Minibuses

Date: Thursday, April 02, 2009

Van-based minibuses are an extremely efficient and cost-effective way of shifting people. Steve Banner takes a look at the latest product developments and delves into the mire of overly complicated legislation.

Minibus sales have been taking something of a battering in recent months. That could help explain why Ford has introduced a special programme designed to boost its registrations. Since late January state-owned educational facilities such as schools and colleges have qualified for a discount of up to 14 per cent if they buy a Transit minibus, What Van?’s current Minibus of the Year.


Ford’s people-shifter is up for grabs as a nine-, a 12-, a 15- or a 17-seater, and the largest model in the line-up can be ordered with a high roof rather than a medium-height one. Front-wheel drive, the nine- and the 12-seater are powered by a 2.2-litre Duratorq TDCi diesel with either 110hp or 140hp on tap. Go for the latter option and you get a six-speed manual gearbox. The other two models are rear-wheel drive and come with the 2.4-litre Duratorq TDCi at 100hp, 115hp or 140hp. Only the two most powerful variants get the six-speeder.


The specification levels are what one would hope for in a modern minibus. For your money you get ABS plus an Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) that includes a gizmo that stops you from rolling backwards if you’re trying to move away on a steep hill.

 

Safety First

All models comply with M1 passenger car safety standards. Each seat is fitted with a lap-and-diagonal belt plus a height-adjustable headrest and the 12-, 15- and 17-seaters are supplied with what is known as a Schedule 6 pack. It includes a fire extinguisher and a first aid kit plus a grab handle and an illuminated anti-slip step to make entry through the sliding side passenger door easier. Decals are fitted that tell you where the emergency exit is, how many people the vehicle can carry and whereabouts the first aid kit is stowed.


It’s good to see that all Transit minibuses are equipped with twin batteries. That means you should always be able to start the vehicle even if you’ve been using a lot of power to run various devices while you’re stationary with the engine switched off.

 

Wheelchair Access

One of those devices might be a wheelchair lift if the minibus has been converted to accessible specifications. Several manufacturers produce them, including Ratcliff Palfinger and PLS .

 

It’s worth noting that the widespread use of heavy electric wheelchairs means that such lifts now typically have a capacity of 350kg; and there’s some suggestion that even more capacity may be required in future. “I think that 350kg is still sufficient for the vast majority of applications though,” says Ratcliff Palfinger passenger sales manager, Beverley Jackson.


A manual wheelchair ramp can of course be deployed if there’s sufficient space. Leading manufacturers include Compak. Tipping the scales at no more than 30kg, its manual ramps incorporate an ergonomically-designed lifting handle and can be extended in a matter of seconds says the manufacturer.


Wheelchair access is something required by the West Midlands Ring & Ride Service. It provides free door-to-door transport for people of any age who find it difficult to use the local bus. In addition it takes children with disabilities to school and brings them back. It’s just taken delivery of seven Transits — the first to join the fleet — complete with wheelchair lifts and accommodation for up to four wheelchair users each.


Ford is of course by no means the only manufacturer competing in the minibus market. It is, however, one of the few that produces them on its own assembly line — the range also includes the upmarket eight- and nine-seater Tourneos — as opposed to using a converter.

 

Runners & Riders

Its rivals include struggling LDV. Historically a major player in the UK minibus market, its line-up includes 10-, 12-, 15- and 17-seater minibuses along with an accessible model plus a bright yellow one designed specifically for school work.


Other contenders include Renault and Mercedes-Benz. The latter manufacturer plans to add a factory-built Sprinter nine-seater to its line-up this year. Various specification levels will be available with an entry-level trim aimed at the fleet market.


Also active are Citroën, Vauxhall and Irisbus — Iveco’s minibus, bus and coach stablemate — and conversions are available on models such as Peugeot’s Boxer, Volkswagen’s Crafter and Fiat’s Ducato.


Not a major success in the UK, Irisbus nonetheless manages to sell a respectable number of Daily-based minibuses on this side of the Channel. Last year’s Euro Bus Expo show at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre saw it display a new range.


The line-up on the stand included an entry-level 3,300mm wheelbase 15-seater 35S14 aimed at the fleet market. Other vehicles on show included a 17-seater 49C15 complete with a Ratcliff Palfinger passenger lift.


Citroën’s Relay won our Highly Commended accolade in What Van?’s Minibus of the Year stakes. Marketed as a 12-, a 15-, or a 17-seater, and in wheelchair-accessible guise, it’s a good example of a minibus conversion and forms part of Citroën’s Ready to Run line-up. The conversion work is carried out by Advanced Vehicle Builders of Clay Cross, Derbyshire.


Fitted with ABS, but not ESP, the Relay people-shifter is built to M1 standards. Options include a reversing alarm and an access step.

