Monday, 11 May 2015

Surprise in Somerset!

Whilst usually I'm glad to see the start of the bus rally season to get away from the day-to-day modern tat, today (Sunday 10th May) was most certainly exception! Following news that Volvo B5TL/Wright Gemini 3 demonstrator 36300 BF63HDC had arrived at Taunton depot for evaluation last week, I decided that I would pop along to the Vintage Bus Day. I say 'vintage', though most of the attention was on said new Gemini!

Previously I have found the Taunton event quite dull, so I didn't originally plan to go. However, this years event was made special by the opening of First Buses of Somerset's Taunton depot. The public had the opportunity to walk around photographing the vehicles that were in. Thankfully, it wasn't too busy making the walk around easy to photograph and an enjoyable experience. The staff at the depot were most welcoming, allowing us to go inside any vehicle and take photographs. It was a nice chance to photograph some recent additions to the BoS fleet. Here are a selection of pictures from the day below:

So, what about 36300? 

36300 outside of BoS depot
The lightweight, cheap and yet comfortable seats on board
First impressions - like most other Wright products I thought from the outside it was yet another smart, sleek and tidy creation however when I first stepped on board, the demonstrator Gemini 3 bodywork appeared very basic, and actually quite flimsy. The seats looked very thin and uncomfortable, a bit like the dreaded Urban 90 seats found on many cheap spec midibuses. I have previously travelled on Gemini 3 bodied B5LH's with both Metroline and Stagecoach in London, who have their own specification seats etc. 

Downstairs front-back view
I later had the opportunity to have a ride aboard BF63HDC 36300, which I happily took. I soon learnt that my initial impressions were completely wrong, and that the seats, although basic, were very comfortable. The rear seat was also five individual units, with a decent level of padding and comfort to them, making long journeys listening to the engine not too painful on the backside! The bodywork was very robust, and very light meaning reduced operating and fuel costs. Space aboard was more than adequate. Being a Volvo B5TL chassis underneath, the ride quality was impeccable as standard from a Volvo and the small but mighty Volvo D5K engine produced plenty of power, making the bus rather fast off of the mark! The engine was really quiet (unfortunately for me), but you could still make out a rather nice ZF whine in the background. 

The comfortable rear seats
I did have my doubts about a 4.5 litre engine in a double decker, especially as Volvo were downsizing from a 9-litre in the Volvo B9TL at euro 5 however the D5K has proved itself, or at least certainly around town. I've yet to sample the B5TL out on rural roads, but I would imagine it will cope fine. It certainly seems a lot better than what I've seen of the Wright Streetdeck integral on youtube, where the Voith gearbox does it no favours with the tiny Daimler OM934 engine, as used in Optare Solos and suchlike! 

This demonstrator vehicle had a couple of quite cool features; one of these being a double-blind front Mobitec destination display. It consists of a full size, full colour, display on the front, with a single line, full colour display underneath which allows for some very colorful and creative displays, as seen in the photos. The Mobitec was very easy to photograph too!

Looking down the stairs, with the nice
 glass walls.
The second cool thing on this example was the glass staircase, which is offered as an optional feature by Wrightbus on both the Gemini 3 and Streetdeck. It consists of several panes of glass going up the side of the bus where the staircase is. It not only looks nice from the outside, but dramatically improves the light inside and makes the staircase less dull and shut in.

Some people have complained about the shallow windows upstairs, which was done by Wrightbus in order to save weight. I personally don't think it's too bad, however it doesn't affect me as I never sit upstairs on buses, favouring the back seats downstairs to hear the engine. I did take a seat briefly upstairs and I had no problem with light or viability, though I guess those who are taller wouldn't share that view.
Upstairs view

Volvo's latest cab design
I later had the chance to sample the drivers cab of 36300 (with permission from the friendly and welcoming staff at Buses of Somerset), and whilst I'm not a driver (unfortunately), the cab was very comfortable with the latest, very nicely laid ,out dashboard which Volvo launched in the latter half of 2013. The driving position was nice and high up with everything in a sensible place.

36300 BF63HDC seems to be touring various parts of First group, starting out in Manchester. It then moved to Calderdale and Huddersfield before heading south. Who knows where it will end up in three weeks time when it finishes in Taunton...?

Overall, I think it is a fantastic vehicle and I'd like to see First invest in some of these for the South West. Would be great to see them favour Volvo over Alexander Dennis, or Wrightbus' integral products again.  I do prefer the Volvo B9TL/Gemini 2, as that for me, is an unbeatable example of a modern decker, however in line for euro6, engines have got smaller and weight has to be cut down, and the Volvo B5TL/Wright Gemini 3 demonstrates that can be done, whilst retaining style and power.

New versus old...