Sunday, 25 April 2010

As One Door Closes, Another One Slams in Your Face

Only 19 days to go, and my efforts to get a well-rounded, all-embracing view of the public transport sector before I set off has hit a bit of a problem.

I thought it would be a good idea to take a closer look at today’s transport industry by taking a peek around a bus factory. I wanted to see how buses are actually built and get a better understanding of how manufacturers cater for the needs of the public transport industry. I had assumed, in all innocence, that manufacturers would relish the chance of a bit of free publicity but that patently hasn’t been the case.

The first manufacturer I asked – I’ll do them the courtesy of not naming them – refused me point blank, saying it was the not a good time for such a visit given that their workforce were a little restless and concerned about the future (and therefore, one, assumes their jobs).

The second manufacturer I called was even less encouraging, as the company’s Director of Communications declined even to take my call (actually, it was his slightly tweedy PA who informed me, after I informed her that he didn’t actually know me but that I'd hoped to correct that imminently, that ‘I’m sorry, he’s not taking calls at the moment’. Sniff.)

(Have you noticed how some people find it second nature to say sorry whilst sounding not in the least bit sorry? What would you call that, do you think - practiced insincerity?)

Anyway, Miss Jean Brodie-knickers helpfully offered me an email address as an alternative t and I duly sent off a polite and exploratory email. Since when, nothing. Zilch. Silence (or at least the email equivalent).

It's disappointing, but I suppose it’s understandable. All manufacturing industry practically without exception has been having a tough time since the banks decided to set fire to the economy. Yes, things didn’t get quite as bad as they did in the US and, yes, the resulting recession is probably over now, but it’s a long road back and its full of troublesome potholes (as indeed are the roads, but that’s another story).

The bus manufacturing industry is in a difficult position, and it was ever thus. People who build buses rely on bus operators to buy the buses they build - but if those operators are having a tough time financially, and in a recession they would be, then they will almost certainly be looking to make economies. And what more obvious way to economise than to hold off buying that new fleet of vehicles for a few months more just to see how things pan out?

The result is obvious - fewer new buses ordered, therefore quieter production lines and therefore growing disquiet in the factory canteen. The government has been trying to help to some extent by offering grants and inducements to encourage operators to invest in new, greener buses. But this alone won't solve the general industry-wide problem of lack of demand.

Buses are rarely available from stock. Size, make of engine, gearbox, seat configuration, colour - a bus is much too specific a product and too specialised to expect to be able to buy off-the-shelf. So if nobody is buying, then manufacturers aren't building.

In recent months, the local press in the areas where these companies have their factories have been full of stories about possible future job cuts, and one of organisations representing the motor industry, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, which tracks the ups and downs of the bus market, has been highlighting a cooling in customer demand for some time now, especially for the larger types of bus.

So perhaps it was the sight of near-silent assembly lines that the two manufacturers I approached didn’t want me to see. I hope not.

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