A bus that turns into a boat? Surely there’s no such thing? Fred Franken and Fiete Mahlstedt, founders of HafenCity RiverBus in Hamburg, disagree. The amphibious bus, the first of its kind in Germany, is built on an MAN truck chassis and offers city tours combined with river cruises.
It’s a cold winter’s day in Hamburg. Swathes of grey cloud completely cover the sky, while snowflakes flutter by on the breeze, eventually ending their long journeys as puddles in the street. A group of people has gathered on the Brooktorkai bridge. Wrapped up in thick winter coats, they rub their cold hands together and patiently wait at a special bus stop for Hamburg’s latest tourist attraction.
‘HAFENCITY RIVERBUS’ is written in large letters on the bus stop sign, which at first glance looks like a normal Hamburg public transport association sign. However, the vehicle that pulls up shortly afterwards is anything but ordinary. The bottom half is shaped like a boat, whilst the top half is designed like a bus. There’s even a lifebuoy hanging at the rear. The HafenCity RiverBus is an amphibious vehicle capable of travelling on land and water, and is built on a MAN truck chassis. Its inventors, Fred Franken and Peter (aka ‘Fiete’) Mahlstedt, started their venture in spring 2016. Since then, they have been offering combined city and harbour tours in Hamburg: after a tour of the historic Speicherstadt (warehouse district) and the HafenCity quarter, the tour continues to Entenwerder Stieg in Rothenburgsort where the bus finally descends a ramp and enters the river Elbe.
The project represents truly pioneering work by the RiverBus team as this vehicle is the first of its kind in Germany. “Before we could operate the service, we first had to build the vehicle”, says Fred. “It took us more than four years in total: two years for the planning, one year for the construction and another year to obtain all the approvals and permits.” In dark-blue windbreakers proudly sporting the HafenCity RiverBus logo, Fred and Fiete leave their office, which is located directly next to their ‘home port’, and head off to greet today’s passengers.
The floating bus has now pulled into the bus stop area and the curious crowd draws closer. The stairs are lowered to allow access to the vehicle accompanied by a continuous beep and the passengers embark one by one. The seats have a dark-blue pattern similar to a normal city bus and there are even stop-request buttons, required for licensing purposes. It is only when you see the driver’s workplace, complete with lifebuoy, joysticks and radio equipment, that you realise this is no ordinary bus. Powered by a 280-hp MAN six-cylinder engine, the RiverBus sets off towards the Speicherstadt.
After a 25-minute tour of the city, the bus heads for Entenwerder Stieg and the river Elbe. When it arrives it comes to a stop, allowing the passengers to take a few pictures. Whilst they happily snap away, attendants outside check that the floating bus is ready for its swim – a stipulation imposed by the City of Hamburg authorities – and ‘Bus Captain’ Fiete takes his place in the driver’s seat. “I only tend to drive on special occasions these days”, says Fiete. “It’s not really that easy to find people who are licensed to drive a bus and steer a boat. But we’ve now managed to find enough drivers”. Then away we go! Down the ramp and towards the Elbe until all that can be seen in front of the windscreen is brown water spraying up in the air. With the help of two jet drives, the bus, which is now a boat, continues its journey up the river Elbe. “We’re travelling on the cleanest bus in Germany: the underbody is regularly washed and the windscreen also gets a clean depending on how high the waves are”, jokes Uwe Rittmann, today’s tour guide.
Half an hour later, the river cruise is over and the boat transforms back into a bus on the ramp, before returning to the bus stop. The result of the HafenCity RiverBus’ first seven months? Around 34,000 happy passengers and even more disbelieving stares. “We’ve actually had concerned pedestrians ring the fire brigade on three or four occasions”, says Fiete. “The sight of a bus floating in the water is something that people haven’t got used to yet.”
And what does the future hold for this successful floating bus in Hamburg? “We want to build on and expand our cooperation with MAN”, says Fred. Tests are currently being carried out to see whether, in the future, other vehicles could be built at the MAN Bus Modification Center in Plauen, where customers’ requirements for special bus configurations are made a reality. With their exceptional technical expertise, this is the perfect challenge for employees at the MAN Bus Modification Center. There is certainly demand in the tourism sector as, indeed, there is for regular scheduled services. Mike Vannauer, Regional Manager Bus Sales North at MAN, who has been providing support on behalf of MAN for Fred and Fiete since the project began, is thrilled about the future plans: “Being part of such a varied project is absolutely great. It really allows us to play to our strengths in the areas of special-purpose vehicle construction and service provision”, says Mike Vannauer. “And for me personally, as a trained ship’s mechanic, the idea of combining a boat with a bus has been a real thrill.”
Find out more about the concept and the story behind HafenCity RiverBus from Fred and Fiete in the video: