Blyth Spirit

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In mid-August, despite the air of doom that surrounded the industry, Irizar took the bold step to press ahead with the opening of its new UK Sales Centre. Jonathan Welch paid a visit to see what was on offer

In a world which has seen much change, and an industry which has been very much vocal about its difficulties recently, it is always pleasing to be able to report a positive, good news story – something we are always keen to do at CBW to reflect the hard work and unseen activity that goes on behind the scenes, and which keeps the industry going in the most difficult of times. So it was pleasing in mid-August to be invited to the opening of Irizar’s new UK Sales Centre. Indeed, as the company said in its announcement at the time, “Irizar UK is looking forward to a positive future with the opening of a new National Sales Centre.”

CBW was invited along to the opening event, and met with UK Sales Director Julie Hartley to find out more about the project and what customers can expect. Despite my satnav’s insistence that it was located elsewhere, Irizar’s new Sales Centre is conveniently located next to the A1(M) at Blyth in north Nottinghamshire, which means it is easily accessible from all directions for those wishing to view – and hopefully to collect – their latest purchase. Its visibility to passing traffic should also help raise its profile, especially once the longer term plan for the 4-acre site is fully realised and a new permanent building constructed there.

Just some of the new and used coaches available for viewing at Irizar’s new Blyth Sales Centre. JONATHAN WELCH
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Gradual development

For now, however, Julie and her colleagues are working from a small but well-presented temporary building alongside the site entrance, which is just off the A614 at junction 34 of the A1(M), right alongside Starbucks. The site is only partially-developed, but Julie assured me that over the next few years, Irizar has plans which will transform it.

“Our main aim was that we wanted to bring all our stock together in one convenient location instead of being split between several sites,” Julie explained. “This site will be for our coach sales activities; we still have an active partnership with Johnson Bros. at their site in Worksop. We still have our offices there, our service and parts centres will stay there and it is where we will keep customer order vehicles.

“The aim here is to have a central hub so that a prospective buyer can see all the vehicles we have for sale in one location. We have four acres here, it’s only partially developed so far. We own the land, and took the decision to go ahead and partially develop around 2 acres while we make a decision as to how we want to develop the site fully. This will become our UK headquarters. We expect to see that happen in the coming years.”

Focussing on the future

Although the market has been depressed as operators review, delay or cancel their orders, Julie said that things have not been completely quiet over the summer. “We had several vehicles going out with September registrations,” she said, “and used ones. Things haven’t been completely dead. It’s fantastic, really positive. I think we’ve got to look at the positives, it’s easy to get focussed on the negatives.

“We’re quite proud of our new site, we want people to know where we are and that we are still here. We’ve tried to remain active and supportive through Covid and will do whatever we have to. It’s going to be a tough time but we are going to be here and want to help the industry recover.”

Varied stock

At the time of CBW’s visit, there was already a good choice of coaches on site, with 35 used and 31 new coaches available for viewing. There were a small number of used coaches from other manufacturers on display, but Julie said that the majority of the used stock was Irizar as a result of repeat custom. There was a good selection of new i4, i6 and i6s models amongst the line-up, including a number of coaches to full PSVAR specification. Among these were a number of highly-specified 14m i6 models, with 449bhp Euro VI engines. Featuring a Masats lift and 61 part-iLeather i6 Classic seats (of which two rows are mounted on a Tecam quick release system to enable the easy boarding of a wheelchair user) in addition to a centre sunken toilet, tow hook, roof-level flood lights, Bosch audio and Actia DVD systems, these are versatile coaches which could fulfil a number of roles.

PSVAR

Julie explained that the company is responding to the increased demand for PSVAR-compliant coaches: “We have limited availability right now, and plan to have an active conversion programme for used coaches.”

At the time of my visit, four ex-Weavaway Jonckheeres were in stock and due for PSVAR conversion. “They are a good vehicle to convert, as Jonckheere sell original parts such as doors to the converters. We have one at Cogent at the minute having the work done.” Julie thinks that although the i6s is the most popular coach in Irizar’s line-up, there may be a shift towards the i4 due to its lower height and PSVAR-specification, giving a comfortable and stylish but very adaptable coach. At the time of CBW’s visit, the Sales Centre had one of the latest i4s in stock, to full PSVAR specification and fitted with 80 seats in 3+2 configuration, ideal for school trips where otherwise two standard 49-seat coaches would be required.

