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Express Coaches plays the survival game amid Panel 4 release

In NSW, Express Coach Builders was left hoping that procurement processes took effect before the operator was faced with shutting up shop. The Australian bus industry has since joined forces to address the national procurement challenge

The Christmas and New Year holiday period is meant to be a time full of relaxing and excitement. Family get-togethers and excessive sunshine usually dominates the period and allows the hardest of workers in the bus and coach industry to unwind and recharge for another demanding year ahead.

For New South Wales-based manufacturer Express Coach Builders, its summer was spent worrying about whether it would stay open for long in the New Year.

“It’s terribly sad to put your heart and soul into something you love for it to be potentially taken away,” Express Coach Builders director Mark Forster says.

“I had to lay off staff just before Christmas and no employer wants to do that. I don’t want to start this year with more.”

After manufacturing buses and coaches for the past 28 years, Express Coach Builders’ future has been left in the hands of the NSW government. The state government, for the past couple of years, has been working on the Bus Procurement Panel 4, which is a comprehensive list from Transport for NSW (TfNSW) for the provision of complete buses and related services to TfNSW and the state’s bus operators.

It’s a vital list for manufacturers in the state to be part of as they look to receive more orders in the coming years for new buses and coaches. After tenders closed in early April last year, vehicle brands waited for the panel to be released later in the year. It didn’t happen.

Almost a year since tenders closed, the likes of Express Coach Builders have been left in the lurch, waiting on the panel to be released so it can start filling its order books again.

“Express Coach Builders has been faced with closing its doors because of government inaction, despite an estimated 97 school buses being in need of replacement across regional NSW,” NSW Nationals shadow regional roads and transport minister Sam Farraway says.

Farraway says the inaction could force Express Coach Builders to close, leading to almost 50 jobs being taken away. With the manufacturer providing opportunities to more than 100 apprentices and trainees over its history and being the second largest private employer in Macksville, Farraway, alongside Nationals member for Oxley Michael Kemp, says the current scenario has been “a slap in the face”.

“If they shut down and take away our jobs, it’ll absolutely kill our region,” Kemp says.

“I met NSW transport minister Jo Haylen last year and she personally assured me that Express and other manufacturers would have the Panel 4 list before Christmas, with regional builds included on that list.

“Now, we’re facing major job losses, with outdated school buses still on the road amid post-flood damage and cuts to road funding.”

Kemp also extended an invitation to minister Haylen and NSW premier Chris Minns to meet Express Coach Builders in Macksville and give the business confirmation that new orders are in the pipeline.

A day later, Haylen responded, with a spokesperson confirming the Panel 4 release wan’t delayed, as Panel 3 was due to expire on March 19 and Panel 4 was first unveiled on March 1.

“The process to finalise its replacement in Panel 4 was completed by March 1,” the spokesperson told ABC.

“Bus operators can and have continued to place orders for new buses under Procurement Panel 3 – there was no direction to operators to delay new bus orders until Procurement Panel 4 is established.

Image: Express Coaches

“Express Coach Builders has undertaken work for primary manufacturers on orders taken under Panel 3 after March 2023.”

Haylen’s office says the minister has engaged with local members and the department to ensure that Express Coach Builders, like other local manufacturers, is given an opportunity to be selected to undertake subcontracting work for new buses as part of TfNSW bus panels.

Under the NSW procurement process, which consists of pre-approved prime manufacturers, subcontractors like Express are used to help build new buses. The minister’s spokesperson says TfNSW can’t directly engage with these subcontractors and intervene in the procurement process for “reasons of fairness”.

“We have met with the local member and made sure that appropriate TfNSW senior officials have engaged with Express Coach Builders when they have asked for information,” the spokesperson says.

“The department advised that it had targeted to issue Panel 4 deeds – the first step to move to a new bus panel – to manufacturers prior to Christmas last year. It’s disappointing that it didn’t meet this target, but the new bus panel has been in place since March 1.”

Following this, Express and the industry saw immediate action when TfNSW sent out Panel 4 deeds to manufacturers, with the panel released earlier this month.

Despite this, the idea that bus procurement is still ongoing despite some processes of Panel 4 being delayed has raised opposition from the likes of the Bus Industry Confederation (BIC). The Australian bus and coach association brought the procurement issue to the attention of federal, state and territory governments in May last year when it released its Suppliers in Crisis campaign.

Image: Express Coaches

The campaign, looking to raise awareness for bus and coach manufacturers and suppliers and their ongoing issues, came about following last year’s BIC National Summit, with advocacy efforts including discussions with the NSW Bus Industry Taskforce, senior officials of Transport for NSW and the NSW minister’s office. BIC executive director Roz Chivers says the Australian bus manufacturing industry could be at risk of “going the same way as Australian car manufacturing did” if the procurement process isn’t smoothed out.

“Consultation undertaken by BIC last year revealed the lack of procurement in NSW in the past 12 months or so while the NSW government grapples with the implications of the transition to zero-emissions buses and its financial issues,” Chivers told ABC.

“We’re aware of several businesses who have made the decision to no longer supply to the bus industry and several more who are extremely vulnerable financially.”

Chivers says there’s a deep sense of frustration in the industry that state governments aren’t taking the procurement issue seriously. While BIC is aware that a handful of orders were made last year, with the bulk going to specific operators and body builders, it’s also equally aware of many operators who had orders approved to replace ageing buses and then revoked prior to the orders being finalised.

While Express Coach Builders has received some respite with the release of Panel 4, BIC is wanting to make sure there’s no such procurement issues in the future.

“The boom bust style of procurement isn’t sustainable because it undermines the industry’s ability to attract and retain staff and upskill workers to deal with zero-emissions buses,” Chivers says.

“It undermines companies’ abilities to plan for the future and, ultimately, it’ll undermine the ability of some companies to survive.”

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