For Mike Heger, getting to the State Fair was a ride itself.
At a park-and-ride lot in Eden Prairie on Friday, Heger paused briefly in a swift-moving line to look over the double-decker bus he was about to board. “Looks like fun,” he said. “I’ve been on one in Europe.”
The bus was one of two double-deckers that SouthWest Transit added to its fleet this year for the annual shuttle service to the fairgrounds in St. Paul. The one Heger boarded, outfitted in SouthWest Transit’s black and green, will join the company’s daily express service next week between the southwest suburbs and downtown Minneapolis and the U.
It’s a move to boost capacity and efficiency for a transit company that continues to grow quickly, even as regional leaders move forward with plans to build a light-rail system between Minneapolis and its base in Eden Prairie. Ridership on SouthWest Transit was up 11 percent in the first six months of the year, following a 3.5 percent gain for all of 2013.
SouthWest Transit executives for several years have tried to acquire double-decker buses but were prevented from doing so by politics and economics. Because SouthWest Transit receives federal subsidies, it must buy buses that are mostly made in the United States or with U.S.-made parts. It tried several years ago with the lone U.S. company making them, but that company exited the business as SouthWest Transit prepared its order. Since then, no companies in the U.S. has made double-decker buses.
But this summer, ABC Cos., a Faribault-based distributor and maker of buses and smaller coaches, agreed to do the completion work on double-deckers that are designed and partly built by Alexander-Dennis Ltd. of Scotland. ABC will ramp up the work at a plant in Nappanee, Ind., this fall.
“The demand has been there for quite some time,” said John McFarlane, a sales rep at ABC, which is also a distributor of double-deckers by Van Hool, a Belgian manufacturer.
Long a fixture in Europe and Asia, double-deckers became more visible in the United States with the rise since 2008 of Megabus, the Chicago-based intercity bus service. They also have become more common with tourist operators in cities including Las Vegas and New York and as employee shuttles tech companies run in Silicon Valley.
For SouthWest, double-decker buses will help relieve congestion during rush hours. “We have certain routes at times of the day when we have to send two buses back to back,” said Len Simich, chief executive of SouthWest Transit. “The first bus of those doubles always gets crushed with people.”
The company’s fleet is a mix of city-style buses that carry 39 people and cross country-style coaches that seat 57. Simich says the extra-long articulated buses, which are run by Metro Transit and other suburban lines, don’t add enough because they carry around 64. The double-deckers carry 85.
“There’s no other bus that can give us the capacity we need,” Simich said.
It has leased a Van Hool double-decker from California while it awaits delivery of its first Alexander-Dennis model from ABC’s Indiana plant. The company will consider other double-deckers as it goes through the routine updating of its fleet in coming years.
Simich said SouthWest Transit tested its routes to make sure a 13-foot, 7-inch bus can get under all the bridges and skyways it would encounter. For now, there are only a few roads in the metro area, most prominently Hwy. 100 on the west side, where the double-decker won’t run.
“It drives pretty much like any other motor coach we have,” Les Kranzler, a driver for SouthWest Transit, said as passengers were boarding for one of the State Fair runs Friday. “You just have to be cognizant of what’s above you. In fact, when you’re driving, you don’t even realize you’ve got a level above you unless someone is dancing around above your head here.”
Ted Anderson, owner of Anderson Bus and Coach in Frazee, Minn., bought a Van Hool double-decker last month from ABC, took delivery in California and drove it himself back home. He charges his clients, which range from school and university groups to tour agencies, about 50 percent more than for the typical 57-seat coach. For clients who can’t fill two buses, the bigger bus is a cheaper way to go. “They save and I save since it costs the same to run as a regular coach,” Anderson said.
The bus has 110-volt electrical outlets at every seat and Wi-Fi service. Its safety features include a radar system that, when the bus departs from a lane, sends an alert by buzzing the driver’s seat.
Anderson said he plans to add more. “The cost per passenger is less and you can put fewer buses on the road,” he said. “That’s the name of the game, to get less stuff that is spewing exhaust.”
At SouthWest Transit this week, some passengers have called to ask when the double-deckers are running to the fair, Simich said. And drivers have noticed a few people staying behind when a regular bus was leaving to wait for the chance to ride a bigger one.
Kranzler said the main thing he heard from passengers was how much they enjoyed the view up top. He said he had the chance to ride in the upper deck during testing a few weeks ago. “You do bounce a little bit up there, but look at our roads,” he said.
Not everyone in the park-and-ride lot at Wooddale Church was enthusiastic about the big bus, however. “I’m too old to do a double-decker,” Darlene Theis of Richfield said as she and a friend moved to a line for a regular bus. “Let the little kids enjoy it.”