THE LEAP INTO THE FUTURE THAT ENDED UP AS A SHUFFLE
The 1930s was a decade of tremendous advances in urban bus design and many of those advances took place in the United States. Yellow Coach (part of General Motors), White, Mack, Brill and other manufacturers developed models which over the course of the decade evolved into the prototypes of the modern urban single-deck bus – entrance doorway opposite the driver and ahead of the front axle, exit ahead of the rear axle, engine and transmission at the rear.
By the 1950s GM had emerged as the dominant player in the market.
GM trucks and buses were marketed under the GMC brand. Its original standard basic design was unveiled in 1940 and before long a length of 40 feet became the norm. It had similar styling to the contemporary generation of streetcars (the Presidents’ Conference Committee or PCC design) and innovative monocoque construction.
But by the late fifties it was looking pretty dated, so (inspired perhaps by Raymond Loewy’s stunning design of the GMC Scenicruiser for Greyhound) in 1959 GMC announced its New Look range. Under the skin not much changed, but it had a very stylish appearance, with a dramatic protruding ‘fishbowl’ windscreen, snazzy parallelogram windows and shiny, fluted aluminium down the sides.
One by one the old manufacturers left the market (White in 1953, Brill in 1954, Mack in 1960) and GM approached a monopoly position.
Only one firm, Flxible, a maker of inter-city coaches based in Loudonville, Ohio, was actively trying to expand in the market, introducing its own version of the New Look in 1960 – a more rugged looking affair.
The US government was always wary of GM’s business activities, and in 1965 issued a consent decree, whereby GM had to make available to other American manufacturers its bus design patents free of charge and its major components at inter-divisional prices for ten years.
So by the end of the 1960s there existed a duopoly in the supply of urban buses in the United States, and there was little incentive for innovation. Whilst, with eye-catching paint jobs, they looked pretty smart on the outside, the interiors were not much different from buses built in the 1940s, and their high floors (three feet above the road) meant they were difficult to use for anyone with impaired mobility and impossible for someone in a wheelchair.
Few people rode the bus unless they had no choice. Faced with plummeting bus ridership across the country, and concerns over burgeoning car use, the US government decided to act – this time to spur the development of much more modern and attractive buses.
The Urban Mass Transportation Administration had been established in 1964 with the remit to apply federal funds to improve road and rail public transport throughout the United States.
In 1969 it launched the Transbus programme, which invited manufacturers to come forward with ground-breaking designs that would bring people back to public transport and, crucially, provide a much better experience for (in the clunky language of the time) ‘elderly and handicapped’ passengers.
Whilst they had not come forward with a new generation model, GMC had certainly been thinking about ‘the bus of the future’ for some time.
During the 1960s several truck and bus manufacturers explored the use of gas turbines as a power plant. GMC built its 1964 Bison articulated truck and its 1966 Chevrolet Turbo Titan III artic prototype and then in 1968 showed the RTX (Rapid Transit Experimental) – a three-axle, low floor, gas turbine powered bus. Limited tests with operators showed that, whilst the low floor aided boarding the bus, it was prone to damage from its limited ground clearance. UMTA quietly encouraged GMC to keep working on its research.
Meanwhile the National Academy of Engineering had prepared a report on how bus design should progress and came up with a list of over one hundred improvements to contemporary designs. A core recommendation was that bus journeys needed to be made faster and that could best be achieved by having low floors and wider doorways which would enable quicker boarding and alighting at stops.
In 1971 UMTA awarded a contract to Booz-Allen Applied Research, a major transportation consultancy, to manage the Transbus programme.
The RTX showed UMTA what was possible, and the NAE report defined what the design priorities should be. Together they informed an initial specification against which manufacturers were encouraged to build prototypes. This was generally a performance specification – defining what a bus should do, and not exactly what dimensions and components it should have. However, five particular requirements were a boarding step height of 17 inches, a nominal floor height of 22 inches, a top speed of 70 mph, 45 seats and those seats cantilevered out from the side walls.
Over $27 million was pledged to the design, build and test of the vehicles (about $200 million at today’s values). The fundamental aim was to produce a standardized 40 foot bus that offered faster journey times, improved passenger comfort and safety, and an attractive appearance. It would have to have a low environmental impact, be reliable in service and be able to be maintained at a reasonable cost.
The idea was that the Transbus programme would enable a production specification to be arrived at, and this would be the standard manufacturers would have to build to in order for their products to attract federal capital assistance grants, reducing purchase costs for operators by up to 80%.
GMC took exception to the whole affair, as it had already started work on a more conventional version of the RTX, called the RTS. It complained to UMTA in December 1971 that the Transbus programme would hamper its ability to sell the RTS and so suspended work on it.
