The UK coach market has endured a roller-coaster ride from the start of the COVID crisis, when most operators’ fleets were mothballed. There was virtually no demand for new coaches in 2020; things recovered a little in 2021 as canny operators purchased new old-stock coaches that had been built for delivery the previous year, then demand for new-build coaches returned with a vengeance in 2022 and has continued at a very healthy level this year, outstripping demand in ‘normal’ pre-COVID years as operators played catch-up.
“Demand now outstrips supply,” says Andy Warrender, operations manager at industry group RHA Coaches. “And this is also reflected in the prices being achieved by used coaches, some of which appear to be worth more now than they were pre-COVID!”
All of which makes strategic decisions made by the two Swedish manufacturers in the market to end production of complete vehicles a little puzzling.
In May, Scania announced that it was to cease coach and bus body production at its plant in Sulpsk, Poland at the end of the year, although chassis production would continue there.
As far as the UK is concerned, the only product to be dropped is the Interlink coach that was introduced to the British market in 2017. That model has already been phased out. A spokesman for Scania UK says: “Scania’s new global bus and coach strategy has little impact in the UK for the short to medium term. However, we will need to realign our future UK strategy, which we are in the process of doing.”
Scania’s current UK coach strategy is focused on supplying vehicles manufactured by independent bodybuilders including Irizar (Spain) and Higer (China). Irizar is also active in the UK market in its own right, importing integrally built coaches with DAF/ZF drivelines.
Prior to the Scania announcement, rival Volvo had already declared the compete closure of its bus and coach factory in Wroclaw, Poland from early next year.
In both cases, manufacturers are clearly concentrating on the high-technology and relatively easily automated process of drivetrain and chassis production, and outsourcing low-tech and labour-intensive body construction. But Volvo’s decision will clearly have a far greater impact on UK operators, as Wroclaw is the home of 9900 and 9700 integral coach production.
Josef Gisslow, Volvo Bus UK & Ireland retail/coach sales director says: “Volvo has always been a predominantly chassis-on-body supplier to the UK coach market, and to complement this, the 9700 and 9900 range of vehicles have up until today been built at the Volvo factory in Poland and are positioned as integrally built vehicles.
“In the UK market, we have worked over a long period with a number of bodybuilder partners including Plaxton, MCV and Sunsundegui, and in the last few years the 9700 and 9900 have really begun to carve a niche for themselves in the market, and these coaches remain part of our core business.
“Production of both 9700 and 9900 has been moved from Poland to Sunsundegui in Spain, and the product will be back and available for our customers in very quick time.”
Sunsundegui is an established Volvo bodybuilder, building its own bodies on Volvo B8R and B11R chassis. The plan is for Sunsundegui to build the 9700 and 9900 under licence. The OEM says that deliveries will resume in the near future.
In the meantime, Volvo Bus will continue to supply Sunsundegui-bodied vehicles (SB3, SC5 and SC7 models), with MCV (the Evotor) and via Plaxton (Panther and Leopard models).
Gisslow adds: “We have MCV coaches in build for delivery to the UK in 2024, and we sold a number of MCV Evotors last year. Our order books remain open for the next batch of vehicles due for delivery to the UK in January 2024.”
He also seeks to reassure current operators of 9700 and 9900 that ongoing support for vehicles already delivered and in operation will continue through the Volvo dealer network as usual, with no anticipated reduction in body parts availability.
The changes at Volvo and Scania have come at a tumultuous time in the UK coach market.
“It was an extremely tough 18 months both for operators and manufacturers. Things then started to pick up quickly in November and December of 2022, and the level has continued into 2023. We have enjoyed good availability of vehicles both this year and last, and demand now shows no sign of slowing down,” concludes Gisslow.
Warrender contends that, while demand for coaching services has returned, impacts of COVID are still being felt. “Many vehicles were scrapped before end of life during the lockdown, as operators could not see a time when they would be used again, and this has left a big gap in the market. At the same time, the cost of running older coaches is increasing; I hear reports of replacement parts now costing three times what they did pre-COVID.”
All of which raises the question as to whether a UK market with demand outstripping supply represents an opportunity for new entrants to make their mark?
“Operators are seeing rises in revenue over the pre-COVID era of 25%, but their costs have gone up even more,” responds Warrender. “If an operator sees value and utility in the offering from a new manufacturer, then in this volatile market they are going to take the opportunity.
“But people have learned from past experience when newcomers have entered the UK market and failed to deliver: no matter its virtues as a vehicle, a coach is only as good as its support. No one wants to end up with an expensive paperweight. Any new entrant only gets one chance to get it right.”