Electric Motorcoaches, Growing Line Run Service Helping MTRWestern Attract Additional Customers
By Harrell Kerkhoff Busline Magazine Editor
It’s a brave new world for the North American motorcoach industry — one involving increased business, changing demands and a focus on a “greener” tomorrow. Such are the opportunities and challenges facing MTRWestern, a longtime Pacific Northwest bus and motorcoach company with locations in Seattle and Spokane, WA, as well as Portland and Eugene, OR.
MTRWestern provides a variety of charter and shuttle/line run services. Clients include professional and collegiate sports teams, corporations, the military, tour and travel providers, concert venues, special events, cruise ships, convention centers, resorts, casinos, and those involved in public/private transportation partnerships.
“Business has been good for us. It took a while, as the Pacific Northwest experienced early shutdowns due to COVID and it was a little longer for the region to rebound, compared to many parts of the country,” MTRWestern President Jeremy Butzlaff said. “We saw market demand start to grow toward the end of 2021 and greatly strengthened in 2022.
“Almost all the markets we are involved with now are getting back to pre-pandemic levels. When I say markets, I mean the different business segments that we service. Also, hiring employees is becoming a little easier. I can finally say, after a long time, that conducting business feels quasi-normal.”
A growing segment for MTRWestern involves intercity line runs that now extend as far south as Sacramento, CA, as far north as Vancouver, BC, and as far east as Boise, ID. It helps that the company provides transportation in association with the FlixBus intercity bus network. This service exists to connect towns and rural communities with major transportation hubs and urban centers.
“FlixBus is one of our largest partners, allowing us to operate line runs between various cities in Northern California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho,” Butzlaff explained.
Another partnership, this one with Amtrak, has helped MTRWestern enter the growing electric motorcoach field. The company has recently introduced to its fleet of 150-plus vehicles a 45-foot Van Hool CX45E, with the assistance of Van Hool’s North American distributor, ABC Companies. Five additional CX45Es are on order from MTRWestern, along with two electric minibuses.
MTRWestern’s first electric coach will be transporting local Amtrak customers. The Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and Amtrak are replacing a diesel-powered bus with MTRWestern’s CX45E, to be used on the Amtrak Cascades route. Daily midday buses provide additional connectivity beyond the morning and evening train service between Seattle and Bellingham, WA. Cascades Thruway buses also stop in the Washington cities of Everett and Mount Vernon and connect with trains heading to and from stations south of Seattle.
As the first EV in the Amtrak National Network, the bus — owned and operated by MTRWestern — can make the nearly 200-mile roundtrip on a single charge.
“At Amtrak, we strive to give passengers reliable, comfortable, and sustainable travel options. By incorporating environmental considerations into our current operations, and as we work with our partners to reach more of America, we continue to make Amtrak an even ‘greener’ mode of transportation,” Amtrak Sustainability Director Kara Oldhouser said, in a recent press release.
“MTRWestern has contracted with Amtrak to provide a more sustainable connection for travelers. An ideal trip length for an electric bus, the connector will save approximately 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel per year, cutting CO2 emissions by 109 tons annually. The charging hub, installed at MTRWestern’s Seattle facility, sits on land once used to store large petroleum tanks,” the release added.
According to Butzlaff, “The future is electric, and we are committed to delivering carbon-free intercity and group transportation throughout the Pacific Northwest. We consider the collaboration involved with this route a transformational step toward even greater EV regional transit. It’s a project we have been working on for a long time.”
Once they arrive, Butzlaff expects his company’s other CX45Es will be used for various services, such as employee shuttles and local charter runs.
“Although we have had our current electric coach for just a short time, we received access to a demo vehicle starting in November 2021, and experienced a range of 250 miles between charges,” he said. “Of course, the biggest issue with electric vehicles right now surrounds the infrastructure. That not only involves chargers, but also the surrounding electrical grid.
“We have been fortunate to work with two great public utilities in our area. They have helped us improve our infrastructure. That includes the purchase of two ABB chargers, one of which has been installed at our Seattle facility. Each charger features three dispensers, allowing us to charge a maximum of three units at a time. We hope to add five more chargers in Seattle by 2024, and we are working with the state of Oregon to install 14 chargers at our Portland facility, also by 2024.”
A Green Future Has Begun
One of the long-term goals at MTRWestern is to help change how travel is accomplished in the Pacific Northwest by providing top-of-the-line, environmentally friendly transportation options.
“We (at MTRWestern) want to dramatically lower our carbon footprint and are working to do that in two ways,” Butzlaff said. “No. 1, we have started using renewable diesel fuel for our motorcoaches operating in Washington and Oregon and hope to expand those efforts for all our line runs in the near future. And, No. 2, we want to electrify 25 percent of our fleet within the next five years.”
Butzlaff admits the learning curve involved when purchasing and maintaining a fleet of electric vehicles is still steep.
“There is no great playbook to go by right now. It’s still difficult to get an electric vehicle project off the ground and completed. We, at MTRWestern, are certainly not a gatekeeper to all the knowledge that is needed, but we are happy to do our part in helping other companies decarbonize and electrify their fleets,” he said. “I think as more transportation companies electrify, not only will costs come down, but a better business case will be built for electric vehicles and shared infrastructure.
“I feel the motorcoach space is in a wonderful spot right now as it pertains to future EV use. That includes taking advantage of the technology currently available. The end result will be a stronger industry.”
Although in its infancy, MTRWestern’s first CX45E has already received rave reviews from the people who matter most — passengers.