 

Steps

Manual or power-operated access steps are regularly fitted to minibuses to make it easier for elderly passengers to board and exit. AVS is the best-known UK manufacturer and reports that more and more customers are asking for such steps to be made wider. While a 600mm width is still the choice of many buyers, its standard range now encompasses widths of from 450mm to 1,200mm.


Vauxhall is another manufacturer that promotes purpose-built accessible minibuses alongside a standard range that includes a 12-seater Vivaro and a 15-, 16- or 17-seater Movano among other models. Vivaro and Movano are converted to accessible specifications by Goole, East Yorkshire-based, Oughtred and Harrison (Facilities).


As well as three front seats, O & H’s Movano typically comes with three fixed rear seats, six removable ones secured to tracking in the floor by quick-release clamps and floor tracking to which two wheelchairs can be secured. If wheelchairs are being carried then there is usually room for five or six seats in the passenger saloon depending on the size of the wheelchairs concerned. The accessible Vivaro generally has two fixed seats in the back plus provision for either one (short-wheelbase) or two (long-wheelbase) wheelchairs.

 

Automatic Choice

One advantage several of the models referred to above — Daily and Movano are both good examples — is the availability of either a fully- or a semi-automatic gearbox as an alternative to a manual transmission.


In automatic mode the vehicle should offer a reasonably jerk-free ride assuming the driver doesn’t stamp on the accelerator pedal too hard. That’s particularly important if elderly or disabled passengers who cannot withstand being shaken about are being transported.


Not having to worry about gearchanges also means that the driver can spend more time keeping an eye on other road users. Many minibus drivers are volunteers and may be more familiar with driving a small car than driving a minibus; and a 17-seater minibus is a big beast.

 

Rules & Regs

There is a plethora of legislation concerning who can drive what minibus and licence requirements and there are various PDF documents available for download from the DVLA web site. Visit the site and enter minibuses in the search field.


Any vehicle constructed to carry nine or more passengers for hire or reward may be categorised as a Passenger Carrying Vehicle (PCV), formerly referred to as a Public Service Vehicle (PSV). Hire or reward does not only refer to situations where the passenger hands the driver cash in exchange for a ticket.


Hotel minibuses are engaged in hire or reward activities. Hotel residents can travel in them because they’re paying for their room, so the vehicle’s operator is enjoying a financial benefit.


Gangmasters minibuses used to take agricultural workers from a hostel to a field somewhere in East Anglia to pick crops do not fall into this category, however, assuming that no deduction is made from their wages.


Operate a PCV and you are obliged to hold either a PCV Operator’s Licence or a community bus permit. The former is the same as the O licence held by firms that run full-sized coaches and is granted by an official known as the Traffic Commissioner. He or she also grants community bus permits under Section 22 of the Transport Act 1985.


Such permits are intended for organisations operating local bus services using vehicles with no more than 16 passenger seats. The service must be designed to benefit the community and be non-profit-making.


Some operators — churches and welfare groups, for example — may have to apply for a permit granted under Section 19 of the 1985 Act assuming that they are not looking to make a profit out of running their minibus.

 

Weight Matters

Anybody who passed their car driving test before 1 January 1997 can take to the highways at the wheel of a minibus with up to 17 seats provided it is not being used for hire or reward. If it is, then you will have to take a separate test.


Drivers who obtained their licence after that date are limited to vehicles with no more than eight passenger seats and grossing at no more than 3.5 tonnes. They’re compelled to take a separate test if they want to take charge of anything larger


Anyone who wants to drive a PCV must take a separate test to obtain a PCV licence. You can drive a minibus covered by the permit scheme without being a PCV licence holder, but you must have held a full ordinary licence for at least two years, be at least 21, and the minibus must gross at no more than 3.5 tonnes. Nor must you accept any financial reward other than expenses or compensation for lost earnings for the work you’re doing.


Under certain circumstances you may be allowed to get behind the wheel of minibuses grossing at up to 4.25 tonnes; an important consideration given the number on sale these days with an all-up weight exceeding 3.5 tonnes.


Weights are rising because vehicles are getting heavier. So, alas are their passengers. Anybody out there in favour of a tax on chocolate?

 

Tachograph Requirements

All minibuses registered since 1 October 2001 must be fitted with a road speed limiter that restricts the vehicle’s top speed to 62mph. Tachographs have to be fitted and used and drivers are obliged to comply with the heavy truck Drivers Hours regulations. There are, however, some exceptions. For example, a tachograph is not required if the vehicle is used exclusively for the non-commercial carriage of passengers, or by a local authority to transport the elderly or people with disabilities.


Tachographs installed in new vehicles are digital and oblige the driver to insert a smartcard issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. Minibuses registered prior to 1 May 2006 can be retro-fitted with an old-style analogue tachograph, however — they’re still available — which uses a waxed chart to record driving activities.

 

Verdict

There is certainly no shortage of excellent, purpose-built minibuses to choose from, but it’s of primary importance to get a handle on the legislation before making tracks to the local dealerships.



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