Wrightbus set to supply 600 London buses
The County Antrim company, Wrightbus, is on the verge of signing a multi-million pound contract to build 600 buses for London commuters.
Transport for London (TfL), which manages the city's public transport network, agreed the finance for the order at a board meeting on Thursday.
Wrightbus, which is based in Ballymena, was originally awarded a contract in 2010 to design a new bus for London.
Eight of its prototype buses are already being used in the city.
It was the first time in 50 years that a new bus had been designed for London commuters.
Wrightbus is the only firm that builds the hybrid double-decker which features the old-style hop on, hop-off platform favoured by the London Mayor, Boris Johnston.
He visited Ballymena last year to drive the first prototype off the production line.
At the time he described it as a "world-class piece of technology" and "the cleanest, greenest bus" in the UK.
In a statement on Thursday, Transport for London said it will be "the largest order of hybrid buses ever placed in Europe and will deliver significant environmental benefits".
"The decision takes forward Mayor Boris Johnson's election pledge to introduce 600 of the new Routemaster-inspired vehicles that resurrect the iconic hop-on hop-off rear platform by 2016.
"The new bus for London incorporates the most innovative and cutting edge hybrid technology and is the most environmentally-friendly bus of its kind, benefiting air quality and reducing carbon emissions," the statement added.
Leon Daniels, managing director of Surface Transport at Transport for London said: "The eight prototype buses we've got running have been running very well, so that gives us the confidence to go forward and order the 600 that we need.
"We're making this order for 600 in order to make sure that Wrightbus can go forward now, set up the production line and get all the materials in place and then we'll start to have these buses running off the production line next year and for the next four years."
Stormont Enterprise minister Arlene Foster said she was confident Wrightbus would secure the order.
"The Wright Group's continuing success in winning major contracts reflects the company's focus on innovation and export marketing which has resulted in it becoming a significant player across a range of international markets," she added.
The MP for North Antrim, Ian Paisley, said the proposed deal was a "very significant boost" for the Northern Ireland economy.
"The ability of Wrightbus to secure these kind of orders comes the company's innovation and commitment to quality.
"It is this kind of high quality and high value engineering which can ensure that Northern Ireland companies can compete with, and beat the best in the world to secure contracts," Mr Paisley added.
However, London Assembly Green Party member Darren Johnson was critical, saying the mayor was "having to buy these buses from a monopoly supplier, rather than at a competitive market rate".
"Unlike all the other buses in London, we won't be able to get money back by selling them on to operators in the rest of the country," he added.
Mr Daniels defended the cost of the buses and said they were "definitely value for money".
"If we take into account the saving we'll make both in fuel and in journey times, by having buses that run faster, we make up pretty much the premium you would pay over a normal diesel bus," he said.
"The other difference this time around and something the Green Party are talking about, is normally the buses in London are bought by the private companies that run the bus services for us in London under contract.
"We're buying these 600 buses ourselves here at TFL because if these buses were bought under the normal contractual arrangements, they would be bought in twenties and thirties, whereas by buying 600, we get a much lower a price."
Wrightbus was founded in Ballymena in 1946 and describes itself as "one of the Europe's leading suppliers of accessible public transport vehicles".
Last month, the company won a three-year contract worth £41m to supply 550 double-decker buses to Singapore.
On Thursday, Wrightbus said they would not be making any comment at this stage.