A Brief History of Orion Bus Industries

Text by James Bow and Robert Lubinski

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Starting from the turn of the millennium, and continuing past 2014, Orion Bus Industries were the builder of the overwhelming majority of Toronto Transit Commission buses. Their models had been serving the system for over three decades, and could be found in other transit agencies across Ontario. On April 25, 2012, however, Orion’s parent company, Daimler Bus North America, announced the end of this institution. The Orion era of the TTC was drawing to an end.

Crown Corporation Beginnings

Orion Bus Industries began life as Ontario Bus and Truck. It was founded in 1975 as a crown corporation for the province of Ontario before being renamed Ontario Bus Industries in 1977. Just as the provincial government had established the Urban Transportation Development Corporation to build the next generation of streetcars and rapid transit vehicles for North America, using the TTC as its showcase, Ontario Bus Industries was designed to build a uniquely Ontario bus manufacturing industry, bolstering the province’s manufacturing base in North America. As the provincial government was subsidizing the capital budgets of every transit system in Ontario to the tune of 75%, all local transit agencies were strongly encouraged to buy the locally-produced OBI buses, bolstering the provincial economy.

The provincial government established a factory in Mississauga, Ontario. Early Orion buses were hand-built by plant workers. As the number of orders increased, a standard assembly-line system was created to increase volume. The first prototype to roll off the line was the Orion I bus, in 1978. This bus was 30 feet long and 8 feet wide, designed for use on lower-ridership routes, where its shorter frame and lower weight would theoretically result in fuel cost savings. The first of these buses were sent out for in-service testing later that year. The first 35 foot long Orion bus would be delivered the next year.

Starting Small and Growing Bigger

As the plant in Mississauga was producing new Orion Is, Ontario Bus Industries looked to expand into markets south of the border. In 1981, the company founded Bus Industries of America, a wholly owned subsidiary, with a new plant in Oriskany, New York. Within a year, 30 foot and 35 foot Orion Is were being shipped fro the New York plant.

While the bulk of city bus sales across North America had been in the 40 foot range, with the GM New Look and Classics competing with the Flyer D700 and D800 series, Ontario bus industries clearly saw opportunities in the market for smaller buses. The Orion II, debuting in 1983, was designed as a bus catering to the wheelchair accessible, community bus market. Available in 21 foot and 25 foot models, the Orion II was low-floor, and came with a lift for wheelchair access.

But Ontario Bus Industries could not ignore the larger bus market forever. Its experiment with the shorter 30-foot bus model did not produce the dividends that transit agencies like the TTC were looking for. Especially as OPEC-inspired high fuel prices gave way to an oil glut in the early 1980s, the most expensive component of an operating bus was its driver, and transit agencies favoured longer buses to pack in more passengers per bus. Also, by going with a 40 foot standard design, transit agencies achieved cost savings by simplifying the maintenance process over fewer models. As a result, the first 40-foot Orion I bus was designed and delivered in 1984.

Going Larger and Going to Europe

The new reality of improving passenger-to-driver ratios over pure fuel economy led the Ontario Bus Industries to enter the articulated bus market in 1986. The Orion III, as it would be called, was a joint project between Ontario Bus Industries and Ikarus Body and Coach Building Works of Budapest, Hungary. Ikarus supplied the body shells via ship to Montreal and then by truck to OBI’s Mississauga Plant. OBI finished the job with doors, windows, seats and engine parts before testing and delivery. The Toronto Transit Commission gave the Orion III a considerable boost by placing an order for 90 of these vehicles. OC Transpo of Ottawa also placed a large order. Ontario Bus Industries continued to develop its relationship with Europe. In 1987, an order for its Orion II vehicles was placed by a city in Sweden.

Unfortunately, the early models of Ontario Bus Industries started to develop problems resulting in a flaw on their design. The use of carbon steel tubes for the structure proved susceptible to corrosion, and this started to lead to the early retirement of the Orion Is, and complaints about the performance of the Ikarus articulated. Ontario Bus Industries worked on these and other problems, and in 1989 came up with the Orion V. This heavy-duty bus attempted to resolve the corrosion issues and was wider, 8 feet, 6 inches, instead of the previous models 8 feet. These buses were also equipped with wheelchair lifts to meet transit agencies’ new accessibility requirements.

Ontario Bus Industries also began experimenting with alternate fuel designs. The Orion IV — a special order for a rubber-tired people mover by the Niagara Parks Commission — used liquified petroleum gas. In 1988, Orion Bus Industries debuted a prototype designed to operate on compressed natural gas. The fuel was particularly cheap at the time, and the hope was that CNG buses could replace electric trolley buses in such cities as Toronto and Hamilton. This, they did, but CNG never caught on; transit agencies complained about the complexities of refuelling, and a number of CNG buses were converted to operate on standard diesel. This didn’t stop Ontario Bus Industries from experimenting with gas-electric hybrid power, however, debuting a hybrid Orion II in 1993.

Privatization and Going Low Floor

The days of Ontario Bus Industries as a crown corporation were numbered, by this time. OBI had not achieved its promise of creating a dominant bus manufacturing industry for Ontario, and as deficits mounted in the early 1990s, the provincial government looked at ways of divesting itself of transit investments like UTDC and OBI. In 1995, as the Conservative government of Mike Harris took over, Ontario Bus Industries was bought out by Western Star Trucks, which merged the company with its American subsidiary, Bus Industries of America, and renamed the whole operation Orion Bus Industries.

At around this time, the company was looking at ways of improving the accessibility of its buses, as required by transit agencies across North America. In 1993, Orion unveiled its prototype for the Orion VI, a 40 foot long, 8.5 foot wide low floor bus. It also pursued development of hybrid technology. Two years later, the first hybrid electric Orion VI rolled off the line.