“A month before we put the vehicle in daily service, we introduced it to a variety of clients, including corporations and professional sports teams. Everybody loved the vehicle. It’s an incredible piece of equipment. The typical vibration and noise associated with buses are gone,” Butzlaff said. “It has been to our advantage to have a great working relationship with representatives of ABC Companies and Van Hool. They have helped us as we continue to introduce a mixed fleet of electric and non-electric vehicles. It’s our goal to streamline our fleet as much as possible. That includes vehicle maintenance. Buses are complicated, and maintenance technicians are hard to find. I don’t think you really find a good tech, rather you make a good tech. It involves finding a good person to hire, and then providing the right training.
“We are fortunate to have great people working at MTRWestern, involving all positions. It’s important to make everyone’s job here easier by providing the right tools for success. Having good suppliers, such as Van Hool and ABC Companies, helps us in that process.”
Having four locations in the Pacific Northwest also provides MTRWestern with advantages.
“We are located in an incredible part of the country, which we love,” Butzlaff said. “As far as our equipment is concerned, buses are pieces of machinery with a lot of moving parts. Therefore, it helps to have four locations spread out within our service region, when equipment issues occur. We have a full staff at each of those locations, along with great clients.”
The Long Climb Back
There have been several lessons learned by many transportation professionals as the result of the COVID pandemic. One such lesson is that it’s very hard to properly prepare for something that can completely wipe out demand, from the traveling public, for an extended period.
“In the past, we focused on ‘weather-proofing our revenue.’ That has always been important to us, at MTRWestern, and we thought we had done a pretty good job. Once COVID struck, however, we realized from a revenue standpoint, there is nothing that can be done to completely pandemic-proof a business,” Butzlaff said. “The main thing we tried to do was become as efficient as possible within our operation. A better word to use is ‘reinforce’ the company, and it started with our team of employees. It’s really about the people you have around you, as a company. That was, and continues to be, our main strength. Employees are the difference maker.”
Butzlaff added for him, the hardest part of the pandemic was having to scale back the company’s staff. And one point, 75 percent of the staff was laid off. Although business eventually returned, the same could not be said about MTRWestern’s entire workforce.
“There were people who had to move on. They had bills to pay, and that is very understandable,” he said. “As a company, I think we did a really good job during the pandemic of cutting costs and protecting cash. It all basically played out like we thought it would — except we did not anticipate how hard it was going to be to regenerate a team of employees. It was difficult and expensive, but we are now in a good place.”
A major headache many companies experienced, in all types of industries, was finding people to employ once business improved. It was no different at MTRWestern.
“One year ago, we were looking to hire 30 to 40 drivers. That is a difficult number to manage when business rapidly comes back. We succeeded, but it wasn’t cheap. We spent a lot of money in terms of not only recruiting and training, but also increasing our wage scale,” Butzlaff said. “The good news, it worked. Although we still need to hire more drivers, we are now looking for three to four more, not 30 to 40. The caliber of candidates has also improved. I feel that is due to creating a more attractive company package for new hires.”
As with any bus/motorcoach operation, most employees at MTRWestern are drivers. Butzlaff said its imperative to match each driver with the type of work he/she enjoys the most.
“Some drivers like the autonomy and flexibility that the charter world provides, while others seek a set schedule and consistency of line run work. We try to accommodate each driver’s desire,” Butzlaff said. “It’s about putting people in the right places and giving them the right tools to become successful.
“There are always going to be certain characteristics, however, that are important to being a successful driver. That includes safety, a solid driving background, customer service, and having a certain level of mechanical ability. They must also understand the importance of proper preparation before each trip.”
Although a CDL is required to be hired as a driver at MTRWestern, company officials are willing to help interested candidates attain the license through a third-party agency. The company requires all new hires to receive a minimum of 80 hours of training. That typically involves a minimum of 45 hours behind the wheel and 35 hours of classroom work. The latter includes a review of company policies and customer service training.
Ongoing education for drivers and other employees is also required. That involves such course subjects as safety, diversity and equity, and sexual harassment prevention. Butzlaff stressed the importance of continuing education in an ever-evolving transportation marketplace and world.
“Things change and will continue to change. As a company, we want to make sure our team is educated about those changes,” he said. “That focus will never end.”
Optimism has replaced apprehension for many bus/motorcoach company representatives in the wake of hard times brought about by the pandemic. That is certainly the case for Butzlaff and his staff.
“We are happy with our current footprint within the industry. That includes our range of clients and services,” Butzlaff said. “The biggest step for us this year has been the expansion of our line routes. That has kept us super busy, which includes adding new equipment for those routes. Other than that, it’s all about expanding our EV presence and the related infrastructure. That includes increasing the size of our EV fleet in Seattle, while also working on infrastructure and EV growth opportunities at our Portland location. To help, we have hired a vice president of marketing. I am excited about the future. It’s the best I have felt in years as it relates to our company and the industry.
“It’s great to get back to what we love to do. That was the hardest part about the pandemic; for a while it stopped us from our work, which is taking people to where they want to go. The return of business has been both fun and rewarding. I am also very proud of our organization in many ways. For example, three of the five people on our senior leadership team are women. It’s exciting to feature such a wide diversity of talent leading our company.”
Butzlaff is also bullish on the future of the overall bus/motorcoach industry.
“There are better operators, better equipment, and better technology available today,” he said. “That is helping our industry stay on the cutting edge, which includes a more sustainable mode of transportation. Our industry has always moved people in the cleanest and most efficient way possible, and that will only improve going forward.”