Bus and Coach Supplement - Engineering by degrees: the Oxford way01 October 2008
It was no tourism advertising copywriter but the poet Matthew Arnold who first coined the phrase about Oxford's 'dreaming spires.' That was way back in 1866. The city has been attracting visitors ever since, and learning how best to move them around with a public transport system that is far from dreamy. One of the earliest and biggest of all park-and-ride bus schemes was introduced in Oxford fully 35 years ago. Bus ridership in the city is reckoned to be well above the national average. And local operator Oxford Bus Company, a Go-Ahead Group subsidiary, also runs a thriving express coach service to and from London, some 55 miles away. This is one of the busiest coaching corridors in the UK, patronised by huge numbers of commuters, tourists, day-visitors and students.
Oxford Bus Company's fleet of 150 vehicles includes 39 coaches, all operating high-frequency express services, seven days a week. Shuttling between Oxford and London's Victoria coach station are 18 coaches wearing green Espress livery. They complete no fewer than 53 return trips every weekday, with departures every 15 minutes at peak hours. Two more express routes, operated by 21 blue Airline-branded coaches, link Oxford with Heathrow and Gatwick airports, with departures every 20 or 30 minutes throughout most of the day.
An Airline coach averages 175,000 miles (282,000km) a year. One schedule calls for four return trips to Heathrow and one to Gatwick per day, a total of 570 miles (915km). Espress coaches between Oxford and Victoria spend more time battling London traffic and so clock up fewer kilometres, averaging 250,000 (155,000 miles) annually. Coaches working long-distance express routes may cover more miles, but Oxford's daily diet of repeated sprints up and down the M40 with traffic congestion at either end (not to mention the delights of the M25) is a tough operating regime.
It would hardly be unreasonable to expect Ray Woodhouse, Oxford Bus Company's engineering director, to have strong opinions on the sort of coaches needed for this type of intensive express work. Not a bit of it. 'Gone are the days when the engineer said he wanted that type of engine and this type of gearbox,' says Mr Woodhouse. 'It's about the passenger these days. It's about taking people in safety and comfort. It's what they want, not what the engineer says is easy to maintain.'
This is why Oxford Bus invites its 'stakeholder board' to participate in vehicle choice. Among those represented on this group are passengers, large employers in Oxford, a trades union, Oxford Bus Company employees and directors. The stakeholder board meets six times a year with the primary aim of keeping services in tune with what passengers really want.
Mr Woodhouse points to stakeholder priorities for express coaches. 'We have fewer seats to give additional legroom,' he says. That means 12-metre coaches have 46 recliners. The latest 12.3-metre models have 48, with leather-covered headrests. Full leather seats could be a future consideration, says Mr Woodhouse. All but the two oldest coaches have toilets and video systems. Climate control is de rigeur. Beside each pair of seats is a 240-volt power socket, allowing passengers to charge mobile phones or lap-top computers. This is particularly prized by daily London commuters.
There is an important commercial edge to all this. Oxford Bus goes head-to-head with Stagecoach's Oxford Tube service to London, offering similarly high standards. The efforts of both companies were recognised in last November's UK Bus Awards, with Oxford Bus winning the Express Coach Operator of the Year award on the strength of its Airline service. Judges singled out the 'consultative arrangements for involving both customers and staff for fine-tuning the service' for particular praise. Stagecoach's Oxford Tube service was runner-up.
The Oxford Bus stakeholder board's concern for environmental issues thrust the company into the news as the first to put Euro-5 buses into service in the UK. Leap-frogging Euro-4 emission limits, 11 Euro-5 Mercedes-Benz Citaro buses joined the Oxford Bus fleet as long ago as December 2006. Soon afterwards, in April 2007, came the first 10 Euro-5 coaches. Another nine joined the fleet this spring. They carry a five-star 'clean-air rating': one star for each tier of the European emission rating. So how come older, Euro-3 coaches get four stars? The extra star is reward for the continuously-regenerating trap (CRT) fitted to all pre-Euro-5 vehicles in Oxford Bus colours. Star ratings to raise public awareness of vehicles' environmental performance is another UK Bus
Awards winning idea from Oxford Bus, this time in 2006. The company's engineers continue to take the matter seriously, conducting smoke and exhaust back-pressure tests every five weeks to check CRT condition.
All 19 Euro-5 coaches are Volvo B12B chassis with Plaxton Panther bodywork. This marks a return to a Volvo/Plaxton combination for Oxford Bus after a gap of about six years. 'Our experience of the B10Ms was extremely good,' says Mr Woodhouse. 'We were not fitting engines or gearboxes, even though they were doing over a million miles.' Even at that mileage, the B10Ms still find ready buyers after seven years in service. When B10M production ceased in 2001 it was logical for Oxford Bus to move to the B12B, following the vogue for rear-engined coaches to provide more luggage space on the Airline service. Oxford switched from Plaxton Excalibur bodies to Jonckheere Mistral bodywork from Belgium for its first B12B coaches in 2002. 'We had a few corrosion issues with the Plaxton at that time,' recalls Mr Woodhouse. But the first B12B/Jonckheere coaches were far from troublefree. Mr Woodhouse still has not forgotten a string of electrical problems related to water getting into an electrical control box inside the rear wheel-arch. Body parts availability was another problem, he says.
The five 2002-registered B12B/Jonckheere coaches continue to have higher maintenance costs than any others in the Oxford Bus fleet. It is easy to see why in 2003 and 2004 allegiance switched to Scania's K114EB chassis with Irizar Century bodywork from Spain.