The new owners of Orion Bus Industries poured money into the company, allowing it to move into its new corporate headquarters and factory in Mississauga, Ontario in 1997. The investments in hybrid technology appeared to be paying off, with New York City purchasing the hybrid Orion VI in 1998. But things would not be stable for long. In the year 2000, DaimlerChrysler arrived, buying out Orion and bringing it in to anchor the new DaimlerChrysler Commercil Buses North America unit. But it was about this time that the company delivered its most successful model yet.

The Orion VII

Orion’s latest model, the Orion VII, debuted in 2001. Addressing what the company had learned through its six previous models, the VII promised to offer transit agencies the most reliable, efficient and versatile low-floor bus yet. When the design debuted, Orion already had a sales backlog of over 1,000 buses. New York City purchased 325 hybrid Orion VIIs, while the TTC ordered 150 of its own. By 2006, over 2,000 of the vehicles had been shipped to agencies across North America, as far afield as the San Francisco Municipal Railway. The popularity of the Orion VII was such that, when Orion tweaked the design in 2007 (to meet US Environmental Protection Agency emission standards), it didn’t call the new bus an Orion VIII, but instead labelled the model the Orion VII “Next Generation”. A further tweak to meet US EPA updated emission standards followed in 2010.

Orion was at the top of its game. Unfortunately, the company that managed it was not. Daimler, which had divested itself of Chrysler in 2007, suddenly announced in the April 2012 its intention to get out of the North American bus industry entirely. Citing austerity budgets by governments across North America, Daimler stated that it did not see a future for the industry — or, at least, not a future that could justify its continued investment.

The Fall of Orion Bus Industries

Orion stopped taking orders for new buses on April 25, 2012, and announced that its Mississauga factory would shut down after its current orders were completed. This closure occurred the next year. The Oriskany, New York facility would remain open to serve the aftermarket business of spare parts and maintenance. On March 1, 2013, New Flyer Industries announced it was buying out the remaining assets of Orion, including the aftermarket business, and its remaining bus orders.

For the past decade, Orion Bus Industries had a tremendous influence on agencies across America, especially in Ontario. That influence disappeared overnight due to its parent company losing interest in the manufacturing of buses. The transit agencies that have invested in the Orion VII are now served by New Flyer Industries for spare parts and maintenance. Over the next few years, New Flyer and other bus manufacturers will build the models that serve Toronto passengers. The Orion logo will vanish from city streets, but not for a while. It takes some time for that many buses to fade away.

The Full TTC Orion Fleet History

Class

Fleet Numbers

Delivered

Retired

Length

Power

Notes

Orion I

8315

1979

????

30 feet

diesel

Prototype 

Orion I

8370-8378

1981

????

30 feet

diesel

#8370,2,4&6 sold to Metro Transit (1990) 

Orion I

8730-8739

1982

????

30 feet

diesel

 

Orion I

9360-9361

1989

1989

30 feet

diesel

CNG Demonstrators; demoed as GO Transit 1713/14 

Orion II

9500-9529

1985-6

????

21 feet

diesel

 

Orion II

9530-9564

1987

????

21 feet

diesel

 

Orion II

9570-9627

1987-9

????

21 feet

diesel

 

Orion II

9700-9705

1990-1

Oct 2012

21 feet

diesel

Community Bus, sold to Autobus Laval (2013) 

Orion II

9706

1991

Nov 2012

21 feet

diesel

Community Bus, bought from St. Catharines (2007); sold to Autobus Laval (2013) 

Orion III

6360-6419

1987-8

2003

60 feet

diesel

articulated 

Orion III

6530-6559

1988-9

2003

60 feet

diesel

articulated 

Orion V

6640-6745

1991-2

2010

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion V

9370-9394

1990-1

2005

40 feet

CNG

 

Orion V

7000-7134

1996

2014

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion V

9400-9449

1996-7

n/a

40 feet

CNG

Converted to diesel 

Orion VI

2000

1995

1996

40 feet

CNG

Demonstrator model, sold to Ride-On 

Orion VI

9200-9249

1997-8

2006

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII HEV

1043

2001

2001

40 feet

hybrid

demonstrator vehicle 

Orion VII

7400-7499

2002-4

n/a

40 feet

diesel

delivered with black skirts 

Orion VII

7500-7619

2004

n/a

40 feet

diesel

delivered with black skirts 

Orion VII

7620-7882

2004-5

n/a

40 feet

diesel

7794 renumbered 7882 after fatal collision 

Orion VII

7900-7979

2006

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII

8000-8099

2007

n/a

40 feet

diesel

8000-11 has 34 seats, retrofitted with luggage racks for 192 AIRPORT ROCKET service; 8012-99 has 38 seats 

Orion VII NG

1000-1149

2006

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

First hybrids in fleet 

Orion VII NG

1200-1423

2007-8

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

 

Orion VII NG

1500-1689

2008

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

1517 & 1671 retired due to collision damage 

Orion VII NG

1700-1829

2009

n/a

40 feet

hybrid

 

Orion VII NG

8100-8219

2009-10

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII EPA10

8300-8334

2011

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 

Orion VII EPA10

8335-8396

2011-2

n/a

40 feet

diesel

 


References

  • Bus World Encyclopedia of Buses, Stauss Publications, Woodland Hills (California), 1988.
  • Diesel City Bus, Toronto Transit Commission, Toronto (Ontario), 1991.
  • Orion International.” - CPTDB Wiki. Canadian Public Transit Discussion Board, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 21 July 2014.

Thanks to Mike Vainchtein for his updates and corrections to this web page

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