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ABC Operator Showcase survey shows 2023 was a year of challenges

The 2024 ABC Operator Showcase survey features 60 operators from around the country who provide their insights into the current Australian bus and coach industry

The Australian bus and coach industry is moving quickly towards a different, more sustainable future. While manufacturers and suppliers are remaining nimble to adapt to this change, operators are still critical of this shift in approach when it comes to running buses and coaches daily.

The ABC Operator Showcase for 2024 surveys 60 operators around Australia, ranging from inner-city and metro companies to country and regional businesses that share their thoughts on the key issues impacting the wider industry.

The Operator Showcase was first launched via a survey, with operators choosing to participate in the annual feature through ABC Magazine and busnews.com.au.

Further advertising, emails and phone calls allowed more operators to be involved in the 2024 Operator Showcase than ever before, with participants completing a survey filled with questions about their business and its history to feature in the Operator Showcase tables.

Following this, they were also then presented with extra questions to gain their thoughts on current issues affecting the bus and coach industry, with many operators responding in great detail.

The 2024 Operator Showcase involves 60 bus and coach operators, allowing ABC Magazine to provide insight into what this cross-section of the industry thinks about the most pressing issues. While the survey results represent a snapshot of these participants’ views and don’t represent any attempt to speak to a general Australian industry view in any way, they provide an update from the lifeblood of the Australian bus and coach industry – the operators.

ZERO-EMISSIONS STILL A SLOW BURN

This year’s Operator Showcase results hint that the operators involved in the survey are no clearer on what the future power source of their fleets will be.

Last year, the Operator Showcase survey found 83 per cent of respondents had no zero-emissions vehicles in their bus or coach fleets. A year later, this trend has gone the other way, with 53 of the 60 participants, or 89 per cent, saying they have no zero-emissions models in their fleet.

Out of the 60 members of this year’s Showcase, 42 of them run regional operations. Out of this 42, 36 of them, or 86 per cent, had no zero-emissions buses or coaches in their business.  Of the 29 respondents who said their business, or part of it, runs metro services, 25 of them had no zero-emissions vehicles, highlighting the widespread trend of a slow zero-emissions uptake around the country.

Outside of the 89 per cent with no zero-emissions models, eight per cent reported having between one and 10 per cent of their fleet filled with electric or hydrogen buses, while the final three per cent said zero-emissions vehicles constituted between 41 and 50 per cent of their fleet.

FUEL SOURCE PREFERENCE

When it came to having future intentions to transition to zero-emissions fleets, 23 per cent of respondents say yes, a drop in nine per cent from last year, while 28 per cent say no.

The majority of participants, at 49 per cent, remained unsure, as operators continue to not decide what the future of their fleets will look like.

When it came to preferred fuel sources, diesel was still the popular choice, as 68 per cent of the operators in the Showcase say they prefer diesel. In a drop of 15 per cent from last year, seven per cent of participants say they prefer electric, while seven per cent prefer hydrogen fuel-cell power and the remaining 18 per cent have no preference.

PRICE STILL THE PROBLEM

Of the 60 operators in this year’s Showcase, there’s still one main sticking point behind transition to zero-emissions or other green sources of power.

While 24 per cent of respondents last year said the price of transitioning was the biggest issue, this rose to 34 per cent of operators in the Showcase this year.

Range anxiety remains the primary problem for 25 per cent of respondents, while 11 per cent say space for charging infrastructure is a critical issue. The remaining 30 per cent list a range of other issues spanning from the lack of infrastructure available to charging times, electric grid capacity and local supply challenges.

Other participating operators say the lack of government funding is a sticking point, with government uncertainty mentioned by numerous respondents. Of the 60 participants, around 10 per cent say they have constructed transition or training plans to accommodate for the zero-emissions transition.

% OF ZERO-EMISSIONS IN FLEET

The remaining 90 per cent either have no plans in place and don’t intend to formulate any, or are only just beginning to devise training timeframes for this gradual change. Numerous participants say they’re waiting to watch the technology evolve before doing so, while others are starting to reach out to local TAFE institutions to devise plans.

INSIDE THE BIG ISSUES

Much like last year, challenges still continue to impact Australian operators’ abilities to run efficient and expanded bus and coach companies. Last year’s Showcase found that nearly all participating operators experienced a rise in fuel costs over the 2021-2022 period due to fuel shortages globally.

In 2022-23, the market stabilised, yet this year’s Showcase highlights that many operators continue to feel the sting of rising fuel costs. Last year, 56 per cent of responding operators said they anticipated their fuel costs to increase by 25 per cent, while this year 62 per cent of respondents say their fuel costs are expected to rise by around 25 per cent.

A further eight per cent say their fuel costs will increase by more than 40 per cent in an indication that fuel prices are still not settled. Some operators are finding relief, with 25 per cent of operators part of the Showcase saying their costs will stay the same over the two years and a further five per cent saying their costs will decrease.

When it comes to the biggest issue facing operators in the industry for 2024 and beyond, the majority of participants say driver shortages and costs are clearly the most pressing.

Operators in the Showcase survey report that fatigue for current staff is also an ongoing issue, while the supply of and access to vehicles and parts has become a point of frustration. The inflated costs of fuel and other operational necessities is also mentioned heavily among the 61 respondents, as well as the lack of technological evolution being seen in the zero-emissions transition.

All of this summarises the key issues that 60 Australian bus and coach operators want to see tackled and potentially resolved in 2024 and beyond. Any operators looking to get involved in the next edition of the ABC Operator Showcase should keep an eye out for more details on the 2025 Operator Showcase survey later this year.

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