With a fleet of over 430 buses, ACTION (Australian Capital Territory Internal Omnibus Network) has to look very closely at two important factors; that of keeping operating and maintenance costs at the lowest possible levels without sacrificing efficiency, and public acceptance of its services.
The importance of keeping a tight rein on costs goes without discussion, while the need for vehicle smartness and comfort is paramount in an area such as Canberra and its environs, where multi-car ownership runs high on the scale of social acceptance.
Previously, ACTION, and its forebears, maintained its buses on a regular maintenance and overhaul basis, keeping them mechanically sound but without any attempt to improve their internal and external appearance.
It followed that passengers were riding in tired-looking, but well maintained buses that gradually took on an appearance of old age as they approached their discard date of between 15 and 20 years.
ACTION has generally found buyers for its buses withdrawn from active service after a busy life of 16 years or so.
But it was fairly obvious that the older these buses became, the higher was the cost of keeping them on the road.
‘Brand New’ Look
Back in 1989 ACTION’s Development Engineer Roger Payne implemented a program of half-life refurbishing, giving eight-year-old buses a complete body stripdown, replacing any necessary components, making any pre-developed modifications and a whole ‘brand new’ look, both inside and outside, so that passengers would not draw the erroneous conclusion that the fleet was ‘on its last legs.’
The scheme got off to a cautious start, naturally, with management and staff feeling their way in a program for which they had no precedent.
Two 1980 MANs were selected as prototype units for the program, which was housed temporarily at the Kingston Central Workshops. In fact, only seven buses were refurbished in the first 18 months.
By mid-1990, the refurbishing section had been moved to leased premises at Fyshwick, where its staff could concentrate on their work without the distractions which are a part of the normal operation of any large workshop.
By the end of 1990, the number of MANs suitable for refurbishing had tapered off and the program was extended to include the Mercedes Benz vehicles purchased in large numbers in the early 1980s.
During the 91/92 financial year 48 Mercedes were refurbished – approximately one per week – while at the same time, 26 Mack (Renault) articulated buses received minor body modifications, mainly removal of the centre door and steps.
During the 92/93 financial year, eighty Mercedes were put through, an average of one every eight working days.
This was, actually, a reduction in output because as Workshop Manager John Cornwell told me, the refurbishing program must be coordinated to new bus acquisitions and deliveries have tapered off in 1992 compared with 1990/91.
The number of buses in the ACTION fleet has also been reduced from 475 at the end of 1990 to the present 430.
This follows the undertaking’s Revised ACTION Network program under which the whole operation was redesigned to provide a better overall service for customers through a more efficient deployment of vehicles, routes and timetables.
The refurbishing section is now working at a level of 32 buses per year and has achieved an encouraging productivity output.
Originally, it was staffed with 26 employees. Now that all the teething troubles are over and production techniques have been streamlined, the staff level has been reduced to 16 under John Cornwell and Brian Warner, who is Workshop Foreman. Vladimir Milan is Workshop Engineer at Kingston, supervising the refurbishing program.
The previous half-life service was cosmetic, concentrating mainly on paint touch-ups and removal of any obvious rust spots. Today a refurbish costs about $25,000, but in effect, results in the equivalent of a new bus which would otherwise have cost $250,000.
Additionally, maintenance costs have been reduced to nil and the effect on public acceptance has been very gratifying.
The extra return which ACTION can expect from ‘refurb’ buses at resale time, compared with non-refurbs, is considerably higher than the cost of the job.
Intending purchasers of ‘pre-loved’ ACTION buses are offered a range of services such as mechanical and body modifications or improvements as well as a complete repaint to the new owners’ colour scheme.
Buses arriving at Fyshwick for refurbishing go through a four-stage process: Dismantling, Welding, Panelling and Paintwork.
Vehicles for refurbishing are selected in fleet number order which coincides with delivery dates; this means that the work is undertaken right at the half-life mark. Buses currently undergoing refurbish were delivered in 1984, although a vehicle could jump the queue if its condition indicates more urgent attention than its fellows.
On arrival, the bus is stripped down by the removal of all seats, windows, side panels, interior panels (where necessary), all electrical fittings (but not wiring unless it is obviously faulty), bumper bars, exterior moulding, number plates and badges. The latter are, frequently, bad rust areas.
Passing to the welding section, the bus receives any standard modifications such as improving the angle of approach by a rework of the front corner panels and framework. The frames are completely checked for rust, damage or breakage or where strengthening may be required.
Generally, rust intrusion is minimal – a feature of operating conditions in Canberra.
In the Panelling section, a number of modifications are made, such as an access opening to the front heater tap. New zincanneal stretch panels are put in place from eye level to waist and any necessary sheet panels are fixed.
A refurbished BUS 658
The paneling section also makes its own window frames – an improvement on those originally fitted. These have concealed bonding. This section also cuts and bends the exterior window vertical joint covers at a much lower cost per bus than if these were purchased from outside suppliers.
The paintwork section operates at the Belconnen Workshops, where full spray painting facilities with adequate production capacity are available. This overcomes the need to duplicate this expensive infrastructure.
Each bus spends a week at Belconnen, where it is completely resprayed on the outside and touched up where necessary on the inside.
On return to Fyshwick, the vehicle is cleaned up and detailed. Pirelli material is fitted to the floor, and the seats and windscreens are refitted.
The seats are renovated and recovered with vandal-proof Front Runner material to conform with those in the latest buses in the fleet.
The seat frames are modified and powder coated prior to re-spraying.
All exterior badges, insignia and signs are applied and the bus returns to service looking like a brand new bus and is only obvious as a refurbished bus to those few who can recognise its fleet number.
The section operates with only six tradesmen (four panel beaters, a welder and a former mechanic who is a trimmer); the remainder are multi-skilled trades assistants. “We never have any problem getting trades assistants; last time we advertised we received 96 applications,” said John Cornwell.
Some interesting experiments have been incorporated in the refurbish process. One bus was repainted with high bonding double sided tape by the 3M organisation.
Each bus takes 28 working days to pass through the whole plant from stripdown to pre-delivery check. The section has also undertaken the refurbishment of a 1978 Mercedes with PMC Mark II bodywork for the NSW State Transit, as part of its outside refurbishing project.
“We have the capacity, resources and, more importantly, the experience to handle refurbishing, modifications or repaints – you name it – for outside operators and we would welcome enquiries from the private sector, as well as other public sector undertakings,” John told me.
“Our present working schedules for ACTION vehicles can be adjusted to cope with any urgent outside work without having an effect on our quality standards,” he added.
I was most impressed with the thoroughness of the work and the high standards of workmanship and results achieved at the ACTION refurbishing section when I made a recent visit.
It is impossible to detect the interior finish and comfort of refurbish out on the road from a new bus, and a former ACTION driver once asked: “Is this the newest Mercedes?”
The section is very proud of its workmanship and achievements. In 1991 it received a Highly Commended award from the ACT Government Service Achievements Award.
The citation said the success of the refurbishment program had seen the target of one bus per week achieved and, as at July 1991, at an average unit cost of $29,500 representing a low $25 per hour cost.
It continued: ‘This excellent result has been achieved through dedicated team work, employee participation, multi-skilling innovation, excellent working environment and high job satisfaction.”
Award certificates were presented to 22 members of the team by the ACT Chief Minister Rosemary Follett.
If you are interested in having some fleet refurbishing or repainting work handled by ACTION, why not drop in to Canberra one day and have a yarn with John Cornwell or Brian Warner – it could be interesting
Pictures/Report by Geoff Johnson – Truck & Bus Magazine, February 1993, Pages 44 – 47