The very first Transport for New South Wales Panel 3-compliant buses will take to the road this year. They will be operated not by a multinational transport business, but by Dion’s Bus Service, a family-owned company based in the Wollongong suburb of Fairy Meadow.
Panel 3 of course, refers to Transport for New South Wales’ new procurement arrangement as part of which all new buses travelling in New South Wales must meet passenger safety improvement measures, including stringent new fire mitigation specifications.
The two low-floor route buses, incorporating Volgren Optimus bodies on Volvo BR8 chassis, will replace vehicles coming to the end of their life, and Dion’s Managing Director, Les Dion, says that will make a significant difference to passengers.
“The two new buses will go into service in late November, replacing two older buses approaching their maximum contract bus age of 25 years.”
“Being low floor accessible buses we will be able to better accommodate wheelchairs and prams as well as our elderly customers. By replacing two standard buses with accessible buses, we are now in a position to be able to provide 100% accessible buses to all of our scheduled passenger services,” said Les.
Dion’s, which was established in 1923, is the oldest bus operator in the Illawarra. Having served their customers through World Wars and depressions, Dion’s fleet has transformed greatly during that time and now.
“In early days you would use your resources to maintain your fleet and even add gas producing charcoal burners to keep the buses going when fuel was scarce during the second World War.”
There was even a period where Dions would rebody their own buses in order to keep costs down. When they could no longer do this, Dions would revert to buying second-hand buses. In 1989, Dion’s purchased their first new bus in 40 years.
Les said their first Volgren entered the fleet in 1998 and that was the first time they saw a reliable bus body.
“This bus shared the same chassis as three previous buses with a different bus body. All three of them gave us grief and the common denominator was the bus body in this instance,” Les said.
“It is important that the bus body and chassis complement each other and we have seen many instances where that was not the case and what that equated to is time off the road and expensive repairs.”
“Unnecessary ongoing maintenance over the life of the bus does not go down well, especially when you know that you will be stuck with the bus for some 25 years,” Les said.
Les points out that the engagement with Volgren has enabled him to address minute details such as positioning of the Consat Screen and other control switches and devices affecting the driver.
“Previously, it was a bit of a lottery with where some of the controls and switches would end up. With the demand of Panel 3, there were some limitations on product patterns such as seating. Instead of simply progressing with the most convenient style, Volgren made certain that we understood the limitations and were still happy with the colour scheme that was provided.”
Today, the vast majority of Dion’s fleet comprises Volvo buses and about 80 percent have Volgren bodies. Les says his company has confidence that the Panel 3 version of the Volgren/Volvo combination will perform well; and in great part that confidence comes down to the engagement.
“Working with Volgren on Panel 3 is a totally different procurement process [to what has occurred before]. And because there’s a lot more required of manufactures there’s been a lot more engagement in terms of what’s going in the bus, where it should be positioned, what it’s going to look like…”
Volgren’s Sales and Marketing Manager, Yuri Tessari, says achieving Panel 3 compliance is a key milestone for the company and the result of strong cooperation and engagement with manufacturers, chassis OEMs, operators and government.
“These vehicles are the end of a 12-month process working closely with Volvo and Transport for New South Wales. There’s been a great deal of company-wide collaboration – design, manufacturing engineering, sales – everyone’s been invested in making sure the vehicles exceed expectations.
“The process took a huge amount of work researching new fire-retardant materials to bring them up to a Crib 7 standard. [We worked] with existing and new suppliers to meet the Panel 3 requirements, [including] new standards in fire suppression materials – plastics, seat vinyl, flooring, a new fire extinguisher system for the engine bay…”
Yuri says the result is an updated version of their constantly improving flagship Optimus now incorporating the most rigorous fire-safety specifications a Volgren bus has ever possessed. And four more will come to the south coast of New South Wales very soon. Volgren’s next Panel 3 order is from Premier Illawarra, and these buses will be built on MAN chassis.
As for Dion’s, the new buses will go into service in mid-November across scheduled city services and school runs, and Les says he’s found himself wondering at how far the company has come in almost a century.
“It’s just a massive leap in terms of the standard of buses we are getting now and it lends itself to a great customer experience.
“When you step into a bus you want to feel relaxed and comfortable and enjoy the journey. This chassis and body [combination] lends itself to that. The chassis and body – and relationship we have with the manufacturers – tick all the boxes for us.”