11 June 2009

Updating the Tube

While TfL has been refurbishing its Undeground network over the past few years, with the disastrous Metronet debacle and the effective collapse of the Public-Private Partnership scheme, spearheaded personally by our now prime minister, the Oxford Tube 24/7 coach service is seeing a completely new fleet of coaches worth £9 million for complete operation by the end of the summer.

What's probably one of the bus industry's worst-kept secrets was finally let out of the bag officially on Monday, as Stagecoach finally announced that it had secured an order for 26 new double-deck coaches, to be built by Van Hool at their factory in Belgium.

An artist's impression of the new Van Hool integral Astromega in Tube livery

The Van Hool integral Astromega vehicles cost £350,000 each and are virtually identical to 'decker coaches Stagecoach's State-side Coach USA division has ordered for its Megabus routes. They feature 87 seats, two staircases, two toilets, reclining seats, air conditioning, 240V sockets and wireless Internet. The coaches are also fitted with GPS tracking and cctv.

The new Van Hool Astromega 'deckers replace the current fleet of Neoplan N122/3Ls with the integral Skyliner body that entered service during the summer of 2004. Prior to that, the first double-deck coaches to operate the Oxford Tube had MAN 24.350 chassis and Jonckheere bodies, which entered service in July 1999.

The double-deck option is something that the Tube's competitor, City of Oxford Motor Service's Espress X90, has chosen not to follow. The X90 does not offer a 24/7 service every night and operates to a slightly lesser maximum frequency; the latter is broadly inconsequential since the Tube's claim of "coaches up to every 10 mins" is actually the gap between two specific coach departures in either direction on Saturday mornings. The Tube does offer an hourly through-the-night frequency, every night, unlike the X90. All possible fare and fare types are idential between the two services.

The X90 took the lead with 240V sockets back in 2005, with Stagecoach hurriedly adding them to its Neoplan Skyliners, hence why they look rather obvious and do not sit flush with the interior trim. The X90's cctv actually audio sound as well as visual.

While the interiors of the existing fleet haven't 'had it' they could do with refreshing

With regards to specification of the new Astromega 'deckers, they feature DAF EEV (Enhanced Environmental Vehicles) engines that actually go beyond the Euro 5 engine rating that comes into force at the end of the year. They have (and now we quote directly) "a Selective Catalytic Reduction (SRC) system that uses a constant feed of urea solution to destroy the harmful Nox, delivering a more efficient operation of the engine, reduced diesel consumption and lower running costs". We'd be interested to know the predicted mpg of one of these vehicles.

Covering 3.4 million miles annually, the existing fleet of Neoplan 'deckers is looking a little worn; exterior body panels are not given the same attention they once were, windows that have contravision adverts on them that have subsequently been replaced no longer have their relevant section of advert on them, making the rear-ends look very odd, the interior trim is very faded in places and the 240V sockets do not always work.

The rear of this Skyliner shows the lack of attention to detail - the chap plastered to the rear, saying how he doesn't miss his Lexus, has no feet!

The Tube is reportedly the most frequency coach service in Europe and Stagecoach naturally want to ensure the prestigiousness that comes with operating such a route is maintained and hence have chosen to spend around a third of a million pounds on each vehicle. They will continue to conform to legislation and accept 1 wheelchair user on board.

We look forward to travelling on them very soon! (GL)