RFTA buses enter a new era | AspenTimes.com

RFTA buses enter a new era

Janet Urquhart

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s first hybrid diesel-electric bus could hit the road next week.Meanwhile, the company that had for years been the predominant supplier of RFTA buses will close its doors in January, leaving the local bus agency to grapple with a potential future shortage of certain parts for a large chunk of its fleet.Neoplan USA announced last week that its Lamar, Colo., plant will shut down in mid-January. The company has already begun laying off its 300 workers in the small, southeast Colorado city, and it has canceled the delivery of 45 vehicles to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Production in Lamar will cease in mid-December.RFTA, the local public transit agency, had no buses on order from Neoplan, but 53 of the 70-plus buses in its fleet were made by the company, a subsidiary of a German bus manufacturer of the same name. RFTA’s most recent Neoplan models were purchased in 2001.Some parts for the buses are currently made, at least domestically, only by Neoplan USA, said Dan Blankenship, RFTA’s CEO.”Our main concern is that we be able to get parts for the buses we already have in our fleet, because we hold onto them, in many cases, for 15 to 20 years,” he said. “I do know if we had to purchase parts from Germany, they would be significantly more expensive because of shipping charges and all that.”At one time, Neoplan and RFTA had a strong business relationship. The bus manufacturer made custom interior finishes for RFTA buses, and its models offered unique operating features, like an independent front suspension, that made them a favored choice, Blankenship said.”We purchased a lot of Neoplan buses intentionally over the years because they had a plant in Colorado,” Blankenship said. “And, there are some factors about Neoplan that are somewhat unique in the bus industry that have served us well.”RFTA stopped buying Neoplans though, after the company filed for bankruptcy protection and quit taking orders of less than 25 buses at a time.”We’ve known that they were going to close down for some time,” Blankenship said.In 2004, RFTA purchased four buses from Motor Coach Industries and this year is buying 14 buses from New Flyer, including the valley’s first four hybrid diesel-electric buses. One of the hybrids has already been delivered and is expected to go into service next week.A logo high on the sides of the bus denotes it as a hybrid model, one that riders and anyone standing nearby may notice is much quieter than a standard diesel bus.The RFTA buses will be the first hybrids of New Flyer’s Invero model. Ten of the standard diesel-powered, low-floor Inveros have already been delivered to RFTA (they’re the new model dubbed “the whale” locally, thanks to a bulbous front end).For the hybrid version, the model has been specially engineered to pair the New Flyer shell with a propulsion system manufactured by GM Allison Transmission. It has been a complex process to have them engineered and delivered, said Blankenship, who credited RFTA director of maintenance Kenny Osier for making it happen.Three of the new hybrids are destined for valley routes; the fourth is being purchased by the city of Aspen for its in-town fleet.The hybrids cost about $585,000 apiece, compared to $325,000 per bus for the standard clean-burning diesel model, but RFTA and the hybrid’s manufacturers are hoping the models generate interest from other buyers, bringing down the price.”We think it’s going to create a lot of buzz out there in the industry,” Blankenship said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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