FULL COVERAGE: National Express reveals Van Hool Altanos

After giving an initial glimpse of the first Van Hool overdecker for National Express, here is our deep-dive into the vehicle

National Express has revealed the first of 25 new Van Hool Altano TDX21 tri-axle coaches that are due to enter service this year.

The initial high-capacity overdecker coach was unveiled at Van Hool’s UK site in Wellingborough before heading to Bristol to join Edwards Coaches’ National Express fleet. It will be joined by nine others over the coming months.

In addition to the ten vehicles destined for Edwards Coaches, Selwyns Travel in the north west will be home to 15 more TDX21 models when they arrive later this year.

The coaches will be used on the 040 service between London and Bristol and the 540 between London and Manchester via Milton Keynes.

Boasting a 752litre fuel tank, the Altano TDX21 model has a luggage capacity of 16.5m3 including luggage racks, and a raised floor with additional height for easy access. Wheelchair access is made possible with a lower entry point and ramp, plus three seats on the lower floor behind the driver. The Altano stands at a length of 14.4m, width of 2.55m and height of 3.73m with 66 Kiel seats plus the wheelchair space. It includes LED mood lighting, free Wi-Fi, leather reclining seats, air conditioning, and onboard charging.

The coach is also equipped with National Express’s onboard safety and security technology, including Guardian’s Seeing Machines fatigue monitoring system which monitors drivers focus on the road, Lytx DriveCam to help maintain driver performance, and Alcolock. The toilet is on the same level as the walkway. Another feature is a continental door, which aids in their resale value. They can also be refuelled on both sides of the vehicle.

Speaking to B&CB during the unveiling of the coach, Erik Olijslagers, Van Hool Area Sales Manager RHD and Northern Europe, stressed the UK is a very important market for Van Hool: “It always has been and always will be.”

He said the project has been two years in the making, working with National Express to create a bespoke offering. The overdecker was selected over the double-deck or single-deck equivalents to give extra capacity and plenty of luggage space.

Power for the coach comes from a DAF MX13 engine coupled to a six-speed Allison automatic transmission, which Erik described as ‘smooth, comfortable and quiet’.

The Altano launched in Wellingborough was designed and built in Van Hool’s home-country of Belgium, while the remaining coaches in the order will be manufactured in the company’s North Macedonian factory, with guidance from the staff in Belgium.

Erik said Van Hool’s turnaround times for building new coaches is currently over a year. “If you ordered one now, it would be April 2025 when delivered,” he said. “Since Covid, things have changed. I think the lead times are quite similar elsewhere. It’s been difficult to get the world turning again.”

Van Hool mainly builds to orders, focusing on a bespoke offering, it manufacturers very little for stock.

Erik says that in Europe the focus is on diesel-powered coaches, although it has provided battery electric coaches in the US. He says the company now has the opportunity to transfer its experience in the US in this area to the European market. The technology is evolving, he said.

Addressing demand

Ed Rickard, Network Director for National Express UK and Ireland, told B&CB the two routes the new Van Hools are destined for have seen ‘massive increases’ in demand. On what is behind this increase, he said: “We have a cost-of-living crisis and this is an affordable option. And we have had rail strikes, where a lot of people have had to move to coaches. We found 10% who did that have stayed with us and didn’t go back to trains. And these routes are highly competitive, so the price on them is keen. So for more patronage, high capacity and high quality is the way to go.”

Ed described the reasoning behind the decision to go for the Van Hools: “We wanted a high-capacity coach with good luggage space. And we wanted a far simpler way to get wheelchair passengers onboard, which is much faster and much more efficient. We looked what was on the market and the Altano was an interesting proposition.

“We worked in partnership with our operators to come up with what specification we wanted and put it to our engineering forum.”

There was strong debate from the latter group, Ed said.

National Express is no stranger to larger coaches, operating the Caetano Boa Vista. The relationship with the Portuguese manufacturer continues, with 120 Levante 3A tri-axles set for delivery. They replace older vehicles or in some cases grow capacity on services. growth has been across the board on National Express services, according to Ed.

On the possibility of even more overdeckers coming to National Express, Ed said: “I think high-capacity coaches are the way to go, but I don’t think there will be a one size fits all.”

Operators impressed

Selwyn Jones, MD of Selwyns Travel, told B&CB he is impressed with the new Van Hool as he took a look at it. he said: “They are fabulous vehicles; they’re well equipped, I like the interior. The obvious advantage is the luggage capacity. It should be a lot more efficient. And Van Hools are a proven product. I look forward to welcoming them into the fleet.”

This will be the first Van Hool Selwyns has operated since it had one in the ‘80s. “It’s quite a change,” Selwyn said. “It’s very much a product for the type of business they operate, especially on long-distance routes. It fits the market extremely well. I’m sure customers will appreciate the level of comfort it offers.”

He is pleased National Express has selected one of his routes to launch some of the first of these vehicles on: “It shows National Express have confidence in us.”

(L to R) Erik Olijslagers of Van Hool; Mike Edwards and Richard Thomas of Edwards Coaches; Selwyn Jones of Selwyn Travel and National Express’ Ed Rickard

Mike Edwards, Managing Director of Edwards Coaches, is also pleased with the Van Hools. He said: “We know the Van Hool product, it’s very reliable. This is going to be a game changer.”

The operator has run an Altano overdecker since 2014, being the team coach for a Cardiff ice hockey team. It has three Van Hools in total and has recently sold two to Ukraine, which proves a popular market for coaches considering there are no internal flights in the country.

Mike said of the Altano: “The luggage space is fantastic compared to the Boa Vista. And the wide entrance, I like that.”

The new Altanos will enter the Edwards fleet at a time when it is investing £35m in new vehicles for 2024 for both National Express and its own tour programme.


One thought on “FULL COVERAGE: National Express reveals Van Hool Altanos

  1. j.nealeneale Neale says:

    Selwyns operated many Van Hools up until 2005, when they were forced to take Levantes.

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