Volvo B7RLE MCV
In service with Simonds of Botesdale
The UK 12m single deck bus market is not as large as it once was, with midibuses and extended versions of midibuses claiming the dominant share of total single deck sales. Despite this, there are still operators who want to run something they see as heavier duty and among them is Simonds of Botesdale, now based in a modern depot in Diss, whose latest bus acquisitions are a trio of 12m MCV bodied Volvo B7RLEs. MD, Martyn Simonds and Engineering Director, Adrian Tant, told me all about them.
The B7RLE was introduced to the UK market in 2003 and has featured successive Euro3, Euro4 and Euro5 generations of the seven-litre Volvo engine along with ZF automatic transmission. It was already available elsewhere in Europe prior to 2003 but had not been previously offered in the UK because the team here originally thought that the rear saloon arrangement required to surmount the engine would not be acceptable to UK operators. When it became evident that other manufacturers were offering solutions it saw as no better, Volvo introduced the model, initially in conjunction with Wrights. In total 1,976 have been registered to date with only a couple still to be sold with the best year for sales being 2005 when 341 took to British roads.
It is only relatively recently that Volvo teamed up with MCV to offer both double and single deck models featuring the Egyptian manufacturer’s bodywork. The first significant batch of double deckers, including open toppers, was taken by London based Golden Tours, while the first MCV bodied B7RLEs were a trio supplied in April 2012 to Pulhams of Bourton on the Water in the Cotswolds. MCV already had experience supplying single deck bodies on Dennis, MAN, VDL and Mercedes-Benz chassis and the product was already generally well regarded for its strength and durability.
The driveline combines the in-line Euro5 Volvo D7E 7.14-litre engine with the ZF Ecolife 6AP1400B six-speed fully automatic gearbox. Delivering 290hp (213kW) at 2,100rpm, the D7E produces 1,200Nm of torque at 1,050-1,650rpm. The front axle is a rigid beam unit with stabiliser, kneel and ferry lift while the rear axle is Volvo’s RS1228B unit.
Other elements of the specification include: ZF power steering, the Volvo BEA2 electrical system, disc brakes with lining wear indicator and control, a 330-litre fuel tank and a stainless steel silencer.
MCV designates the 12m long product the C123RLE, offering it in four different variants. Simonds’ buses are single door 44 seat buses with nearside wheelchair bays, though a 41-seat single door option is also offered with an offside buggy bay in addition to the wheelchair bay. Also offered are two dual door specifications, one of which is specifically designed for TfL contracts with the wheelchair bay opposite the centre door and a maximum of 37 seats. The other dual door option maximises standee capacity and has only 31 seats, all but the two singles on the forward face of the front wheel arches located at the rear of the bus beyond the centre door.
The frame is of Cromweld 3CR12 stainless steel and the panels are aluminium, the lower ones detachable. The front panels, rear panels and the roof skin are GRP as are the separate corner sections and the three part bumper assemblies. Glazing is bonded 4mm glass. The electrics are a 24volt Intellitec multiplex system. Simonds specified an optional Synectics T800 eight camera CCTV system.
Simonds operate a 47 strong fleet of which 17 are buses. Their requirement was for buses to use on the relatively rural 1 and 2 services between Diss and Norwich. The 1 service traces its history back to 7 November 1966 when Simonds started operating a rail replacement service in the post Beeching era. The MCV Volvos are a far cry from the ex Maidstone & District Harrington Contender bodied Commer Avengers used to launch the route.
Before deciding what to take they took a serious look at a number of vehicle types, inviting customer’s feedback on demonstrators, and taking into account the views of drivers and engineering staff before making a decision. A consideration was that the routes are not town services and are not on smooth roads. Martyn observed, ‘they get shaken to bits and some of the lightweights don’t last the term.’
Buses tried before a decision was made included a Scania OmniCity, a secondhand Optare Versa, an Optare Tempo, a Wright Streetlite DF and an ADL Enviro200. They had previously operated a pair of very early Enviro300s for five years that weren’t very successful, as well as a secondhand Cummins powered Optare Excel withdrawn and scrapped recently.
