Son of Routemaster appears Wright on cue

Boris Johnson’s challenge to extend the New Routemaster’s passenger-friendly design aspects to more of the capital’s bus fleet has seen Wrightbus come up with the SRM. It’s a NRM ‘lite’, built on established Volvo B5LH hybrid chassis. Tim Deakin reports from the launch at the London Transport Museum

Political pressure to take the New Routemaster’s (NRM) best bits and cost-effectively engineer them into a bus that retains the NRM’s visual appeal yet is also suited to life outside the capital saw its second result last week when Wrightbus launched the SRM. In many ways, it’s an NRM ‘lite’.

Wrightbus SRM shares much with New Routemaster and also with existing models
Wrightbus SRM shares much with New Routemaster – and existing models

Unlike the bespoke NRM, the 10.6m, 66-seat SRM, with its big brother’s distinctive front aspect, glazed staircase and rounded design, is built on the widely-used Volvo B5LH chassis. It has a 5.1-litre D5K engine driving through a parallel hybrid system that incorporates batteries, an electric motor and an I-Shift automated manual gearbox.

“The Volvo chassis is exactly the same as the one we have bodied many hundreds of times already,” says Wrightbus MD – Sales and Customcare Ian Downie.

“We have matched a very successful underframe with our own iconic New Routemaster body, but in doing so we have minimised the number of new parts required, so that aftermarket support can be optimised.”

Visually, the SRM is largely an amalgam of the NRM and Wrightbus’ Gemini 3 double-deck body. At the front, barring Volvo-branded mud flaps, there is no obvious difference between the SRM and NRM; behind the centre door, the SRM is another beast entirely.

These differences, hopes Wrightbus, is what will deliver an appeal to London operators that, despite all its plus points, the NRM lacks.

Gone are the NRM’s second staircase and third door, and instead the rear section of the SRM has much in common with the Gemini 3. It is here where most of the 24 components not already used on either the Gemini 3 or the NRM lie.

Both Ian and Transport for London Managing Director Surface Transport Leon Daniels explain that the SRM has been born from a challenge from outgoing Mayor of London Boris Johnson.

Issued to all the major manufacturers, it calls for them to produce a next-generation bus that retains the NRM’s passenger-pleasing aspects, and the SRM will – like the similarly-conceived Alexander Dennis (ADL) Enviro400 City – be available to operators throughout the country in both two- and one-door form.

“We believe that the SRM has relevance outside London, and we are already talking to interested parties,” says Ian. “One of the many benefits of the SRM body is that it is suited to more than one platform, and we expect to make more announcements about that in due course.”

Tomorrow the world?

Wrightbus is already openly talking about mounting the SRM on its longitudinally-engined StreetDeck chassis, which hitherto has exclusively carried the Gemini 3 body.

Rear aspect is partial amalgam of New Routemaster and Gemini 3
Rear aspect is partial amalgam of New Routemaster and Gemini 3

That opens the door to a zero-emission SRM. In clarifying Wrightbus’ plans for an electric StreetDeck (routeONE, News, 7 October 2015), Ian confirmed that three electric variants of the StreetDeck – including a ‘fast charging’ model – are planned. It is understood that the first may debut this year.

Wrightbus also does not rule out building the SRM body on Volvo’s diesel B5TL underframe, and an 11.3m variant could be offered if required.

There is also early talk of an export variant in time, should interest be received. As-yet undisclosed developments from Volvo will also be accommodated as part of the SRM in the future.

The first order received for the SRM is for six from RATPDev London as part of a 56-bus contract signed with Wrightbus; the remainder are Gemini 3-bodied B5LHs.

Three SRMs are already completed, and the six will enter service later in the year on London Sovereign service 13 between Golders Green and Aldwych. Total passenger capacity is not yet finalised. Ian explains that there may be a “very small penalty” over a comparable Gemini 3-bodied B5LH, although Transport for London’s requirement of 87 will be met.

Think of the future

It is very early to be talking about the second lives of buses that are yet to enter service, but – like Optare with its Metrodecker – Wrightbus has taken into account at the design stage the need to cascade buses elsewhere.

Interior is fitted out in exactly the same manner as New Routemaster
Interior is fitted out in exactly the same manner as New Routemaster

Leon explains that TfL’s preference is for operators to buy vehicles, and so all SRMs will be operator-owned. TfL does not plan to repeat the NRM arrangement, where it purchases them and leases them to operators, in the future, although he adds that such a set-up was economically necessary for the NRM.

“In general we would like the bus fleet to be owned by the private sector, and now is a really important time to arrive in the market with a spectacular new model,” he says.

Both Leon and the Mayor accept that a second life for the NRM outside the capital is unlikely, and that was one of the key considerations when challenging manufacturers to come up with a bus that harvests its best features but gives more later-life flexibility.

As a consequence, Wrightbus has designed a kit to make removal of the centre door easy, making the bus suitable for later use elsewhere.

What now for the New RM?

Where development of both the SRM and ADL’s Enviro400 City – along with any other products from manufacturers that take up the Mayor’s challenge – leaves the NRM after delivery of the recently-announced order for 195 is unclear. Telling is a comment from Leon, however, that key to the laid-down task is designing and delivering a bus that “succeeds the NRM.”

Where the New Routemaster goes after delivery of 1,000th bus is unclear
Where the New Routemaster goes after delivery of 1,000th bus is unclear

Commentary on the cost difference between the two Wrightbus models is being studiously avoided, short of Wrights Group Chairman and CEO Mark Nodder commenting that the SRM will be competitively priced – and if it is to compete in a market that is becoming rather congested, that’s vital.

TfL is also careful to avoid mentioning that the Mayor’s challenge includes an element of reducing buses’ acquisition cost while retaining the NRM’s pluses, but there is heavy suggestion that NRM ‘lites’ such as the SRM and Enviro400 City may supersede the original in buying policy once all NRMs are delivered.

Leon describes both the SRM and Enviro400 City as “next generation” buses. He adds that they are expected to move both air quality and fuel consumption on further, an important consideration and one key to the current Mayoral race.

The NRM’s passenger accommodation consistently receives the highest approval ratings from passengers, he says.

That’s one of the reasons for the condition that some of its interior design is incorporated into ‘next gen’ double-deckers, but it does not answer the question why TfL has not yet elected to continue the NRM programme beyond the recently-placed order for 195.

Regardless of this, there will be substantial orders for manufacturers to compete for in London, and it is understood that one existing lower-cost double-deck option has already found significant favour. Over the next two financial years 700 new double-deckers are required, and there is the possibility that ADL and Wrightbus may not be the only builders to take up the Mayor’s challenge.

The political landscape in the capital is also uncertain, and TfL is likely to be expected to reduce costs further once the new Mayor is elected in May.

Both Wrightbus and ADL have boxed clever. By declaring from the start that provincial-spec variants of their new models will be available, political machinations in the capital have the potential to benefit operators outside it.