Steve Banner delves into the minibus and mess van conversion industry. Emission standards and choice of fuel are hot topics.
Businesses have no choice but to become emissions-conscious, and that includes firms that run minibuses. It is a point not lost on Luton-based Blue Bus Innovations, which according to Iveco has become the first UK operator to put minibuses powered by compressed natural gas (cng) on the road.
All three of the minibuses it has acquired are 16-seater Iveco Daily Lines 50C14GA8s with 140hp 3.0-litre gas engines, Hi-Matic eight-speed automatic gearboxes and 4.1m wheelbases. They are being deployed on a regular shuttle between Luton Airport and central London.
“While we strive to offer our customers the best-possible service, we’re also aware that we need to minimise our impact on the environment,” says Blue Bus managing director, Tazio Puri Negri. “And with emissions restrictions set to get even tougher, in the future we’ll be looking to increase our fleet of alternative-fuel minibuses.”
ULEZ – EURO 6 ACCEPTED
Central London’s new Ultra Low Emission Zone is due to come into force in April, but as things stand the regulations will not compel firms sending minibuses there to adopt cng, liquefied natural gas, or go fully electric. Anything powered by a Euro 6 diesel will not be penalised.
The rules could become more exacting in future however, and in the meantime adopting an environmentally-friendly stance will do businesses seeking to appeal to environmentally-aware customers no harm at all. Iveco points out that when compared with their diesel counterparts, gas engines produce 12% less NOx, 76% less particulate matter and up to 95% less CO2 when fuelled with biomethane.
A further benefit says Iveco is that the gas engine is at least 4dB quieter than its diesel equivalent – good news for slumbering householders if passengers are being dropped off late at night.
A start-up company, Blue Bus has also acquired three conventionally-powered Daily Tourys minibuses, making it an all-Iveco fleet.
All 19-seater 65C18HA8s, again with 4.1m wheelbases and Hi-Matic gearboxes, they are fitted with 180hp 3.0-litre diesels. Each one comes with a 2.5cu m luggage compartment, leather-trimmed Avance seats made by Kiel, internal LED lights and individual passenger air-conditioning vents.
All six of the Blue Bus vehicles were supplied through Croydon dealer Iveco Retail under an Elements repair and maintenance package as part of a five-year lease arranged through Iveco Capital.
DIESEL’S NOT DEAD
Last year saw Whiteley, Fareham, Hampshire-based PHVC acquired 21 65C18HA8 Daily Line Hi-Matics. It supplies minibuses to local authorities and community transport fleets and says it has detected a growing demand for 22/23 seaters.
All of the Daily Lines it has opted for are diesel-powered. “A lot of the sectors we supply are already looking at alternative fuels though and we expect around 50% of our orders will be for cng vehicles in five years’ time,” says PHVC managing director, Paul Huxford.
BATTERY ELECTRIC OPTIONS
Operators of small buses that want to go the low-emission route are not restricted to cng.
In 2017 Lancashire body builder Mellor launched the 16-passenger zero-emission battery-powered low-floor Orion E. One is now in service with the National Galleries of Scotland on a shuttle service between its three locations in Edinburgh.
Orion E was on display at last September’s IAA Hanover Commercial Vehicle Show in Germany having received its European launch at the October 2017 Bus World exhibition at Kortrijk in Belgium.
The dozen Mellor Orion LFs Edinburgh City Council has acquired are all diesels however, with Fiat Professional Ducato drivetrains and 177hp 3.0-litre engines. “They feature 360-degree cameras for extra public safety,” says fleet manager, Pat Traynor.
Typical fuel consumption is a creditable 22mpg.
The 90 eight-seater Dial-a-Ride Tucana II low-entry flat-floor accessible minibuses Mellor is supplying to Transport for London for its Dial-a-Ride service are diesels too. Based on Volkswagen Transporter chassis, and equipped with boarding ramps, they can accommodate up to four people in wheelchairs.
Last year saw Mellor double its production capacity having expanded onto land next door to its Rochdale factory that it acquired in late 2017. The move has given the company an extra 15,000 sq ft of space as part of a £1m investment which has also resulted in the creation of additional office space.
Mellor isn’t the only company in the sector that is expanding. Allied Fleet has invested over £2m in a new production hall at its Glasgow plant allowing it to double minibus output.
Moving several hundred miles south, four-wheel-drive minibuses are unusual, but not entirely unknown.
Stanford Coachworks of Stanford-le-Hope, Essex has built two based on 4×4 Mercedes-Benz Sprinters for Treloar’s school and college in Holybourne, Alton, Hampshire. It caters for children and young people with severe disabilities.
Treloar’s wanted 4x4s so that it can pick up staff members from home and transport pupils to hospital whatever the weather. Both 16-seaters, and equipped with power sockets and Wi-Fi so that pupils and staff can make full use of their laptops and tablets, the Sprinters can be reconfigured internally to take four people in wheelchairs and five seated passengers.
Treloar’s has also recently acquired Stanford’s 16-seater Daily minibus demonstrator.
Last August saw the body builder obtain Ford QVM – Qualified Vehicle Modifier – accreditation.
Minibus builders are always eager to exploit every available opportunity, and 2018 saw Newton Abbot, Devon’s GM Coachwork launch a front passenger entrance conversion for Transit 17-seaters.
It involves fitting three access steps, a high-visibility handrail, a new floor covering for the entrance area and relocating the front passenger seat further back in the saloon. The nearside sliding passenger door is permanently sealed.
It should appeal to operators who want to replace what may be rather-elderly front-entrance old-style LDV minibuses.
GM Coachwork has recently received Lex Autolease’s Specialist Convertor of the Year award.
A number of minibus producers – Allied Vehicles among them – also produce welfare or mess vans for use by crews on construction sites who may otherwise have no access to toilet and washing facilities or the ability to cook a meal.
Also built by companies such as O&H, Bri-Stor, Clarks Vehicle Conversions and Cartwright Conversions, they are typically based on 3.5-tonners.
As well as a toilet and wash basin, a mess van will feature a table and seats so that the crew can sit down and eat a meal, and a sink with hot and cold running water. A microwave oven will be fitted, hopefully along with a fridge, there will be somewhere where wet clothes can be hung up to dry – the vehicle will be heated – and a first-aid kit will be provided.
Other features are likely to include non-slip flooring, ply lining panels with a wipe-clean finish, interior lighting, nearside and offside rear windows, roof ventilation, auxiliary power sockets and crash-tested rear seats.
Clarks is one of Vauxhall’s approved convertors and produces a mess van based on Movano.
Interest in such vehicles remains healthy. Cartwright has recently obtained planning permission to build a new conversions centre on a 26-acre site in Belton, Lincolnshire which should provide jobs for 250 people in 18 months’ time.
The facilities provided by even the most basic mess van are far better than the conditions many site workers had to endure up until relatively recent times. Employers are obliged to provide such vehicles because they have a duty of care towards their employees; and that duty has to be discharged.