In the end, they went for the Volvo because, ‘They offered the best package and I think it’s the best product,’ said Martyn. ‘We liked the drive set up. It’s primarily a Volvo coach fleet and Volvo is a product we know that has proved durable for us. We like MCV too.’
The Volvos are not the first MCVs for Simonds, they follow seven on MAN chassis, four of which, two 07-plates with Euro3 engines and two 09-plates with Euro4 engines, are still in service. The two 13-plate Volvos replaced a pair of 06-plate MANs, while the 14-plate took the place of a 55-plate example. Martyn and Adrian agreed that the Euro3 MANs had been good products for them but they were less happy with the Euro4s. ‘There were more problems, we needed back up and it was hard work to get support.’
Simonds took delivery of the first pair on 26 July 2013 and they went into service on 1 August with the 14-plate bus joining them on 14 March this year. All are on five year leases from Volvo Bus. Martyn noted, ‘It was quite simple, swift and efficient to arrange with them. We did the deal with Phil Fletcher. Volvo and MCV both came down individually and had a day a piece with us when we first had them. The information packs are very helpful too.’
The B7RLEs aren’t the only Volvo buses in the fleet. There is also a 2000 Alexander ALX300 bodied B10BLE that was bought as a spare bus but is used every day because of the unreliability of the Primos. In comparison, the bulk of Simonds’ coach fleet is Volvo, though a number of the latest additions are MAN and the latest new purchase was a 63-plate Neoplan Tourliner. The Volvos include seven B12Bs, the newest an 08-plate and 13 B10Ms, the majority of them with Van Hool bodies.
‘One of the other big considerations is the proximity of MCV’s Sutton depot near Ely to here. If we damage a panel we’re 50 minutes from their depot where we can usually go and pick it up, even out of hours. One of their service engineers lives in Thetford so he’ll either come on his way home or in the evening when the buses are off. It’s a very good relationship. The product is robust and serves its need. I wouldn’t say it is the most stylish, the interior doesn’t flow and the exterior isn’t rounded like some of the competitors, but that’s not what people want, they want to get from A to B. They are never sat there waiting for parts to come from Hungary like our Primos are. It’s the same with glass. If it isn’t available through our normal supplier we just ring Sutton and collect it.’
‘We had a side impact accident with one of the 13-plates that bent all of the central emergency door. I was pleasantly surprised that there was one here in 24 hours from Sutton. Not only that, but we didn’t have to prepare it, it came ready painted. All we had to do was unbolt the other one and bolt it in once we’d done the frame repairs.’
‘We have had a few MCV issues with water leaks round the hopper windows, one of which became detached. They came out and rectified it on site and there’s been no problem since. There were also a few rubber seat rail infills missing when they were delivered that MCV supplied and fitted for us,’ said Martyn.
‘MCV are very, very good. They’re all good there; Ashraf, Grant and Peter the technician. From our point of view they are very responsive. They listen if you have an issue, even if it is a manufacturing issue and they take on board what you say’, said Adrian. ‘The locker doors on the 13s had no bottom catches when they arrived so they flapped. The 14 arrived with them in place and they came back and retrofitted them on the others.’
‘It’s a solid durable body and it stays tight. The frame is stainless steel and the panels are aluminium. You don’t get panels coming loose. It lasts the course. The seats are comfortable too. They are high back three point belted Vogel Aroundo individual units. All seats are belted except the tip ups,’ said Martyn. ‘Theoretically the capacity is huge, up in the 90s, but I think you’d struggle to physically get them all on and I wouldn’t want to drive it if you succeeded.’
The decision to go for three-point belts on all of the fixed seats was taken because during school terms two of the three perform a school contract linked in with their stage carriage commitments.
‘Aesthetically the Wrightbus is better looking but in practical terms I think the MCV surpasses them,’ said Martyn. ‘The type of work we do is not the same as the PTEs and the big groups and our mileage is nothing like what they cover.’
‘A good thing about MCV is that it has the two roof hatches, which gives a flow of air in the saloon. You don’t get that with hopper windows. I don’t know whether there are other buses with them and it doesn’t make or break it for me but it helps,’ said Martyn.
