Astromega: Still at the double-decker forefront

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Van Hool’s iconic Astromega has been part of the double-decker coaching landscape for a long time, but one Lancashire-based operator found it to be the ideal product to drive expansion into new markets

Perhaps more so than any other new coach on the market, buying a Van Hool Astromega makes a statement. It’s the flagship of the Belgian manufacturer’s premium range, and any operator that has one could be said to have ‘made it’.

Tyrers Coaches of Chorley joined the Astromega owners’ club earlier in 2018. It represents a new venture for the operator. Tyrers did not formerly have a double-decker coach in its 100-strong fleet, and the Van Hool was purchased to drive further business growth.

“We saw a gap in the market and things are going well. We have lots of double-decker buses, but we identified a niche for a high-capacity coach. In particular, there is a lot of work for school groups and other parties,” says Director Richard Buckle.

Tyrers planned for the future with the Astromega. It is PSVAR-compliant, leaving the door open for use on more mundane duties later in life, and it has already proved useful on rail replacement.

The operator went for the shorter 13.25m TDX25 model for manoeuvrability purposes. “It’s not just a motorway coach,” says Richard. “It needs to be able to handle town work. I’m not confident that would be so easy with the 14.10m TDX27.” 81 passengers can be carried on Tyrers’ Astromega, and it comes complete with a large ski box. A trailer is also available if needed.

For a coach that is intended to open new doors for Tyrers, the Astromega – supplied by Moseley (PCV) – rapidly found itself busy. Immediately before departing on back-to-back tours, Richard kindly made it available for a routeone Test Drive.

Build

Through their limited height, which is restricted to 4m on the European mainland, double-decker coaches are naturally a compromise of sorts. But that gives manufacturers encouragement to make the best use of space, and while the Astromega is certainly not the newest model on the market, Van Hool has done an excellent job of utilising every square inch.

Twin passenger doors are fitted, while the luggage bay has its own walk-in entrance on the nearside. There, a small set of drop-down steps aids access. A crew compartment is ahead of the luggage area, but it has a lifting bulkhead that allows an extension of the latter. A wheelchair ramp for use at the centre door has a storage space here, too.

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Large ski box also swings aside when needed to give access to the engine

Various hatches are present around the coach, behind which are filling points for AdBlue, diesel, screenwash and fresh water. It will be important that drivers know exactly which one is for what. Notably, the washer bottle is huge and it cleans both windscreens.

Power is from a DAF MX-13 engine rated at 460bhp driving through a ZF AS-Tronic gearbox. Tyrers examined the Allison automatic option, but it was felt that an automated manual would deliver optimum fuel economy.

Passenger access

Access to double-deckers is a double-edged sword. Reaching the lower deck is simple thanks to a lack of steps, but negotiating the twin staircases to the upper deck can sometimes be tricky.

In the Astromega’s lower saloon, two seats are immediately behind the driver and opposite the front staircase. Immediately behind, over the front wheels, is a small kitchen and various storage areas.

As a result, these seats are usually reserved for the crew (although a courier seat is fitted), but they are used for carrying passengers when the full capacity is needed. The remainder of the lower deck has 18 seats and there are a further 61 upstairs.

On the nearside immediately ahead of the centre door, a section of pedestal with two seat pairs on it can be removed to create space for a wheelchair user. Van Hool can incorporate sufficient space for two wheelchairs, but Tyrers has specified an underfloor spare wheel amidships that mandates against that.

Both staircases are as easy to use as will be found on a double-decker. Headroom is naturally constrained in both saloons, but moving around is straightforward. Upstairs, the gangway lowers around the centre staircase.

Passenger comfort

Kiel 1020 seats are fitted and wood-effect flooring is throughout. All passengers have USB charging points and white interior lighting is universal.

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Coach has 81 Kiel 1020 seats: 61 upstairs (pictured), and 20 downstairs

That’s the standard fittings out of the way. To complement them, the Astromega has many less-usual creature comforts.

On the lower deck are two tables at the front, with additional lighting above both. To provide for the four passengers travelling backwards, an additional front-facing screen is fitted towards the rear; like the others, it is connected to a Bosch Professional Line system.

Notably lacking downstairs are luggage racks, which Tyrers deleted, but passenger service units are within the ceiling.

The kitchen includes a fridge, cupboards, and hot and cold water. At the rear is a freshwater toilet.

Upstairs, much thought has gone into creating a pleasant travelling environment. Small luggage racks are fitted, while twin 240v sockets are at the top of the centre staircase for use with a hoover.

Legroom is good in the upper saloon, although it varies somewhat between rows. The prime positions at the front are well-equipped, and passengers there benefit from a windscreen demister, wipers, manual sun blinds and drop-down tables. Also present is a microphone socket, enabling the courier to travel on the upper deck if required.

