For a number of years, operators looking for an ultra-high capacity bus have been limited to second-hand vehicles that become available increasingly rarely. Ensignbus is aiming to change that with its Chinese-assembled, 98-seat Enterprise tri-axle, as Tim Deakin reports
Breaking from the norm and ploughing your own unique furrow in an already competitive market for new double-decker buses is a big decision, but that’s what Purfleet-based dealer and operator Ensignbus has done by importing five high-specification, completely bespoke tri-axles.
Marketed as the Ensign Enterprise, the PSVAR-compliant, air-conditioned buses are 12.5m long and significant additions to the UK marketplace. They are built by Australian manufacturer BCI at its Chinese assembly plant and shipped complete.
Moreover, the Enterprise’s 98 seats mean that three classes of school children can be carried at once, and Ensign is confident that it will sell the model in reasonable numbers.
All of BCI’s double-deckers are produced at its Xiamen assembly plant and any concerns around build quality are misplaced, says the manufacturer.
The facility builds for export only and has extensive experience with the Australasian market, and thus BCI’s buses are designed to Western standards from the ground up.
A new dimension
“We know that some operators need very high-capacity vehicles, and while we’re not planning to move hundreds of Enterprises, I expect us to sell a reasonable number,” says Ensignbus Chairman Peter Newman of a bus that was first built for the New Zealand market.
To Ensign’s specification, the imposing Enterprise is much a hybrid of a coach and a bus, and it targets a niche in the market that the Essex business has exploited before in its dealer capacity.
In the past Ensign capitalised on the demand for high capacity by reimporting a large number of mid-life tri-axle double-deckers from Hong Kong. It carried out the work necessary for them to satisfy UK regulations and many are still in service.
A repeat of that venture is not on the agenda for numerous reasons, but in some ways, the Enterprise is a continuation of that earlier business. In others it definitely is not, and as Ensign begins to offer the model to operators large and small, Engineering Director Brian Longley is at pains to explain that, like the five already here, further examples can be built exactly as the buyer wishes.
“The first are very much to our specification. We were looking for a bus with 98 comfortable seats that is suitable for private hire and rail replacement work. That is what we have got, but BCI can meet almost any other requirement.
“It is a highly accommodating builder and no request is resisted if it is technically achievable. For example, we asked for a curved staircase rather than a straight one, and it moved the front axle forwards by around 100mm to accommodate that.
“It also increased the height of the bus to meet our needs. Almost anything can be done and nothing is too much trouble.”
A good start
Ensign has made an excellent start with its initial batch of Enterprises. Four will join its own fleet (and be made available for demonstration as required), while the fifth has already been sold to Liverpool operator Aintree Coachline, where it will enter service in September.
Examination of the Enterprise, and a ride on it, shows that to Ensign’s specification, it is well able to handle some tasks that were previously the sole domain of coaches and beyond other double-decker buses on the market.
All of its forward-facing, high-backed seats have three-point belts, and the Thermo King air-conditioning unit – mounted atop the engine – vents above the windows on both decks, maintaining a comfortable saloon temperature.
Additionally, the Enterprise is also capable of sustained motorway cruising at a limited 62mph, making it a useful proposition for high capacity, short- to medium-distance private hire work. Its competence at speed is not surprising. Power comes from an 8.9-litre Euro 6 Cummins ISL engine that develops 380bhp and drives through a ZF EcoLife gearbox.
Mr Longley confirms that both Allison and Voith transmission alternatives are available, while the longitudinally-mounted engine can even be rotated to sit transversely if the buyer wishes, although doing so adds around £4,000 to the purchase price and the necessary angle drive will impose a slight fuel consumption penalty.
Unladen weight of the Enterprise to Ensign’s specification is 16,285kg and GVW is 24,000kg. It rides on 315/80 tyres all round; this is made necessary by the substantial 8,500kg front axle rating, which banishes any worries of overloading it. The third axle steers, aiding manoeuvrability.
The list is almost endless…
Ensign is not marketing the Enterprise as a cheap alternative to European double-deckers, and Mr Newman explains that it has not been brought to the UK simply as a cost-effective solution to the operator’s own needs.
“We are not importing the Enterprise to save ourselves money. The model is not merely built to a price; instead, it is manufactured to European standards and to a high overall quality.
“The difference between BCI and some other manufacturers is that it will build exactly what the buyer wants. On our rail replacement work, the driver can be with the bus for 12 hours or more, so the cab has been designed with that in mind, with a lockable compartment, charging point for a phone and a lot of room behind the seat,” he says.
The depth of options available from BCI means that a much simpler version of the Enterprise can be built if required.
Over 100 seats are possible if PSVAR compliance is sacrificed, while air-conditioning can also be deleted and simpler seats fitted. Racks or a partitioned area at the rear for luggage are also among possibilities for future vehicles.
And coming next
BCI manufactures 52 different coaches and buses, and while Mr Newman says that Ensign has no interest in bringing its coach products to the UK, he has confirmed that 12 two-axle double-decker buses will arrive before the end of 2016.
The smaller buses will be 10.8m long, and like their big brother the Enterprise, they have come about as a result of Ensign’s inability to find exactly what it wanted on the domestic market.
“We required 80 seats in a 10.8m bus, and that is not something that we could find here,” says Mr Newman. “We can’t go any longer because of access issues on a number of housing estates that we serve, but nobody was able to build a bus to our requirements until we asked BCI.”
10 of the two-axles will enter Ensign’s own fleet and the other two will be available for sale.
Reflecting their intended use on stage carriage work they will have Cummins ISB6.7 engines – like the Enterprise, mounted either longitudinally or transversely – and Mr Longley confirms that the Enterprise’s three gearbox options will also be offered.
Also set to be part of the line-up in time is Vantage Power’s cost-effective hybrid propulsion package.
Mr Newman confirms that discussions between BCI, Ensign and Vantage are at an early stage, but an announcement of its availability is likely soon. With the potential for 4km of engine-off operation (see p36-37), that will be a tempting proposition – and even more so in a bus that, like the Enterprise, will be built exactly how that buyer wants.
Ensignbus has a long reputation of not doing things by halves, and right from the business’ beginning in the 1970s it has maintained a track record of identifying opportunities that prove commercially successful while also satisfying a niche in the market.
At this early stage, there is little reason to doubt that its venture with BCI will be any different. Ensign has not rushed into the Enterprise project, is not setting sales targets, and does not have a yard full of stock examples that it needs to sell.
Never will the Enterprise be a model that finds employment with all operators, but if you have the work to justify it, BCI will happily build one to your exact specifications. And you can’t ask for more than that.