The previous year, Flxible had been taken over by Rohr Corporation. This Californian aerospace firm, which supplied lots of components to plane makers like Boeing and Lockheed, had diversified into transit. It built the first batch of trains for the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington DC metro systems. Rohr invested heavily in Flxible straightaway, building a new factory in Delaware, Ohio and starting work on a new bus, employing the same interlocking aluminium side panel technology used on the trains.
In June 1972 UMTA announced that three manufacturers had joined the Transbus programme.
Despite its misgivings, GMC produced an enhanced version of the RTX. It was constructed from a number of stainless steel modules welded together and retained a gas turbine power plant. Among its other features were a 4 speed Allison transmission, independent front suspension and disc brakes.
The second candidate was from Rohr Corporation (that is, Flxible). Its eight wheel prototype featured those interlocking aluminium extrusions. It had a Cummins V8 diesel engine and Allison 3 speed torque converter transmission.
The third was from AM General, based in South Bend, Indiana, which had no history in public transit of any kind. It was however a major supplier to the US government through producing thousands of military vehicles of various types, including the army Jeep. The company was very good at building specialised vehicles and had already announced it wanted to enter the city transit bus market. In 1971 it entered a licensing agreement with Flyer of Canada to build their version of the New Look. Its Transbus prototype was the least innovative of the three, owing to AMG’s lack of bus design experience. Much of the design work was in fact sub-contracted. It was another six-wheeler, and sported a Caterpillar in-line 6 cylinder diesel engine and Dana 2-speed torque converter transmission. The body was of pressed steel construction with steel and aluminium cladding.
All three designs featured much smaller wheels than conventional buses, innovative interiors and kneeling suspensions. And all had one step from the entrance platform up into the saloon, rather than two on the New Looks. The GMC offered 42 seats, the Rohr 41 and the AM General 43, although they could all accommodate 45 seats if required to.
Access for wheelchairs was an essential requirement. The GMC bus had a lift, the Rohr had a retractable ramp and the AM General required every bus stop to have a built up platform, level with the bus entrance.
Each manufacturer built three prototypes, all completed in 1973, and each was paid $8 million for their efforts. The first two were sent to the Ultra Systems Dynamic Science proving grounds north of Phoenix, Arizona. These six buses were joined by a 1973 GMC New Look bus as a benchmark. The third prototypes were sent on a nationwide tour of major cities. Each manufacturer also provided a bare body shell for rig testing.
Four cities were chosen for the tour – meant to represent the variety of climate and operating conditions across the country. They were, respectively, Miami, New York, Kansas City and Seattle – with the tour beginning in November 1974 and ending the following March. The buses would spend three weeks at each city. The first week would involve driver and maintenance training for local personnel. The second week would include a spell running in service on an express route, plus time displayed in a public space where people could examine and comment on them. The final week would see the buses slotted into the roster for a heavily patronised local route. Riders and the general public were invited to fill in questionnaires to gauge their views and experience of the Transbuses.
People liked the modern appearance and interiors, and the lower floor height. Drivers liked the faster road performance and manoeuvrability. The wheelchair lift of the GMC and the ramp of the Rohr were approved off, but not the roadside platform needed for the AMG.
A number of the novel features, like new types of doors, destination screens and controls, proved troublesome. Surprisingly the worst problem on all the buses seems to have been the interior noise levels, which – given the fact that the New Looks were pretty noisy inside – suggests that even talking inside a Transbus would be hard going.
Of the three designs, the gas turbine powered GMC was the most reliable in service – probably because of the firm’s experience in bus building and previous trials with turbine powered trucks. Both the AMG and the Rohr had a series of niggling faults which may have reflected their inexperience in city bus manufacturing. They also doubtless reflected the fact that these were all hand built machines, full of novel and often untried technology that they had been encouraged to fit.
Based on these very superficial tests, Booz-Allen attempted to demonstrate what the overall cost benefit would be of Transbus versus current designs. They argued that the higher production cost would be offset by faster operation, the inherent safety of a lower floor, and the appeal of the buses would increase overall ridership by 10%. That was an analysis with a lot of ifs and buts in it.
In March 1973 UMTA declared that it is planned to build a fleet of 100 Transbuses for extensive testing but this did not happen. Two months later GMC formally announced it was going to bring its RTS II model into production, at the time the 1965 consent decree ran out.
At the end of the test programme the outcome was inconclusive. Whereas the Arizona proving ground work showed the buses met their basic performance specifications under hot conditions, the nationwide tour provided no long term in-service testing in all kinds of weather and no exposure to real life maintenance. The most exciting thing to happen was that one of the Rohr buses caught fire and burned out on a local highway near Phoenix.
The conservative transit authorities were wary of committing to fleets of buses with lots of new technology that they couldn’t keep on the road or run economically. They pointed out to UMTA that the calibre of maintenance technicians found at many American operators was not as high as, for example, in Europe where technically sophisticated buses were commonplace.
The manufacturers thought the buses were too advanced to go into large scale production and component makers were also nervous.
