Monday, 14 January 2013

Adventures in Doubledecking

"So, how are these things to drive?"

Easily the most asked question a double-decker driver hears on a daily basis.

Meet Alexander Dennis.

The UK based manufacturer of the Enviro500 double deck buses likely never thought their buses would be fighting this kind of winter, and only time will tell if the brand will stand the test of time.

First off, I love driving these buses. I like the novelty of it. I like the feel of it. And, once the off-gassing of newly cured paints, plastics, and upholstery products subsides, maybe I'll even enjoy the experience of it. "New car smell" is horrible after an hour or two. "New bus smell" is downright nauseating.

The driving experience itself is unique to the fleet. The bus is equipped with a Cummins ISL9, a, 8.9L turbo diesel that puts out 300hp and roughly 1100ft/lb of torque. It'll do 0-60 in 15 minutes, unless you're doing the #14 route, as the bus is slowed down greatly by old tree growth. (You didn't really think I'd take bus stats seriously, did you?)

I have driven both models of double decks, the older taller version and this new fleet. Performance wise, no difference.

Winter handling is pretty good, with two biting axles to provide traction in deep snow. Steering is good right up until you brake, as it is with any large vehicle.

From the seat however, I have a few opinions.

The bus has been spec'd with a giant Recarro seat with full armrests that you cannot move without pinching your fingers, as the driver's compartment has a tub-style door that interferes with the movement of any part of the seat itself. It's as if Alexander Dennis engineering department designed the driver's compartment with The Shire in mind. I'm a pretty lean guy, and I still found it a little difficult to unlock the tub door to get in and out. It's very Jenga-esque in there. It took me longer than it should to adjust things, settle in, and get going.

Finally tucked into my compartment and on my way to Hobbiton, I began driving. I muddled my way through what I remembered of my training, and set out to decipher the symbols that represent functions on the bus's control panel. Like many UK companies, A.D. loves the so called "Universal" symbols. These ones aren't as bad as the old Icarus buses, with their ancient Germanic hieroglyphics and complex calculus function codes, but they are... well, annoying. Alexander Dennis is from England, and hey! I'm English. Why not put A/C instead of a snowflake symbol. Any why put a snowflake symbol if what you actually meant was Climate Control. We have winter. I want to turn the Snowflake off, not on.

Climate control is completely out of the driver's hands, by the way. The Computer whom I've named ADHAL (and you can pronounce that @#$%!) controls the heat level of the bus. A few days ago, the outside temperature was a balmy -16C.  Heat rises, so the people coming down the stairs complained to me that the bus is too hot. ADHAL likes it cool, so the people downstairs complained that the bus is too cool. I pushed the snowflake up, then down, then back up. Nothing. ADHAL was in charge.

After trudging through the snow to get into the bus, shaking off the icicles from my hat and shoulders, I found myself cursing the fact that the bus is not equipped with any kind of driver compartment (or even just a basic coat hook) to place winter gear once you start driving. I found myself draping my winter coat over the back of the driver's seat. Melting ice became water, and before long I found myself with wet shoulders.

ADHAL helped me figure out why there is no hook for my jacket.

After 10 minutes, there was still only a lukewarm breeze emanating from the driver's heat vent. I turned every control to its highest setting, and still no real heat. Just the lukewarm breath of  ADHAL, and his off-gassing plastics, apparently burping out whatever leftover heat remained from passing his antifreeze through every other heat dissipating radiator in the bus.

I put my jacket back on. And my gloves. And lit a fire in the garbage bin. Okay, I made that last one up.

The driver's compartment is very cold in any kind of extreme temperature. Windows ice up. Feet ice up.

The actual driving (other than temperatures) is pretty decent. I don't feel like I'm going to tip over around corners. As a matter of fact, the computer controlled suspension is pretty awesome. It hugs the road. Bumps are easily handled unless you are braking. I love the fact that the engine retarder can be activated with a light  tap on the brake pedal, light enough in fact that the actual service brake doesn't engage. Properly mastered, I can bring the bus to an almost complete stop without using the service brakes. (Smooth like Buttah!)

Wind is an issue, the bus does tend to wander on the Fallowfield transitway. It's nothing unmanageable, but I could see a driver getting a little spooked by it if they weren't expecting it. And, judging by the number of people who have mentioned to me that The Other Driver is so freaking slow, I'm guessing more than a few drivers get spooked.

Some drivers have complained that the smaller radius steering wheel to too tough to turn. I don't find this to be an issue myself. The whole reason buses came with larger radius steering wheels is because buses used to be equipped with Armstrong Steering. (No power steering, for you rookies out there) These buses steer well enough to be almost car-like.

The service side of things is very predictable.

The double deckers have many seats, and that is awesome. People really seem to like that aspect of the vehicle, but you cannot stand upstairs unless you are under 5ft tall. I watch you folks in the camera, head down, knees bent... then THWACK! Getting up is harder than it looks and our memories are short! Funny how Zamboni drivers have to wear helmets to clean the ice for 10 year old figure skaters who don't wear helmets. The city should reallocate those helmets to tall bus riders.

Kids love the double deckers, too. Hard not to feel like a rockstar when I pull up to a stop with a couple of young ones waiting there. It'd be nice if there was a place to store a stroller while mum and dad take the kids upstairs though. Being a kid stuck on the bottom floor of a double decker is like putting a swing in the backyard of Disney World. "Yeah, we went, but we just rode the swing out back and watched the rides."

From a "Keeping the schedule" standpoint, these buses take a longer time to load that the 60 footers do. Fewer doors make for longer loading, and people have to walk up a flight of stairs to get to their seats, and then walk down a flight of stairs to get off the bus. This takes more time than a conventional bus. Hundreds of U of O students test this theory on a daily basis as they board at MacKenzie King station, go upstairs, ring the bell, and get off the bus two stops later on Campus. (I could swear I hear them saying Wheeeeeeeee! in their minds)

I remember shaking my head a few years back when the suggestion was made that the lesser road footage of the bus would ease gridlock, because the buses take less room than 60 foot buses. That's a shining example of book smarts beating street smarts to the buzzer with a wrong answer. More doors make for faster loading. Period. Want to speed up the core?  Take all service out of it, save for an East-West line that starts at Lebreton and ends at Hurdman. Load up your double deckers and 60 footers at those stations to head on their express routes. Without a 60 item menu of buses in the core, you'd be amazed at how fast everyone just grabs the first thing smoking and heads out of dodge.  No more deadheading across the core. No more multi-stopping buses trying to round up an indecisive herd of clients. No more browsing. Doors open, get on, move along. (precisely why light rail works so well, btw)

When the transitway shuts down, I hope we'll see this kind of shift in thinking and that we can use these double deck buses in this kind of fashion. We will see them shine, used properly.

All in all, the buses are better than I expected on the service side of things. The ergonomics need a little tweaking, but I can see that once we master that, it'll be a jolly good time, and I look forward to seeing what ADHAL thinks a snowflake means in +30C.

Given that none of the windows open, I'm hoping it's literal.

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