Thursday, 1 October 2015
Stealing the show
This beautiful beast was the centre of attention at Coach and Bus Live at the NEC today.
One of a fleet of nine acquired by trentbarton for the Red Arrow express Derby - Nottingham route. This is a brand that has grown and grown over many years from a standing start, and now operates every ten minutes throughout the day with journeys into the early hours on Friday and Saturday nights, an incredible service level that stands as a tribute to the operating staff who operate it, the control and engineering staff who support it and the management team and directors who have invested in continual improvements in the fleet and service levels.
These coaches replace a mixed fleet of 2004 Scania/Irizar InterCentury and 2010 Scania/Irizar i4 and take the style and comfort of the brand to a new level.
In technical terms, these are Volvo B11R Plaxton Elites with 57 seats (or 55 plus a wheelchair).
For the comfort of customers they feature a Brusa seat of a kind normally used on touring coaches, incorporating fold-down seat-back tables which include a cup holder and even a slot to prop up one's tablet.
It has been my pleasure to work with trentbarton MD Jeff Counsell and his management team and the unparalleled creative team of Best Impressions, firstly to select the marque of coach to buy and secondly to specify the design.
The project to buy new coaches for Red Arrow was initiated before my involvement with trentbarton, with a decision made in principle around this time last year that 2015 would be the year for new coaches.
The existing coaches are very comfortable and smooth to ride on and have served the brand very well, but are now starting to show their age - especially the 2004 batch. I don't have the figures to hand but I reckon those must have done over a million miles each since entering service, an incredible figure.
However, the challenge was to know what to buy to replace them. Over last winter it was clear that there were times when we were struggling to carry the numbers of people wishing to travel with duplicate journeys often running at peak times. A timetable change earlier this year which improved reliability has helped that somewhat by ensuring that coaches don't bunch and the interval between journeys is about right - especially for those waiting at QMC for example - but even so it was clear that more, rather than less, capacity was needed. And of course since it's a brand that trades on quality, this capacity could not be provided at the expense of comfort.
The need for wheelchair access is of course a given, but again care was needed to ensure that the wheelchair could be accommodated in a way that was not detrimental to the journey quality for either the wheelchair user or other passengers and again without compromising too much on capacity.
A number of different types of 12 metre coach were tried, with varying degrees of success, and indeed some very good ones among them. But none quite ticked all the boxes. Either they weren't right mechanically, or they didn't have enough capacity, or they simply lacked the 'wow' factor that a brand like Red Arrow commands.
We got quite excited by the possibility of an 'interdeck' design, of a kind offered by Van Hool or in the form of the Plaxton Elite i in widespread use with Megabus, or Go-Ahead on their X90 Oxford - London route for example, . This concept places the seats on a higher level than a conventional coach so that they occupy the full length of the coach, coming forward of the driver, but with only luggage space below without room for a conventional lower deck.
We felt that these would really turn heads and provide a stunning advert for the brand, as well as providing a highly attractive customer environment. For a long time the interdeck concept seemed to be the way we'd go.
However, on a visit to Oxford to sample the Go-Ahead Elite i, we were stood in Gloucester Green Bus Station when a 14 metre Elite operated by Stagecoach rolled in on their X5 Cambridge - Oxford route. The driver kindly allowed us to have a look round. We were immediately struck by the spacious entrance and indeed the sense of space throughout the saloon.
We then stumbled across a major problem with the interdecks. On both the Plaxton and Van Hool designs, the wheelchair position was right next to the driver at the front downstairs. This posed a number of issues. Firstly, it's hardly a very dignified experience for the wheelchair user, being isolated from the rest of the customers and having to sit awkwardly alongside the driver. Secondly, even with no wheelchair present the support framework was positioned right where we would want a customer to be able to stand to interact with the driver and buy tickets.
As much of trentbarton's success hinges on the relationship between the driver and the customers, it was not really acceptable to have to work round this obstacle placed right where the customers would want to stand.
