Are the days of the van-derived minibus numbered? They ought to be if travellers in wheelchairs are expected to use them argues DPTAC, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, which advises the government.
DPTAC dislikes them because they have relatively high floors and wheelchair-bound users usually have to enter and exit them via a passenger lift; a tail-lift for people rather than goods. It would prefer operators to acquire purpose-built low-floor small buses such as Optare's Alero instead that can be accessed by using a ramp.
“In this day and age it should be unacceptable for wheelchair users to require a lift just to board a bus,” says chairman, Neil Betteridge. It takes time, it can feel undignified, and no matter how many safety measures are built in, and how careful everybody is, there is always the slight worry that the wheelchair and its occupant will topple off.
Van-based minibuses have one key advantage over products like the Alero however. Because the vehicles they are based on are usually produced in large volumes, they are comparatively cheap; and organisations that operate accessible minibuses are often strapped for cash.
Companies such as Ford and Vauxhall have large service and parts networks, so aftersales support for vehicles such as the Transit and Movano minibuses — Vauxhall offers a Vivaro minibus too — is easy to call on.
Nor are low-floor minibuses suitable for all types of work. They can ground if they have to go up a rough farm track in a rural area to collect somebody with mobility problems, they can suffer damage from speed humps if the driver is careless and there is not always sufficient room to deploy a ramp, especially in narrow side streets. As a consequence low-floor vehicles sometimes have to be equipped with a lift as well, which somewhat defeats the object of the exercise.
A further problem is that wheelchairs — often electric these days — are getting heavier and manoeuvring them up a ramp isn't always the easiest of tasks, especially on a wet day. To cope with the rise in weight, passenger lifts are increasingly being built with a capacity of up to 350kg.
As if to underline the fact that a conventional high-floor chassis remains a viable option — if not always an ideal one — for people with disabilities, Irisbus, Iveco's passenger transport operation, has recently supplied a Daily 50C15 minibus to Age Concern in Wales. It runs five Healthy Living Centres in rural locations, with over 100 individuals attending every week.
Supplied through Brecon Coachworks, it's equipped with a flat floor from NMI, Cogent seats and an internally mounted Ricon passenger lift.
It's also been specified with an Agile automated gearbox; a sensible choice given that the, often fragile, people who travel in the vehicle appreciate a smooth, jerk-free ride.
Irisbus Iveco has also recently supplied a 17-seater minibus to the National Star College, based just outside Cheltenham. The college provides residential courses for students with physical disabilities or who have suffered a brain injury.
Based on a Daily 50C15, and the first Daily 17-seater the establishment has taken, it too was sourced through Brecon Coachworks and boasts Cogent seats and a flat floor. Quick-release seating means that it can be converted to carry up to five people in wheelchairs and it is equipped with a Ratcliff Palfinger lift.
Irisbus Iveco is hedging its bets, however, with the Daily-derived low-floor LoGo minibus still undergoing trials. Selling 400 to 500 minibuses a year in Britain, the manufacturer works closely with converters such as Bluebird, John Dennis Coachbuilders and Stanford Coachworks as well as Brecon Coachworks.
This year's Commercial Vehicle Show will see Ratcliff Palfinger exhibit a 350kg-capacity under-floor passenger lift with an 820mm-wide alloy plank platform. It's already making good progress with its C-Thru range, so-called because its platform is designed in such a way that drivers can still see what's happening behind them when it is stowed vertically.
C-Thru is now available with a platform 1,660mm deep and 800mm wide that can accommodate large specialist wheelchairs. The company has also introduced a compact lift with a platform 1,080mm deep and 740mm wide that's designed for smaller vehicles.
The fact that both the Daily minibuses referred to earlier are based on 5.2 tonne chassis highlights a trend that applies to both accessible and standard minibuses; the gross weights quoted for them are steadily rising.
That's because of the need to avoid both gross overloads and axle overloads.
