Arriva’s announcement that it was intending to work alongside Chinese bus builder King Long to develop new buses must have come as a bit of a shock to British manufacturers.
Competition between the three main British bus builders is already intense, so the propsect of an existing major client helping a new foreign rival to enter their market must have made unwelcome news.
It’s also a slightly odd decision, according to some. Chinese buses have tended to be a less sophisticated than their European counterparts, they say, and while the Chinese seem to use all the right bits, they somehow still manage to produce vehicles which are a shade less than the sum of their parts.
Mind you, they said exactly the same about the Japanese back in the early 1970’s, and about Skoda a lot more recently than that. And look where they are now.
So what’s in it for Arriva? Well, their explanation is that while most of their fleet currently comes from British and European manufacturers, they are keen to evaluate the potential of King Long in other markets. The company seems anxious not to alienate British and European manufacturers – but the sub-text is clearly that Arriva is looking for cheaper buses and they might not be averse to going all the way to China to get them.
King Long have clearly spotted an opportunity, too. This is a massive bus manufacturer but one that is well aware of its limitations. They understand that to support any expansion into the European market, they would need to improve both build quality and mechanical reliability to meet European expectations. A working relationship with Arriva would give King Long some valuable insights into what a European bus operator was looking for and, potentially, enable them to substantially raise their game.
So will we see Chinese buses bearing the Arriva livery on British roads anytime soon, as they already do in Malta? Well, probably not - not unless King Long find a way of producing Euro-quality buses cheaper than the Europeans.
But whose to say that, in time, they won’t…