It's a different proposition on a longer distance express service where the ticketing is often taken care of at the kerbside, so there is nothing at all wrong with the concept, it just wasn't right for Red Arrow. Finally, the low height of the bottom deck meant that taller customers would have to stoop to enter the vehicle, which again is hardly conducive to the kind of welcome we would wish to project.
Not only did the entrance to the conventional Elite strike as as much more spacious and welcoming, the ingenious wheelchair lift hidden behind the steps meant that a wheelchair passenger could be accommodated within the saloon on the same level as the rest of the passengers.
So the decision was made to proceed with nine Plaxton Elites, which meant it was time to start thinking about how they should look.
A number of visits to the Plaxton factory at Scarborough gave us the opportunity to specify the coaches to a high level of detail. Volvo and Plaxton have been hugely accommodating in meeting our requirements and given my own limitations as an interior designer, the presence of Ray Stenning to provide the creative input always ensured that the coaches would look and feel stylish.
One decision we did make at an early stage was to include one less row of seats than is theoretically possible. We sampled a 61 seat vehicle that was perfectly comfortable but for a long-legged passenger such as myself just felt slightly constrained, so with Plaxton's help we were able to redesign the interior to accommodate 57 seats - still an increase in capacity over the present coaches, but with noticeably more legroom.
We also tried a number of different seats from various manufacturers. The Brusa seat struck us as offering a very high quality, luxurious appearance and comfortable shape, while also being robust and hard-wearing. We rejected at least one seat that was very comfortable but had a higher back because we didn't want to unnecessarily limit people's ability to see forward.
A highly attractive feature of the Brusa seat is that seat-back table. Research of existing Red Arrow customers was that they like the fixed tables on the existing coaches, but that they weren't a critical factor in people's decision to use Red Arrow and they would only sit at a table if one happened to be vacant, rather than actively looking for them. We there felt that a better solution was to give everyone a smaller table that they could use if they wanted, and that tablet groove was a real winner for me. Needless to say I forgot to take a photograph of it today, so you can take my word for it.
There is always a lively debate between the merits of leather and moquette for the seat coverings. Some people argue that leather looks and feels to be of a higher quality. Others - including me - argue that a moquette is more comfortable, less slippery and creates a warmer, more welcoming ambience. However, Ray Stenning introduced us to a third possibility - a flat weave such as that typically used on car seats.
This retains the warm, welcoming ambience of a moquette while having a higher quality appearance and feel, much more akin to people's private cars. We were happy to follow Ray's advice and we are absolutely delighted with the end product. We think it is one of the first times a flat weave finish has been used on a seat used on regular scheduled bus services in the UK (as opposed to touring coaches) and we look forward to seeing customers' reactions.
Ray designed a wonderfully co-ordinated interior, mixing the bright red seat pattern with darker reds on the seat wings, headrests and luggage racks, and including such detail as red gangway lighting, which looks superb. Existing Red Arrow coaches feature neutral colours such as grey and black and we wanted these new coaches to be bolder and noticeably different while retaining a quality feel, and Ray responded superbly to the requirement. His attention to detail is incredible, even to the point of applying a leather finish to all the armrests for example.
The next crucial piece in the jigsaw was the livery, for which again Best Impressions came up trumps. The livery went through several iterations in the design stage and there were some lively debates about the merits of various schemes. But one of the nice things about working with trentbarton and indeed with Best Impressions is that everyone is totally focussed on getting the best possible end result, so it is perfectly possible to have heated discussions and robust exchanges of opinion, but all in a totally constructive spirit because we know we are all contributing to creating a better product. The final livery is very much the result of that process and is all the better for it.
The final stage will be to introduce the new coaches to the drivers, engineers and general public. There will be a number of launch events over the next few weeks, and we have already started to get the marketing messages out there. Once again, I forgot to take a photo of the rear in all the excitement today, but much of the marketing will adopt a 'red carpet' theme to signify both high quality and a sense of arrival and this is reflected in the coach rear designs.
The new coaches are due to enter service on 25th October, and I can't wait to see them out there, turning heads and attracting new generations of users to Red Arrow.