Bright future but manpower shortage for electric bus ‘made in Belgium’
Dutch VDL is to construct a new factory in Roeselare (Belgium), where it focuses already today completely on the electric bus having a bright future. Just as more orders are coming in for electric buses, the company is plagued by a shortage of staff.
Today VDL is the only Western European bus manufacturer that has not relocated part of its production to low-wage countries
Shortage of additional manpower
This year the Belgian VDL plant in Roeselare will have delivered almost 400 buses to public transport companies, which is significantly more than in 2017. Turnover rose by 36% last year, to 131 million euro, and the number of employees grew with it to 590 people, 60 more than twelve months ago.
However, VDL is having a hard time to find enough personnel to build all these buses and that stands in the way of further expansion. VDL has dozens of vacancies in Roeselare.
Since West Flanders has an unemployment rate of lower than 3%, the company is looking for personnel across the border in the north of France. “The shortage on the labour market is beginning to slow down our growth”, says VDL director, Peter Wouters.
VDL stays in Belgium
“The production of more buses at this location would be impossible”, Wouters continues. “Partly to solve this problem, the company bought eight hectares of land. A new carbon-neutral factory will be built on this location. The plant will be more automated so we can continue to grow.”
This must prevent VDL from being pushed off the market by its European competitors, all of which assemble in low-wage countries, or by Far Eastern producers, such as the Chinese BYD. Of the latter, dozens of electric buses are already running at Schiphol airport and soon in Zaventem for Brussels Airport.
VDL is the only manufacturer in Europe that does not produce in Eastern Europe, the Balkans or Turkey. According to Wouters, this will continue to be the case.
Switch to electric
The last diesel rolled off the assembly line in Roeselaere in late spring. Now only electric buses are built. “Thanks to Chinese battery technology VDL was able to shift faster than competitors, such as Scania and Mercedes”, Wouters says. “VDL Roeselare is now the leader in Europe for electric buses”, he concludes.
Bright future for electric buses
However, the electric buses made by VDL in Roeselare are still 80% more expensive than diesel versions. “In a few years it will be cheaper for bus companies to drive electric. The price of batteries is falling. Furthermore the fuel and maintenance costs are lower than those of diesel buses.
VDL owes the fact that the order book is already filled until the end of next year to the strict emission targets, particularly in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. In the Netherlands, only emission-free buses will be allowed to travel from 2030. That is why public transport companies are already investing heavily in replacing part of their fleet with electric buses.
Belgian public transport companies also buy electric buses, but the vast majority of new urban buses in Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels are hybrid vehicles, which in practice run mainly on diesel.
VDL claims to be the leader in the market for electric buses in Europe, but feels the Eastern European and Chinese competitors, which are up to 20% cheaper, breathing down its neck.
However, VDL buses have an important technical advantage. “Our buses can run 24 hours a day because they can be charged more quickly. We continue to invest heavily to maintain and expand the technical lead we have, but there is still work to be done, because the heating of an electric bus in winter consumes half of its battery capacity.”