Double the Passengers, Double the Responsibility: Part 2 – The Costs and Risks of Double Decker Buses

In Part 1 of this series (see November, 2008, NBT). I enumerated the many characteristics of carelessly-cobbled double decker buses and their raggedy operations – vehicles whose passengers stood on high, exposed upper decks while the vehicles traveled at high speeds, and where two sets of them were seriously injured or effectively beheaded when they collided with bridge overpasses. The almost endless stream of ignorance and indifference included:

  • The conversion of high-floor buses with leaf spring suspension systems and high centers-of-gravity, without reference to any conversion documents
  • Open access to rear and upper decks condoned by the driver
  • Drivers with no CDLs and no training
  • Seats on the rear and upper decks unattached to the floor
  • Isolated, un-enforced warnings shrugged off by both passengers and drivers
  • No route planning of any type, despite free and easy access to multiple sources providing it – but instead, routes whose paths were literally improvised during the trip
  • Music blaring from PA systems on the rear and upper decks
  • No cameras or surveillance systems revealing activity on the outer decks
  • No dispatcher or even a proxy for one
  • No signage or markings warning passengers of the dangers of riding outside (much less riding as standees on even the inside)

In sharp contrast, recent efforts by one innovative and genuinely-professional operator, Coach USA, illustrate the steps that can and should be taken to optimize passenger safety in the design, production, planning and deployment of double decker buses or coaches. But these efforts also demonstrate the enormous commercial benefits that can accrue from the dedication to a comprehensive set of safety-oriented design and operating objectives, and the seamless integration of these principles into services that are experiencing spiraling profits while helping, in their own small way, to cleanse our air and extend our nation’s fuel supply. These efforts also illustrate the considerable potential for expanded motorcoach services at a time in our nation’s history when such solutions are sorely needed.

Selecting and Optimizing the Envelope

Coach USA actually deploys two types of double decker buses – one an “open air” bus for urban sightseeing purposes, the other an enclosed, slightly lower double decker for intercity purposes. No surprise, both vehicles are European-manufactured:

  • For its urban sightseeing applications, Coach USA deploys Alexander Dennis 500 series, open-air motor coaches with a ground-to-top height of 13’3”. Built on low-floor chassis, the operating environments are restricted to carefully-scrutinized, urban sub-areas with no bridges, lighting fixtures or other overhanging objects, with these clearances carefully verified by an extensive set of “dry runs.”
  • For its intercity operations – currently serving three destinations from New York City (eight more will soon be added containing “green diesel” power plants) and 17 from Chicago, with another huge order already under way – Coach USA deploys closed-roof Van Hools, with a ground-to-top clearance of 13′ 1¾”. Among the extensive testing environments, these buses have been ferried through the Holland Tunnel.

With an obviously higher center-of-gravity, these buses were tested for directional stability under worst-case scenarios – the upper deck loaded with sandbags while no proxy-passengers were positioned on the lower deck. In static tilt tests, the urban models (i.e., Dennis) returned to an upright position after being rolled 28 degrees from the horizontal. The intercity models (Van Hools) returned to an upright position after tilting 32 degrees. (Typical rollover limits for most U.S. buses and coaches lie between 17 and 19 degrees.) Finally, tweaking directional stability to realistic limits, a small bogey containing ballast is positioned near the front axle – further lowering the vehicle’s center-of-gravity and limiting its rollover propensity irrespective of passenger loads and their distribution within the vehicle.

Obviously not built to transport basketball players, both models contain headroom for passengers of typical male height without their having to stoop, on the lower level. The upper deck of the enclosed (Van Hool) models are slightly more cramped – hardly a sacrifice for a vehicle providing long intercity trips at cut-rate fares.

In terms of configurations, all seats – upper and lower decks alike – are affixed to the floors, as per appropriate FMVSS requirements. Stepwells between decks are linear, bisected into two semi-tiers with a rectangular landing between them. All steps thus possess identical rectangular dimensions, with identical tread depths and riser heights throughout.

Finally, intercity models are outfitted with an array of modern amenities, including WiFi and headsets, not to mention the cushy seating typical of high-end motorcoaches.

Planning and Precaution

Apart from the worst-case-scenario dry runs in which both sets of vehicles were tested, all trip planning is coordinated with both state departments of transportation and various cities where bridge and tunnel issues are prevalent. For intercity runs, areas “off limits” are clearly demarcated, with information available to schedulers, dispatchers and drivers compiled into a database that, among other information, identifies every bridge height in the entire country below 13′ 6”. Coach USA planners even identify irregular aberrations like street lamps and overhanging tree limbs. All routes are rigorously pre-planned, including the conduct of “dry runs.” Finally, no deviations from a pre-planned route of any kind is permitted without approval from a dispatcher equipped with an array of analog and digital tools at his or her immediate disposal.

