Alexander Dennis is building buses for Edinburgh again. January will see the first of 42 new high capacity double deckers enter service in the city

 

The 13.4-metre vehicles are capable of carrying up to 134 passengers

 

A lone piper emerged from behind the curtain on the shop floor at Alexander Dennis’s factory in Falkirk and began playing ‘Scotland the Brave’. It was a sign that the suspense would soon be over. Alexander Dennis, Volvo and Lothian had worked hard to keep the details of their collaboration secret, but now the Alexander Dennis Enviro400XLB was slowly rolling into review – a new bus product, built in Scotland for Scotland’s capital city.

The onlookers fumbled with their camera phones, struggling to frame the dimensions of the 13.4-metre tri-axle double decker. British bus builders have long been supplying tri-axle double deckers to Hong Kong and Singapore, but not their domestic market. In January, however, the first of 42 of these high capacity vehicles will enter service in with Lothian in Edinburgh. In the days that followed this month’s launch event these mammoth vehicles captured the imagination of people who would ordinarily have no interest in buses. When I had my hair cut in Edinburgh a few days later Lewis, my barber, knew all about them!

Barbers in cities across the UK might soon be talking about the Enviro400XLB. Alexander Dennis and chassis manufacturer Volvo didn’t develop this product solely on the basis of the initial order from Lothian. Alexander Dennis chief executive Colin Robertson hopes to find a market for 50-100 of these vehicles in the UK and Ireland every year.

“It might be 100 in Lothian’s fleet, I don’t ever see it being more than that,” he told Passenger Transport. “But we spent enough on it to try and sell more than 100 in its product life cycle.”

Lothian managing director Richard Hall doesn’t think that Robertson will be disappointed. Asked whether he thought other operators would follow his company’s lead and purchase these vehicles, he responded: “Why wouldn’t they?”

Hall is very happy to have re-established Alexander Dennis as a supplier to Lothian after a pause that had last longer than a decade. It is a decision that fits with the council-owned company’s strategy of supporting its local supply chain wherever possible. And he’s pleased with the way that Alexander Dennis has responded to a challenge that he set them only six months ago – to create a high spec, tri-axle double decker for the company.

Offering 100 seats and with standees able to carry up to 131 passengers in total, the Enviro XLB delivers unrivalled capacity for busy routes, while its front and middle doors will speed-up dwell times at bus stops. It has been built to even higher standards than bus users in Edinburgh are familiar with; comfortable high-backed seating, free Wi-Fi access, USB device charging, LED mood lighting and audio-visual next stop announcements.

Hall’s ambition has been to create a passenger environment that that will lure people out of their cars and help stem the current 4% year-on-year decline in patronage on Lothian’s city network.

We will not be content to sit there and see our business change, so we have to innovate in terms of how we carry our customers, the product we offer our customers

“We will not be content to sit there and see our business change, so we have to innovate in terms of how we carry our customers, the product we offer our customers,” he explained to Michael Matheson, Scotland’s transport secretary, in a meeting prior to the handover ceremony. “How do we entice people out of their cars without using purgatory measures to do so?”

The Enviro400XLB is also seen as a solution to worsening traffic congestion, which is slowing down buses and making them a less attractive option. The second door, something which has seldom been specified on buses outside of London, will improve the flow of passengers, speeding up boarding times and winning back some of the time lost to congestion.

The vehicles can also combat congestion by reducing the number of buses that are needed to operate a service. Buses are of course part of the solution to congestion but they are sometimes be accused of adding to the problem, especially on congested city centre corridors. By carrying the same number of passengers with fewer vehicles, the Enviro400XLB can reduce the contribution that buses make to congestion and save money too. Hall says that one vehicle can be removed for every three of these vehicles that enter service.

“Congestion is a massive thing on the bus operators’ agenda,” Hall explained. “As a bus operator Lothian is not prepared to sit there and blame everyone else for congestion. How do we play our part in minimising that, speeding up boarding and alighting times  because it’s everybody’s problem?”

The operator will also expects to benefit because the vehicles will be capable of coping with the huge increase in demand in the morning and afternoon peaks. In between these peak times they can stay out on the road, enabling greater utilisation of assets and avoiding the need to split duties for drivers.

So why has this solution been overlooked until now?

I genuinely believe the UK industry, the bus industry as well as the manufacturers, is not looking outside the box, because we do what we always do

“I genuinely believe the UK industry, the bus industry as well as the manufacturers, is not looking outside the box, because we do what we always do,” Hall told Passenger Transport. “This is innovation, isn’t it? It is something different.”

During his six years with Stagecoach, Hall recalls hearing the group’s co-founder Sir Brian Souter, say: “Never be scared to try something, but equally never be scared to admit when it doesn’t work.”

It is a message that influences his current thinking: “You have to constantly adapt and that is what we are doing.”

Robertson said that the unveiling of a new product for a new customer represented “a momentous day for us as a business”. He said that Alexander Dennis had to “blink hard” when Hall first came to them with a challenging plan to create a brand new product in a tight timescale, but said that their teams had worked together successfully “in an open and transparent way”. 

“What we’ve done in less than six months is nothing short of amazing,” he enthused.

Meanwhile, as a company headquartered in Scotland, Roberston said that building buses again for Edinburgh was “a great source of pride for the employees at our Falkirk factory and we look forward to further developing our relationship with Lothian”.

Alexander Dennis’s Falkirk factory falls within Matheson’s Falkirk West constituency in the Scottish Parliment. The cabinet secretary for transport, infrastructure and connectivity said that the order from Lothian represented a “missing piece of the jigsaw” for the company.

“Taking the bus is a more sustainable form of travel than taking the car,” he said. “I welcome today’s announcement, which supports the Scottish Government’s ambitions to encourage sustainable and lower carbon transportation across Scotland.

 
This article appears in the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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