WORLD’S APART – VOLVO 9700 DD

By: Fabian Cotter, Photography by: courtesy Volvo Bus Europe


INTERNATIONAL air travel is not predicted to return to ‘old world’ levels until 2023. Social distancing on public transport means bus passenger numbers are reduced – for now. With some coach operations still running ‘essential’ services within their states at least, could coach travel make greater inroads into domestic tourism if and when travel restrictions decrease or end?

WORLD’S APART – VOLVO 9700 DD
Tailored for “express operations” the long-distance coach has been, “developed to meet high customer demands on greater passenger capacity, flexibility, comfort and safety,” states Volvo Europe.

What if? It’s a fair enough question that many of us have needed to apply to many aspects of our lives recently once our private, work and business worlds starting turning upside down. Or unexpectedly sideways, at least.

Never more so have so many felt so separated yet needing to draw closer together for sanity’s sake than through the current global Covid-19 pandemic, it must be said.

In terms of bus travel – with its greatest commodity being moving bulk loads of people usually safely and efficiently each day – there are definitely challenges ahead. Many companies, though, are rising to them – as best they can. The prognosis?

With experts predicting that air travel won’t recover fully for at least the next three years – regardless of how any newly instilled flight phobia may have successfully bedded in – we are bound by our state and even intrastate borders for all but essential travel needs here in Australia. At this stage.

As things hopefully improve (and we are seeing early, cautious signs of it thus far, fingers and toes crossed), there is some quiet ‘crystal balling’ about current coach passenger numbers for essential services now with social distancing, and even later if restrictions reduce further and border crossings get the flick.

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With any future anticipated domestic travel market boom because of international flight restrictions, could coaches on the ground play a new key role in how we get around nationally instead? Interstate, or even just intrastate, for the foreseeable future and beyond, is this now a way to introduce more people to the modern-day ‘bus experience’?

And, if so, could the extra space afforded on a double-deck coach play some beneficial role in a social distancing-adhering transport sector keen to finally win any psychological commuter ‘bus PR’ war?

Such musings, of course, sound completely absurd, nonsensical and plain old weird by conventional standards, for sure. In fact, it would probably be most welcome if it were. Why’s that, you ask?

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Well, it would mean life wouldn’t have changed so differently and rapidly from what we thought was ‘normal’ only just a few months ago. However … it has.

Undeniably, much of the collective bus experience is intrinsically linked to all things tourism and traveller-based, so many bus companies have had to adapt and restructure at warp speed to varying degrees to survive let alone have time to make any sense of it all.

Yet change is what you make of it, or how you choose to see it, perhaps.

As British political icon Winston Churchill once said: "A pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty."

And here we are…

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A COACH – WHY NOT?

At the time of writing (19/05/2020), there is a 14-day quarantine period for any air travellers arriving into Australia now in place, and that doesn’t look like changing in a hurry.

Recently, when interviewed by the national broadcaster’s ABC News breakfast show, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association, Alexandre de Juniac, said he had hoped the industry could bounce back from the lockdowns, but now warned it won’t fully recover until 2023.

"What we have planned is to restart the [airline] industry, first by reopening domestic markets, then regional continental markets, such as Asia-Pacific, or Europe, or North America," de Junic said.

"At the end of 2020, the traffic should be between 50 to 55 per cent of the same level that was in place in 2019. So, we would lose something like half the traffic for the 2020."

Similarly, according to a report in the Daily Mail Australia recently, Australia’s chief medical officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, also ruled out international travel for the foreseeable future, adding that "interstate and territory borders would be reopened long before overseas travel".

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EXTRA DECK

Late February, 2020, Volvo Bus in Europe launched its stunning double-deck coach from its current award-winning ‘9000 Series’ - namely the 9700 and 9900 single decks - for that continent.

Given the unexpected unfolding of the Covid-19 pandemic, it will be interesting to see how it – and its rivals like it – fares in terms tourist travel in Europe, depending on social distancing laws and regulations of the countries it is used in – but its additional space over a regular coach might stand it in good stead in that regard.

Tailored for "express operations" the long-distance coach has been, "developed to meet high customer demands on greater passenger capacity, flexibility, comfort and safety," states Volvo Europe.