Twin glazed roof hatches are fitted along with three monitors. The only noise of note is from the air-conditioning. Dual upper deck climate control zones complement the single lower deck area.

Driver comfort

As would be expected, the driver gets a top-specification Isringhausen seat with an inbuilt microphone. A one-piece electric sunblind is fitted, and both the péage and signalling windows are powered.

Various storage pockets are located around the cab and the driver also has a USB charging point. The handbrake is well-sited and there is an excellent amount of space around both of the driver’s feet.

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In the cab, room around pedals is good, noise low and visibility excellent

One fitting on Tyrers’ Astromega will be particularly welcome. It has a 360-degree bird’s eye camera system, which gives a good all-round view via a dash monitor.

Noise in the cab is minimal. Although the driver sits low down compared to a single-decker, aural intrusion from both the tyres and the engine is negligible. Additionally, the gullwing mirrors generate no wind noise; they do, however, give a very good view.

A ferry lift is fitted, along with an air dump function on the tag axle for traction purposes. A control for the discreet Mobitec destination display equipment is low down to the driver’s left.

Performance

460bhp is not the maximum rating for the MX-13 engine, but it is nevertheless sufficient power for a coach with a gross weight of 26,000kg.

315/80 R22.5 tyres are fitted, and they give excellent roadholding. Double-deckers are often prone to sidewinds, but on a route that took in the M61, M60, M66 and M65 motorways they were felt no more frequently than would be expected in a single-decker.

The steering rear axle gives excellent manoeuvrability, and the standard-fit reversing camera is useful. Visibility from the cab is superb, and narrow A-pillars benefit in that regard. The mirror layout is also good.

A double-decker coach is likely to spend a significant part of its time abroad. The Astromega’s regular driver, Graeme Hall, reports that it is easily handled under such conditions, and a recent trip to Paris bore that out. He also comments favourably on its ability to access awkward areas.

When accelerating, the coach has a ‘heavy’ feel. The AS-Tronic block shifts, taking engine speeds to 2,000rpm on occasion, but the MX-13 also pulls well from half that.

When climbing away from a roundabout on the A56 dual-carriageway, the Astromega – in the right-hand lane – comfortably left a lorry behind, and later when joining the M65 on an uphill slip road it also displayed excellent road manners along with ample power to reach cruising speed.

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Visual impact of Astromega in Tyrers’ livery cannot be underestimated

When the kickdown switch is used, upshifts are completed more rapidly than under normal conditions. That comes at a price; change quality is not perfect. But the gearbox works well enough and it will be interesting to see how ZF’s Traxon performs in an Astromega.

At the 62mph limited speed, the engine is turning at 1,200rpm. The coach comes with a powerful Intarder 3 auxiliary brake, which can slow it to walking pace on an exit slip with no issue.

Verdict

Retail purchasers of the Astromega are members of an exclusive club. The design has been around for a long time, but on this showing it has matured rather like a fine wine. The passenger environment is good, drivers still rate it, and the scope for custom-built examples is wide.

But this is not a coach that can be turned out at the drop of a hat. “I don’t want all of the work that is available for double-deckers. I will leave the Astromega in the yard rather than send it out for a poor rate,” says Richard.

“I’ve always thought that it’s the work that you don’t do that makes you money. But that said, the Van Hool has already generated new income streams and it has caught many people’s eyes. For a new venture, it has done well so far.”

The double-decker coach market is congested, and Tyrers will have much to consider should it be in the market for another next year, which Richard suggests may be the case. That generous coverage puts the ball firmly in the buyer’s court. Potential for a highly-individual build coupled to a strong base specification is the name of the game, and with the Astromega, both of those come as standard.

The Astromega is the double-decker coach market’s elder statesman, but for good reason. As a product, it’s as compelling as ever.

Facts and figures

  • Retail price: From £436,000
  • Engine: 12.9-litre, six-cylinder DAF MX-13
  • Power: 340kW (460bhp) @1,425-1,750rpm
  • Torque: 2,300Nm @1,000-1.425rpm
  • Emissions: Euro 6 using EGR and SCR
  • Tyres: 315/80 R22.5
  • Fuel economy: 9.0mpg (expected figure)
  • Acceleration 0-30mph: 10.9sec; 0-50mph: 27.0sec
  • Noise lower deck front: 59dBa; lower deck rear: 61dBa; upper deck rear: 61dBa
  • Length: 13.25m
  • Height: 4.00m
  • Width: 2.55m
  • Wheelbase (axles 1-2): 6.16m
  • Gross weight: 26,000kg
  • Unladen weight: TBC