Once deployed, the operation of these buses is rigidly controlled by layers of signage, warnings, surveillance and, on inner-city sightseeing runs, and the coordinated positioning of tour guides on the upper deck – equipped not only with PA systems and exterior speakers able to blare warnings to uncooperative passengers, but with two-way radios placing them in constant, two-way communication with their respective drivers. Each trip begins with a safety briefing by the tour guide, and such warnings are repeated regularly on sightseeing runs where passengers can alight and later re-board after exploring trip destinations at greater length as pedestrians. Standing while the vehicle is moving is strictly prohibited. When a second warning is ignored, the third offense results in the passenger’s removal by police officers. Similarly, passengers are not permitted to ascend or descend the stepwell between decks while the vehicle is in motion. Even tiny deviations in conduct are identified and enforced – such as passengers whose arms or hands lie outside the vehicle “envelope.” These warnings are reinforced in multiple formats, including signage affixed to the rear of every seat back. Overall, passenger compliance is continuously monitored and enforced by constant communications between the tour guide, the driver and a dispatcher.

Coach USA is restrictive about certain operating environments. Largely because of the frequency of overpasses, it does not yet deploy double deckers in commuter-express service – even while such vehicles would provide considerable pay-offs in that environment. The concept is not completely dead, however, and discussions with the New York City Transit Authority have begun, along with actual “testing” in selected sectors of the City’s five boroughs. Otherwise, despite many commercial opportunities, Coach USA has avoided deploying these vehicles “off the beaten path.” For example, even the lower of their two coach types, the Van Hools (13′ 1¼” in height), cannot be accommodated by New York City’s Port Authority building – the effective hub of intercity bus and coach service in Manhattan.

Training and Testing

Core driver training begins with an 80-hour mix of standard motorcoach classroom and behind-the-wheel training. Unlike many such operations, Coach USA drivers are given copies of all training materials, and encouraged to reference them regularly. Once this training has been completed, all drivers are then provided with an additional 12 hours of behind-the-wheel training operating a double decker unit. Divers are also required to undertake rigorous physical examinations.

Safety and Marketing

As readers of my NBT columns well know, I am an outspoken proponent of the concept that safety pays. One place it is obviously paying off in this case is that there has not yet been a catastrophic accident involving a purpose-built, professionally-designed double decker, despite the temptations for rollover propensity their superficially-similar vehicles might present to irresponsible drivers in sketchy operating environments. Coach USA has minimized the potential for such disasters – as well as the beheadings and other carnage alluded to in Part 1 of this series – by its obsessive vehicle specification and testing criteria, rigorous trip planning, and a dynamic, if not ruthless, control over passenger behavior. Contrasted sharply with the “conversions” identified in Part 1 of this series, the two types of buses deployed by Coach USA are purpose-built models designed and produced by original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Unlike many features of the conversions previous discussed, the upper deck of the open-air Dennis’ bus contains sidewalls instead of railings. Both models contained not only pneumatic suspension systems, but suspension systems designed specifically for buses with these models’ specific characteristics and anticipated operating environments.

Among the most obvious benefits, particularly given the exaggeration of our nation’s recent problems (spiking oil prices, upside down mortgages, exploding un- and under-employment), these vehicles carry 80 passengers – nearly double that of conventional, single-decker coaches. As the ignition of a single gallon of gasoline creates 80 pounds of carbon monoxide, the air quality and fuel-saving benefits these vehicles possess over travel by private automobile are not merely dramatic, they are exponential.

Along with the novelty of the vehicles themselves, ridership growth has been stimulated by a clever application of graduated pricing: Far in advance, one can often obtain a one-way ticket for a dollar. As each trip’s seats are gradually filled, prices rise sharply – resulting in not only more profit and more control of it by the operator, but with greater opportunities for passengers with virtually no income to take advantage of the service – many of whom could otherwise afford no travel of any kind. Coach USA’s statistics suggest that, combined with the vehicles, and their responsible selection, specification, planning and operations, such strategies have paid off: Ridership growth during the past year was 107 percent. By comparison, Amtrak’s growth was 4.7%.

To truly recognize the potential of these vehicles, their obvious commercial success should be examined within the context of an industry starved by a lack of innovation – apart from exceptions like the dramatically cleaner diesel engines and wheelchair lifts we were forced to develop and employ, albeit kicking and screaming. Many buses and coaches still do not even contain intelligible stepwells or handrails. And our inability to develop (with one obscure exception) and adopt genuinely compartmentalized seating has left us a few votes away from the requirement for three-point occupant restraints, as our European and Australian counterparts have provided their passengers for years.

Chance and Challenges

Certain challenges obviously remain in the development of double decker motorcoaches – such as the lack of underfloor luggage area or overhead space for carry-on bags. For now, passengers may be carrying more items on their laps. But there is no denying the popularity of the initial pilot orders, and the enormity of unrealized demand that their recent growth in ridership suggests.

While both vehicles cited in this installment are technically buses – they contain multiple doors and no underfloor luggage space – make no mistake that they are operating in motorcoach duty cycles. It is my hope that the significant enhancements in safety, and the extensive efforts to mitigate liability exposure, that these developments represent are not lost in the euphoria of commercial success or the spectrum of potential benefits in an array of areas ranging from the reduction in traffic and expansion of mobility, to improvements in air quality and fuel conservation – not to mention the availability of affordable transportation to a sub-population unable, frankly, to travel any other way.

Publications: National Bus Trader.