Adrian said maintaining the Volvos is ‘quite simple.’ They are on a five week regime. ‘We could go to six but it gives us a safety margin,’ he said, adding, ‘there has been nothing untoward on parts. We’ve not had to wait for anything’.
‘We had a software issue on one of the 13-plates; it was giving various amber warnings on the dash display. We phoned Volvo who sent a Frontline technician the next day. They tried a software upgrade but ended up replacing the dash. The other one had an airbag leaking. We showed the Frontline technician and he arranged everything to fit a replacement at our convenience.’
With a bright patterned blue moquette, bright yellow stanchions and step edgings, red aisle floor covering, grey under-seat flooring and most of the interior panelling in white, coupled with large side windows and transparent roof hatches, the interior is bright and welcoming. The roof is relatively low at the rear though not uncomfortably so and there are a number of under-seat steps towards the rear of the saloon, though only two from the flat saloon floor to the rear sunken sloping aisle. There is a manual flip over ramp at the entrance. It may not be as neatly designed as some other products with regard to corners where cans and other litter can be left, but it is practical and appears to be hard wearing.
In line with the regulations, the emergency door is in the low floor section on the offside and this was finished in white on the interior side, early examples having been finished in black.
Every passenger carrying vehicle in the Simonds fleet is equipped with the GreenRoad fleet management system. Now in use for four years Martyn has found that the savings made are being maintained. ‘We’re running with a company score of eight’, he said. ‘We have drivers constantly getting a zero score.’
In terms of fuel economy, you can judge for yourself their performance as all fuel usage at Simonds is closely monitored. After a year in service and 45,289 miles, one of the 13-plates has achieved 9.60mpg, while the other has covered 43,996 miles and managed over half a mile further for every gallon with a figure of 10.12mpg. The latest 14-plate bus, which took to the road on 14 March this year, has covered 18,043 miles so far and is following in the tracks of the other with 10.05mpg.
For this aspect of the evaluation I asked members of the team at Simonds what they thought.
Colin Gooch drives three days a week for Simonds and enjoys the job. He commented, ‘It’s a good bus, I like it. I used to drive a Dennis Dart and it’s better than that. I like that the cab door goes all the way down to the floor. The controls are good. It has very good steering and lock. It’s a fantastic bus really.’
‘The only downside is that the front doesn’t lower enough for kerbs when you’re boarding buggies. The amount of lower is very limited. On the other hand, in Norwich they have high kerbs and if you lowered it by them you’d take the bottom out. Apart from that it’s OK.’
‘The driver’s window used to leak but they cured it. One of the side windows still leaks. There was water inside the other day that came from the back somewhere. On the 14-plate it doesn’t leak. The only thing was seat floor mountings. I used to have an Allan key to tighten them up.’
‘The acceleration is quite lively. It’s a good all round bus really.’
Darren Tull normally drives one of the MAN coaches, though he prefers Volvos, and was driving one of the B7RLEs for the first time. He commented, ‘I like it, it drives well. It’s nice and smooth. It is quite smooth when you put your foot down, but with no particular urgency. The steering’s really nice; it doesn’t throw me all over the place like some of them do. The braking is smooth, with very little effort needed and the retarder does what it is supposed to do.’
He thought there was plenty of room in the cab, and though they could have done with being bigger, felt the mirrors were good.
He commented, ‘I like this better than the 09 MAN. I was in one yesterday. They tend to want to either go or stop; I prefer to just pootle along so this suits me nicely. The GreenRoad tends to stay green for me and that’s all that interests me. It’s a shame about all of the squeaks. It rattles, but when you get it on the A140 it is nice and quiet.’
He concluded, ‘It feels very solid when you are driving it; like it’s not going to move.’
David Elliott only had one criticism, and that was of the driving seat which he cannot get as high as he would like. ‘I’m not the only driver who is 6ft 2inches tall’, he said. ‘There’s very little height adjustment. One of my colleagues brings a cushion for this reason.’
Passengers appeared to like the buses too. Most of those I spoke to obviously found them acceptable without having a particular view beyond the facts that ‘the drivers are nice’ and ‘the low ones are handy, especially if you have a lot of shopping or a push chair.’ One young Mum with a sleeping child said, ‘If he’s asleep in the buggy, you don’t have to wake him up when you get on.’
