fight for federal funding for clean-air initiatives, even if the money has some strings attached. “We need to band together and challenge the feds to pay for clean-air standards,” he said. “A well-orchestrated campaign could garner results.”

Federal updates
Bob Barlett and Joe Ostermann spoke about the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigations of school bus crashes. Barlett said the agency will be looking at accidents involving students who drive themselves to school. It will also study routing issues, especially on suburban/urban feeder roads.

NHTSA’s Wigle discussed the possibility of creating new training modules and solicited topic ideas. The suggestions included evacuation for preschool children, advanced defensive driving techniques, crossing guard training and safe school site design for school bus traffic.

Jane Bass of the Transportation Security Administration reminded the audience that schools are “solid targets” of terrorists because of their sheer number, regular schedules and large populations. Terrorists might consider schools a desirable target because of the demoralizing impact that a strike would have on the nation. “Drivers need to be aware of suspicious packages and people and immediately report anything that looks out of place,” she said.

Next year’s NASDPTS conference will be held in Austin, Texas, in conjunction with the NAPT’s annual conference and trade show in late October and early November. Anyone interested in obtaining more information about the association should contact Mary Jo Major at (405) 722-1371 or [email protected].

Related Topics: Blue Bird Corp., IC Bus, NASDPTS, NHTSA, NTSB, Thomas Built Buses, TSA

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