By 1975 the whole programme was in rather a mess. Only AM General was keen on pursuing the low floor level of the Transbus, even though it had recently started selling a New Look style of bus. GMC and Flxible felt that the Transbus concept needed a lot more development and testing before entering large scale production.
In July 1976 UMTA announced that making a 22 inch floor height the standard was impractical at that time. This was in spite of vigorous and sustained campaigning by groups representing the elderly and handicapped, especially wheelchair users. At a time when rights for the disabled had become a major political issue, they argued that public funds should only be spent on buses that were fully accessible.
Instead UMTA would support a curious cocktail of the New Look and Transbus, incorporating the basic high floor layout of the New Look but within a novel body system – which was named the Advanced Design Bus. This would have two steps to the main floor instead of one, and have a wheelchair lift instead of the extendable ramp which wheelchair campaigners preferred.
The GMC RTS II conformed to this pattern. This would be the formula that UMTA would support with capital assistance grants in future.
In October 1976 Flxible unveiled its 870 model which used the body concept of the Rohr Transbus. It was all systems go for the ADB.
Then in May 1977 UMTA announced that from September 1979 all new federally funded buses would have to have a floor height of 22 inches. Confusion reigned.
An exasperated AM General announced it was leaving the market even though it had built up a substantial market share. Rohr sold Flxible to Grumman, another aerospace company.
That October three cities, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Miami, formed a consortium to buy 530 Transbuses (worth in excess of $120 million). Although the basic specification remained the same, the Transbuses the consortium would buy would be very different from any of the Transbus prototypes.
The procurement process dragged on, and the eventual deadline for bids was May 1979. No manufacturer was interested, even though overseas suppliers had also been invited to bid. Both GMC and Grumman (Flxible’s new owners) explained at length why they felt the challenge was impossible for technical and commercial reasons.
After the collapse of the consortium bid UMTA considered the overall picture (including a more reliable estimate that a Transbus would cost 60% more than an ADB which itself sold at a premium to the New Look) and decided to abandon the programme. As for the five prototypes that survived the testing, their fate is uncertain. They were probably all scrapped around 1980.
It is hard not to regard the Transbus programme as a failure. The ambition to create a genuinely innovative and more passenger friendly bus ended up with the Advanced Design Bus – not really all that advanced at all.
A 1978 study by the Office of Technology concluded that the programme failed to place enough emphasis on developing the components necessary for low floor buses. Given the utterly inadequate service testing, it is quite probable that the technical complexity of any fleets of Transbus vehicles would have created a crisis in the bus industry, as large scale problems would almost certainly have been inevitable.
The fact that UMTA went through four administrators during the programme and three administrations (Nixon, Ford, Carter) led to several confusing changes of policy. In 1991 it became the Federal Transit Commission. It has not had a permanent administrator for over six years.
What of the bus builders? As noted, AM General quit the market in 1979. The Flxible 870 hit major technical problems and the firm went through another owner before going bust in 1995.
And mighty General Motors left the bus building business in 1987, selling the design and rights of the RTS to Transportation Manufacturing Corporation. Nowadays however, true low floor buses, with no steps until the rear axle, are a familiar sight across North America, from firms like Gillig and New Flyer – featuring retractable ramps and room for two wheelchairs.
The Transbus saga is largely forgotten now, but in the 1970s it represented probably the most ambitious effort to reshape urban bus design anywhere in the world. Even today the prototypes look edgy and exciting.
If anyone has written a definitive study I haven’t found it. So this has been an attempt to at least tell the bare bones of the story. In 1977 and 1979 I spent some time in North America visiting operators (‘transit properties’), manufacturers, the American Public Transit Association and UMTA to better understand what made American bus design so different from Europe’s
I got to know a number of great people at Booz-Allen. I saw and inspected the original Advanced Design Buses at the 1977 APTA convention in Atlanta. The material for this article comes in part from what I learned on those visits and also from subsequent research. Many of the images here were kindly given to me by staff at UMTA.
The records of hearings held in Washington DC, in March 1977 and May 1979 give a tremendous insight into the whole labyrinthine affair. See the references below. And do let me know if you think there is more to say, or if you think anything is inaccurate.
Sources: Booz-Allen Applied Research. (November 1974). Transbus technical data. Interim report prepared for Department of Transportation; Department of Transportation. 15 March 1977. Hearings before the sub-committee on transportation, aviation and weather. Found on Google Books; Urban Mass Transportation Administration. 16 May 1979. Hearings before the sub-committee on oversight and review of the committee on public works and transportation. Found on Google Books; Reason.com/1980/07/01/sic-transit-transbus; Whitton, C. (1977). A transit operator views Transbus. 5th International Congress on Automotive Safety, Cambridge, MA., p297; Woodcock, E. (1980). American urban bus design. Prepared for IMechE, unpublished.
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