Asked specifically about comfort they agreed they were comfortable. Very few used the seatbelts provided, though an older gentleman was an exception. He told me he thought it was ‘a bit rattly, especially on a long journey,’ quickly adding that ‘the roads round here are terrible.’ Someone else said the ride was hard, though I thought it was pretty good.
I mentioned earlier that Pulhams bought the first three B7RLE MCVs, which were also their first low floor buses as they had previously used high floor coaches on their 26 mile 801 commercial service running six days a week between Moreton in March and Cheltenham via Stow on the Wold, Bourton on the Water, North Leach, Andoversford and Cheltenham General Hospital. On earlier visits to the company I had asked Proprietor, Andrew Pulham and Fleet Engineer, Chris Adams about their reasons for buying them and experiences with them.
Before buying the trio, Pulhams looked at other options, primarily the Wrightbus bodied Volvo B7RLE. Andrew commented, ‘I wanted the Volvo product because of its reliability. I had no qualms about it. They have the back up and there was also the standardisation of parts. I didn’t want to move away from them.’ He wanted heavyweights because, ‘come out of Bourton and wherever you go there’s a hill. They do some miles too, working 12 hours a day.’ The decision to go for the MCV was entirely financial. ‘The only reason I bought MCV was the deal I was offered which was £10,000 less per bus. I’d have had the Wrightbus product but at the end of the day, it’s a bus. I can’t knock MCV though; there have only been a couple of issues but they have acted straight away on them.’
In truth, the vehicles have not been without their issues, most of them electrical. After about a month in service, a pattern started to emerge whereby at least twice a week one or other of them would cut out and then go into limp home mode. Repeated visits to the local Volvo agents did not resolve the matter and a point was reached at which Andrew was fed up and let the Volvo management know of his dissatisfaction.
Ian Wallace, Volvo Bus Aftermarket Service Manager – UK & Ireland, acted straight away and arranged the loan of a demonstration B7RLE Wrightbus while each of the trio went in turn to Wales and West’s Swindon depot for the installation of complete new wiring looms from front to back. ‘That was in June 2013 and they haven’t missed a beat since,’ said Andrew.
One of the buses suffered damage to the offside including the windows broken in the two bays beyond the emergency door when it was hit by a skip lorry. ‘It wasn’t off the road long. It happened on a Friday and we had both replacements fitted on the Monday by National Mobile Windscreens,’ said Chris.
‘We have had additional budget locks fitted on the front corner flaps because with just the original catch it didn’t keep them secure in winter when the wind got behind them. MCV did it for us. It’s not something you’d get in town, we only encountered it because we’re doing 59mph on the open road.’
Chris has also driven them on occasions. He commented, ‘They pull well they stick to the road well,’ adding, ‘we had good comments from the drivers when we had snowy weather about how well the stick to the road.’
He noted, ‘You have to have the handbrake on to shut the door and it won’t move unless the door is shut.’
Pulhams are as pleased as Simonds with the proactive support provided by MCV, even though they are based much further away. An example was the wheel arch trims originally fitted on the buses. These were really vulnerable and easily knocked off if you pulled up too close to the kerb. ‘They came and fixed ours and they’ve changed the design since,’ he said, ‘They are out within a couple of days to fix any problem. Their parts availability is good; they send anything you need out straight way.’
It’s a similar story with Volvo back up. ‘Even if they have to fly it in, it’s here the next day. Most of the time, if you order by 12.00 it’s here by 14.30 the same day. I can count on one hand the number of times they haven’t had a bit. It is partly down to Volvo and partly down to our local dealership, Wales and West and their parts operation in Gloucestershire,’ said Andrew. ‘I always know that I can keep my Volvos on the road.’
What the MCV lacks in style it makes up for in solidity and a lower up front cost. Volvo may not enjoy quite the position they once held in the UK bus market but their products continue to provide customers looking for a strong, reliable and well supported product with what they need. If there are issues, and most vehicles encounter them, especially when they are early examples, it is the way they are sorted out that it is important and both manufacturers have shown they do not walk away.
Front overhang: 2,740mm
Rear overhang: 3,280mm