"With the Volvo 9700 DD we can now offer our customers a comprehensive range of tourist and express buses with premium features. The express bus sector is growing quickly in the Nordic region and for many operators the Volvo 9700 DD is a longed-for model that extends capacity and productivity," explained Niklas Orre, vice president, Coach Sales.

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Since the bus features enhanced connectivity, the bus operator benefits from better real-time monitoring and is able to see how the vehicle is being driven and can also plan servicing for optimal efficiency, the company says. Thanks to Zone Management – using a computer to regulate vehicle speed in sensitive areas – the operator also gets improved safety and lower fuel consumption, it adds.

The Volvo 9700 DD, which can carry up to 96 passengers, has been developed to give passengers the best possible comfort on both short and long journeys, says Volvo.

The coach is equipped with Volvo’s in-house designed ergonomic seats and a climate system featuring separate zones for passengers and driver, it states. There is a range of sound systems, multimedia systems and passenger information systems to choose between. Door openings, centre aisle, stairs and roof height both upstairs and downstairs are all ‘dimensioned’ for quick boarding and exiting, it describes.

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KEEN DRIVE

According to the company, the driver’s compartment in the new double-decker is spacious and elevated to give a commanding view of the traffic. In order to improve traffic safety the Volvo 9700 DD is also equipped with several active safety systems such as electronically controlled brakes, electronic stability system and anti-skid system. The driver also benefits from driver alert support, lane-keeping assistance and collision warning with emergency braking.

"In addition, we have fine-tuned the driving properties and the coach drives steadily and securely owing to a combination of improved suspension and damping allied to an ultra-light body. This together with the vehicle’s design makes the coach fuel-efficient too," explained Orre.

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LOCAL HOPE?

Though doubtful, we thought it worth a shot to ask Volvo Bus vice president Asia-Pacific Region David Mead if such a product could ever land here and how he saw the role of coach travel in this ‘changed’ local regional/intrastate and interstate travel paradigm.

Mead says people are now starting to think about non-traditional markets and a different way of doing things.

"Maybe coaches could be a way for big family groups to travel together in the future."

"Also, the whole ‘work from home’ move has raised more thoughts like ‘have companies ever thought about a coach as a ‘mobile office’ or a way to temporarily add space?" he said.

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"The biggest challenge from an operator point of view is that, justifiably, many aren’t thinking more than a week ahead now.

"It hasn’t happened yet [business improvement] and I think many will get there, but right now operators are more worried about literally tomorrow and paying and retaining their staff, etc.

"Talking about something like that double-deck coach, we traditionally don’t see a lot of its application here as it’s a difficult economic proposition in a normal market. A normal market...

"So you can ask the question if hypothetically social distancing will lead to a bigger coach needed, but the answer is … well, I don’t know.

"I don’t know if that’s practical in the long-term, or even short-term side of things, but you know … who knows?

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"I think what this shows is that no-one [company] is immune from this pandemic, but I can say within our own business we found through necessity a new way to do things – new ways that will stay with us long past Covid," Mead explained.

"It’s been a challenge to some of our traditional processes and ways of working – that we essentially scrapped and replaced, and that’s been a positive.

So if there’s a silver lining from all this, for us it’s been that we’ve found a different way to work, a different way to manage – so you find many clever ideas popping up from our local Volvo team. Those will bring long-term benefits now.

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"But we are all part of a big industry that is and will be challenged globally."

So, all things considered and how crazy the world seems right now, could something like the Volvo 9700 DD ever make it here to Australia?

"In the current environment and at this stage we have no plans to bring in a double-deck coach, but … one thing I’ve learned during these last couple of months is never say never," he quipped.

Yes, indeed ... so much has changed in such a short time. What does the future hold?

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Specs

MAKE: Volvo (Europe)

MODEL: 9700 DD double-deck coach

DIMENSIONS: Height – 4.25m, Length – up to 14.8m, Width – 2.55m. Weight – (GVW) 26,500kg

BODY: Name – Carrus Delta Oy; Capacity – Up to 96 passengers; Luggage capacity – up to 7.5 cubic metres

ENGINE: Volvo 10.8-litre DK11 Euro6 SCR common-rail in-line six-cylinder; Power – 460hp, Torque – 1,585Nm@1,000–1,400rpm

TRANSMISSION: Volvo I-Shift

CHASSIS: Volvo B11R/LE, 6x2

WHEELS/TYRES: 315/70xR22.5

MISC.: Toilet and kitchenette (optional)

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