Like many coach operators running express services, Oxford Bus was stymied by a lack of new coaches with wheelchair-user access when this legal requirement kicked-in on 1 January 2005. It was 2007 before the company's normal replacement programme was restarted, with the Volvo B12B and Plaxton Panther body. Its wide front entrance accommodates a PLS Magic Lift wheelchair-lift within the step arrangement. 'The Plaxton body has totally changed,' says Mr Woodhouse, explaining the decision to return to the Scarborough-based coachbuilder, now part of the Alexander Dennis group. 'The quality is excellent.' Maintenance costs so far are looking much lower than with early B12Bs, though as Mr Woodhouse acknowledges, 'it is early days yet'.
One cost showing no sign of falling is windscreen replacement, running at a whopping total of £50,000 a year: the inevitable by-product of motorway running and expensive screens, it seems.
Oxford has plumped for the 420hp 12.1-litre DH12E Volvo engine, a far cry from the 285hp engine of early B10Ms. 'We have a particular issue with Stokenchurch,' explains Mr Woodhouse, referring to an infamous long and steep climb on the London-bound M40. The gearbox is Volvo's 12-speed automated I-shift with direct-drive top gear. 'We always used ZF automatic boxes on coaches in the past,' says Mr Woodhouse. 'It was an extremely good workhorse. But you have to look at change. We tried an I-shift on demonstration and the drivers loved it.' The first I-shift chassis in this fleet are now 18 months old and have each clocked up over 250,000 miles. How do they rate on reliability and clutch life? 'We've had no issues to date,' Mr Woodhouse is happy to report.
With twice as many ratios and better mechanical efficiency than a fully- automatic (epicyclic) ZF, the I-shift should, in theory, deliver better fuel economy. Oxford Bus fuel records suggest the theory is correct. Its Euro-3, ZF-equipped B12B/Jonckheere coaches average only 8.22mpg whereas the newer, more powerful I- shift Euro-5 models average 9.74mpg. This 18 per cent difference in mpg greatly outweighs the on-cost of AdBlue. Its usage is five per cent of fuel consumption on average on the Euro-5 coaches.
Responding to a Go-Ahead group target of a five per cent cut in fuel consumption, Oxford Bus has just rolled out a new telematics-based fleet-management system across its bus and coach fleet. The system, from Mix Telematics (formerly Omnibridge), blends engine and vehicle data from CAN-bus electrical systems with positional data from GPS (global positioning system) tracking. The information is transmitted wirelessly to the Oxford Bus Company depot.
The system is being used in this operation to focus on five parameters: engine speed (revs); engine idling; braking; acceleration and speed, all of which abbreviates to RIBAS. For each parameter boundaries have been set for maximum fuel efficiency. The system records how many times these boundaries are breached. The GPS data show where it occurred. Some are embarrassingly close to home. Oxford's four-month trial of the system on six Mercedes-Benz Citaro buses revealed that in one week they spent a total of 13 hours idling - at their depot. So now the system reports when a bus has idled for more than 10 minutes at a depot, more than one minute at a bus stop. The GPS element allows the road-speed parameter to be varied to suit particular roads. After some driver training, also focused on RIBAS parameters, the fuel economy of the six Citaros improved by 14 per cent compared with a control group of four similar vehicles. This was achieved purely by monitoring results and feeding them back to drivers in a simple red, amber and green summary report. Adding a driver-aid in the form of a display that shows a warning light to tell the driver when a particular parameter is exceeded gives an extra one or two per cent. Oxford Bus so far relies on these reports to manage driver performance rather than using the system more actively, by remote shutdown of idling engines or limiting maximum speed automatically according to location, for instance.
The results of the four month trial persuaded Mr Woodhouse and his colleagues to fit the entire Oxford Bus fleet with the Mix system and to train all drivers. The process has just been completed. Other Go-Ahead companies are adopting the same system. There is less scope for fuel-saving on coaches spending much of the time on motorways, concedes Mr Woodhouse. 'Where we will save it is in the traffic in and out of Oxford and London,' he says. Early results on the Volvo/Plaxton B12B coaches show average fuel consumption has gone from 9.74 to 10.37mpg.
The Oxford Bus maintenance regime is unstinting, to say the least. Every coach has a weekly safety inspection, including a rolling-road brake test. Then there is a more comprehensive five-weekly service inspection. Every 16 weeks there is an intermediate inspection, including an engine-oil change. A synthetic, ACEA E7/E6/E4 10W-40 oil is used. It is a low-SAPS (sulphated ash, phosphorus and sulphur) oil, specified to help prolong CRT life. Then comes the big annual-test preparation.
A team of 29 technicians provides 24-hour cover, seven days a week at Oxford's impressive workshop at a modern (four years old) depot on the south-east side of the city. 'Our first time MOT test pass rate is 99.3 per cent,' says Mr Woodhouse with obvious pride. 'You don't get much better than that. Five years ago it was 92 per cent.'
The company's own inspection standards manual was completed recently, taking the Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) manual as its starting point. 'VOSA's is the minimum standard,' says Mr Woodhouse. 'We have to work to a higher standard.'
Auditing standards and procedures is evidently an Oxford Bus passion. Inspectors ensure that drivers complete walk-round checks thoroughly. 'We also have an engineering quality-control auditor,' points out Mr Woodhouse. 'On a daily basis he is checking records, checking vehicles coming off service, checking cleaning standards.'
All these procedures are essential ingredients for a successful intensive coach operation, in Mr Woodhouse's view. 'It starts with making sure the driver's defect system works well, so you get the feedback from them,' he says. 'Then there is the ongoing, weekly maintenance. And on top of that is ongoing training for the technicians. It all comes down to standards.'
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