Squeeze 17 beefy rugby players plus all their kit into a minibus plated at 3.5 tonnes and you would undoubtedly be overweight. Some 3.5-tonners, especially those with heavy chassis, contain as few as 11 seats as a consequence.
Another key trend is a huge improvement in specifications, with safety very much in mind. Some changes have come about as a result of legislation; others have been introduced voluntarily because both manufacturers and customers realise that minibuses need to be as safe as possible.
What Van?'s Minibus of the Year last year, and up for grabs as nine-, a 12-, a 15- or a 17-seater, Ford's Transit comes with Electronic Stability Programme and ABS, and meets M1 passenger car safety standards. Lap-and-diagonal seat belts and adjustable headrests are fitted throughout, and the larger models are supplied with what is known as a Schedule 6 pack.
It includes items such as a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, and decals that tell you how many passengers the vehicle can carry and whereabouts the emergency exit is.
Ford is a little unusual in building all its minibuses itself. With 12- 15- and 17-seater minibuses available, LDV adopts the same approach. Its 17-seater grosses at a, these days quite low, 3.9 tonnes.
Other manufacturers tend to produce one or two models on the production line then ship in window vans for local UK conversion specialists to work on to fill out the rest of the range. Sometimes they depend totally on converters.
Peugeot, for instance, relies heavily on Red Kite for its Boxer-based minibuses, while under its Engineered for You programme Volkswagen has accredited a number of converters whom it deems capable of turning out minibuses based on Crafter. They include Minibus Options and Advanced Vehicles.
The latter also turns out Relay-based minibuses, including 12- and 17-seaters, for Citroën, and has a web site that's well worth perusing.
The minibus sector is remarkably competitive and the manufacturers listed above aren't the only players.
Renault markets a Trafic nine-seater alongside a Master with either 16 or 17 seats while Nissan sells a Primastar nine-seater and has just launched an Interstar 16-seater.
Promoting its minibuses under the Traveliner banner, Mercedes-Benz sells both Vito and Sprinter as nine-seaters, but Sprinter is also used as a platform for minibuses and mini coaches with a much larger seating capacity by a number of companies. Models include the Soroco, built by Ferqui in Spain for Optare, and Plaxton's Pronto.
Addressing a slightly different sector of the market, National Car Rental has just put 10 automatic air conditioned Sprinter-based courtesy buses into service at Heathrow Airport. They all feature low floor conversions by Edinburgh-based Commercial Vehicle Innovation, the UK agent for Dutch coach conversion specialist VDL Kusters.
Seven are 311CDI 3.5-tonners able to carry eight passengers, while the remainder are 12-passenger 511CDI 5.0-tonners and can accommodate a wheelchair. They were all supplied through Heathrow Mercedes dealership Rygor Commercials.
“On average our vehicles cover 45,000 miles a year each, but each trip is very short; typically less than a mile,” says National's courtesy coach service manager, Barry Horseman. “Consequently there's a huge amount of stopping and starting and going up and down through the gears, so automatics are a must.
“If we relied on manual gearboxes we'd burn the clutches out in no time.
“The low floors make boarding and alighting easier for holidaymakers with heavy suitcases,” he continues. “Because the floor is virtually at kerb height they don't have to go up and down any steps.
“The low floor also means there's more headroom, which allows us to fit bigger luggage racks.”
Standard non-low-floor minibuses are sometimes fitted with either electrically or manually operated steps to make exit and entry that bit easier. Manufacturers include AVS.
No matter where they are sourced from, all new minibuses have to be equipped with a limiter that restricts their top speed to 62mph. They also have to be fitted with a tachograph — they've been mandatory for sometime if a minibus is used outside the UK — although one is not required if the vehicle is used exclusively for the non-commercial carriage of passengers or by a local council to transport the elderly or disabled.
With an ageing population, demand for accessible minibuses in particular looks set to rise over the next few years; and ease of board and alighting, whether or not they can carry people in wheelchairs and all-round safety all look set to become more important issues for everybody. Not a cheerful thought, perhaps, but one that cannot be ignored.