"People are just not used to seeing a bus travelling on the river."

Hamburg, Germany – We’ve all seen footage of the DUKW, GMC’s two-and-a-half-ton Second World War amphibious military transport, a number of which are still in use as tourist attractions, but this takes the concept to a whole new (water)level.

Climb aboard the HafenCity RiverBus – above the waterline it’s a (relatively) ordinary MAN tour bus but underneath, it has a pontoon-like ferryboat hull with two steerable jet drives sticking out where the exhaust tailpipes of a conventional bus would be.

It’s the brainchild of tour operators Fred Franken and Jan-Peter ‘Fiete’ Mahlstedt, who wanted to combine bus tours of the city’s historic Speicherstadt warehouse district and HafenCity waterfront with harbour cruises on the Elbe.

But no such vehicle vehicle existed, so they had to invent one.

“Before we could operate the service, we first had to build the bus”, explained Franken. “It took more than four years: two years of planning, a year to build it - and another year to get all the necessary approvals and permits!”

Straight-six turbodiesel

The RiverBus is based on a MAN truck chassis powered by a 206kW straight-six turbodiesel, with a custom bus body and two jet drives, each with its own engine, under the rear deck – a legal requirement so that it can still get its passengers back to shore even if one engine fails.

It was built at MAN’s Bus Modification Centre in Plauen, under the leadership of regional manager for bus sales Mike Vannauer, who is also a qualified ship’s engineer, so he really enjoyed the project.

“A project this varied lets us play to our strengths in special-purpose vehicle construction,” he said, “and for me personally, combining a boat with a bus has been a real thrill.”

The passenger compartment looks much like any other tour bus, right down to a “stop” button at every seat (a legal requirement!) but the driver’s compartment is more boat than bus, complete with lifebuoy (there’s another one hanging below the rear window), joystick controls for the jet drives and maritime radio equipment.

And that was another problem: finding licensed bus drivers who also held riverboat pilot’s tickets. Mahlstedt himself is a former ship’s captain, but even he had to pass a commercial bus-driver’s test before the first passengers could be carried.\

Since then they’ve found a few more qualified ‘bus captains’ and marine tour-guides (the bus carries a crew of three); one of them, Uwe Rittman, likes to joke that it’s the cleanest bus in Germany.

“The underbody gets washed on every trip,” he grins, “and the windscreen also gets a wash depending on how high the waves are!”

After a 25-minute tour of the city, the bus heads for Entenwerder Stieg boat ramp, stops for the crew to carry out a mandatory safety check (and for passengers to take pictures!) and then rolls slowly down the ramp into the Elbe, for a fascinating half-hour tour of one of Europe’s busiest ports, before driving back up the ramp and onto the roads again.

Seven months and 35 000 passengers later, their biggest problem has been concerned citizens calling Hamburg Fire and Rescue.

“They’re just not used to seeing a bus travelling on the river,” explained Mahlstedt.

IOL Motoring

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