Belfast Rapid Transit: Wrightbus 'bitterly disappointed' to miss out on lucrative government contract
Union says decision to opt for Belgium company 'inexcusable' when Northern Ireland industry is struggling
Wrightbus has said it is "bitterly disappointed" to have lost out on a lucrative contract to supply the vehicles for the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) system with the Executive department opting for a Belgium company.
The Ballymena-based company said its bid for the £19million contract would have saved taxpayers money and could have been delivered a year earlier.
The trade union Unite has described the Department for Regional Development's (DRD) decision to opt for Van Hool over local suppliers as "inexcusable" at a time when the Northern Ireland manufacturing sector is struggling.
DRD awarded the contract to Van Hool in Belgium to supply a fleet of 30 tram-like bendy buses for the Belfast Rapid Transit system, due to start in 2018.
Wrightbus said it respected the decision made but was "bitterly disappointed".
In a statement, the company said: "We were desperately disappointed to learn that Wrightbus was unsuccessful in its bid to design and manufacture articulated Rapid Transit buses for operation in Belfast.
"Our offer was based on a new vehicle concept derived from the Rapid Transit buses designed by Wrightbus and supplied to Las Vegas several years ago.
"As an innovative option within the tender we also offered to adapt our famous London Routemaster bus for operation on the rapid transit system.
"It is our belief that this hybrid electric vehicle could offer a transformative public transport experience, a proven track record of operation in London, at around 50% of the cost of the articulated buses desired by the Department for Regional Development.
"In addition to the cost saving, this option could have been in service before the end of 2016, a full year earlier than the favoured articulated bus."
"Wrightbus respects the DRD's ultimate decision in this instance, and we hope that in future innovative ideas are given more consideration."
Unite said the deal should have been handed to a local supplier, like world-renowned bus manufacturer Wrightbus, as the Northern Ireland manufacturing industry was facing an "unprecedented crisis".
Unite's Davy Thompson called on Regional Development Minister Minister Michelle McIlveen to reverse the decision.
He said: "Northern Ireland’s manufacturing sector is already facing an unprecedented crisis. It is essential that every opportunity is taken to support local employment.
“The decision to award a £19m contract for the supply of 30 Belfast Rapid Transit vehicles to a consortium led by the Belgian Van Hool group is inexcusable.
"Unite had fought hard to secure the inclusion of world-class local suppliers, such as Wrightbus, in the procurement process but the opportunity to secure this work for Northern Ireland workers has been lost.
“We are calling on Minister McIlveen to intervene and reverse this decision. Public procurement offers one of the few mechanisms available to our political leaders to stimulate demand in the local economy.
"We can’t afford to lose out on these jobs."
Road Trucks Limited based in Larne has been appointed to provide support for the new system.
Mr Thompson added: "While we recognise that a proportion of the contract will be conducted locally – the bulk of the work will be going overseas.
“Unite is also concerned that the contract awarded may also include maintenance responsibilities which will threaten the job security of Translink in-house engineers and technicians.
"Surely, at these times, our politicians should be grabbing every opportunity to safeguard local jobs,” Mr Thompson concluded.
A spokeswoman for DRD said: “The procurement of the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) vehicles was carried out by way of an open competition in accordance with EU procurement regulations.
"Governments within the EU are obliged to abide by these strict regulations.
“Following the open procurement competition, the contract for the supply of 30 BRT vehicles was awarded to Van Hool.
"They will be partnering with local dealership, Road Trucks Ltd, based in Larne, who will provide commissioning, maintenance and specialist support services for the vehicles. Wrightbus has in recent years focused their production on double-deck vehicles, including the very successful New Bus for London, and smaller single-deck vehicles.
"They are not currently producing the type of vehicles required for the BRT system and have not done so for approximately seven years."
She added: "There will be a number of further contracts to be awarded over the next few years in relation to the implementation of the BRT system.
"These include the provision of approximately 20 vehicles to provide the feeder services for BRT in east and west Belfast.
"It is anticipated that procurement of these vehicles will commence in spring 2016.
"There will also be further construction contracts for the remaining sections of the BRT routes and the depot for the vehicles. These will be of significant benefit to the local construction and quarry industries and are likely to have an estimated total value in the region of £50 million.”
The new vehicles, known as Exqui.City, will be built over the next two-and-a-half years and are due to come into service when the Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT) network opens in September 2018.
The new vehicles are designed to carry around 100 people and use the latest hybrid technology, with lower noise, vibration and pollution.
DRD said recently that budget cuts were to blame for a two-year delay to the scheme.
Regional Development Minister Minister Michelle McIlveen congratulated Van Hool on winning the contract, which was advertised across Europe.
Announcing the decision, she said: "[This is] a very significant step forward in the Belfast Rapid Transit project, which, as part of the Executive's Programme for Government, is set to transform public transport in Belfast.
"The purchase of the new BRT vehicles represents a significant investment by the Executive in our public transport system.
"These sleek and modern vehicles will be specifically designed for Belfast, and they will mark a new era for public transport in Northern Ireland.
"I congratulate Van Hool on their successful bid in the open European procurement competition, which attracted interest from manufacturers across Europe.
"I also want to congratulate Road Trucks Limited of Larne, which will play a key role in this significant contract."
The minister said the 18-metre buses would be "tram-like" and would come with air conditioning and three sets of double doors, providing easier and quicker boarding and alighting, cutting the time spent at stops and reducing journey times.
They will also have easy boarding for people with reduced mobility and parents with pushchairs, as well as a mix of standing and seating areas with good legroom.
The vehicles will feature high-quality materials for passenger comfort, CCTV for passenger safety, on-board information screens, audio announcements and free wi-fi.
Work on the BRT project began in May last year.
A new 520-space park and ride site is now in service in Dundonald, and work has been completed on routes at Ballyhackamore in east Belfast and on the Falls Road between Grosvenor Road and Whiterock Road in west Belfast.
The first phase will connect the east and west of the city and the Titanic Quarter via Belfast city centre.
Van Hool's director of design and development Jan Van Hool said: "There is a rapidly growing demand for tram-like buses such as the Exqui.City in major European cities.
"We are very pleased to have secured this important contract for the supply of the rapid transit vehicles for Belfast.
"The contract is very significant for both Van Hool and our local long-term partner, Road Trucks Ltd."
Road Trucks Ltd will provide commissioning, maintenance and specialist support services for the vehicles.
Managing director John Marks said: "This new project complements our existing business, leveraging the knowledge built up over more than 30 years, with the quality of our staff also playing a key part in being able to expand in this way."
The BRT system will be operated by Translink when it begins services.
Chris Conway, Translink chief executive, said: "These modern, attractive vehicles will provide an enhanced passenger journey experience, offering faster journey times along dedicated routes in the city.
"This is an exciting project for the city and we look forward to the introduction of these high-quality services to attract and encourage even more people to travel by public transport."