It is not too long ago that older coaches were being retro-fitted with 3+2 seats as a way to earn more money from an asset that had already lived most of its front-line service life. The i4 is worlds away from this, and although by its nature 3+2 seating will never offer spaciousness and luxury, the i4 has plenty to offer a prospective buyer. The flat floor and PPS semi-automatic side lift make access easy, and passengers can be kept entertained thanks to its Bosch Smart-series audio system and Actia DVD player with 22” front monitor. Passengers are accommodated in up to 80 PPS seats, each fitted with a three-point seatbelt and mounted on a Tecam quick release mechanism, whilst for the driver, a leather Isri seat makes for a comfortable journey. Safety is not forgotten: the driver has a reversing camera available, and a Fogmaker fire suppression system is fitted to the engine compartment.

Realistic

No one in the industry will have failed to notice how badly the value of used coaches has been affected by the drop in demand, the push for Euro VI and by the number of coaches flooding on to the market since the collapse of Shearings. “We’re trying to be realistic about values,” continued Julie. “If anybody is interested in buying from us, we’ll sit down and talk prices. The move to Euro VI has also had an impact. We’re working on providing upgrades for Euro V coaches. We have one that has just been upgraded by Baumot. Both Baumot and Proventia have certified retrofit kits available.”

Irizar is currently able to supply upgrades for coaches fitted with 9-litre PR265 engines and at the time we spoke was close to having a kit available for MX300 and MX340 enigines. Although developed around the requirements of Irizar, the retrofits will also benefit operators of other manufacturer’s coaches which use the same DAF powerplants, including Temsa, VDL and Van Hool.

“Operators face a difficult choice when upgrading their fleet, whether to invest in Euro VI or fit a wheelchair lift. I think a retrofit grant or funding scheme would be a massive benefit to the industry. We have written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps about a scrappage scheme to push environmentally-friendly vehicles. The industry has tried hard to comply but we are now in a situation where businesses risk failing because of the massive investment needed.”

It is not just about securing sales for Irizar. Julie highlighted that there has to be a wider view: “We can’t just look at hybrids or hydrogen, we have to have the most efficient diesel vehicles. It would also help protect the supply chain. If operators aren’t buying new until 2022, it will be a very lean year for suppliers. Bus operators have had things like the Green Bus Fund to help, coaches have had nothing.”

Delicate balance

Julie remains acutely aware of how difficult it is for operators. “It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said. “We don’t want to be all doom and gloom, and we do have vehicles going out this year and into next. We have to sell, but we have to be sensitive to the operators’ needs. We don’t want to push too hard, we try to be very in tune with what they are going through. Something that is specific to our industry is that it is one of the few where the tools of the trade are quite so expensive and have to be changed so often to meet regulations. Coaches are among the most expensive and sophisticated vehicles on the roads, yet those running them have received so little outside support. It is unique that we have so many small family operators who have to make massive investments. We’re already seeing green shoots though, day trips are starting to go out. With ‘bubbles’ you can get around 30 people on a coach, which makes it viable. Just bringing back school transport won’t be enough for operators, they need the fill-in work too.”

Safety and bio-security

“We have been active in developing Covid safety features to help operators get back on the road,” Julie explained. “We have developed cab and seat-back screens to protect drivers and passengers. We have been installing the Eco3 air purification and filtration system from Hispacold.”

Such systems have been available for some time, but come to the fore in recent months. “It was first developed back in 2008, and uses ionisation and oxidisation to destroy viruses. It costs around £450 per vehicle – that’s what I would fit first. It also takes away smells and increases the amount of oxygen in the cabin. That in turn reduces travel sickness and fatigue, helping increase driver alertness. It is a solution that goes beyond Covid, and is a good investment all round. We will be more active in offering it from new.

“Datik have developed a system which checks temperatures and whether a passenger is wearing a mask as they board. We’ve just fitted that to Ellison’s football club team coaches and they like it. It can even sense if it is a proper mask or not. It costs £1,400 fitted, but would be very beneficial on commuter or interurban work. We’ve sold a lot of driver screens, and Eco3 for over 350 vehicles.

“I think we will all be much more mindful now of health and safety and measures to protect both customers and the workforce. There’s still a huge demand for people to travel, and once people can feel safe they will be back.”

Finance

Also visiting the new site during CBW’s visit was finance broker Mike Austin of Crystal Business Finance, who has worked with Irizar for a number of years arranging finance. Mike shared Irizar’s outlook that although things are difficult, it’s not all doom and gloom. “Things are looking up,” he said, “I had a few good deals in July and August that I wasn’t expecting.” However, he cautioned that finance providers are more likely to be wary of lending in the current climate, and that they will do much more due diligence before agreeing any deal. On the other hand, he pointed out that while some financiers may have a blanket ban on heavily impacted industries, others which have not previously been heavily involved in the coach and bus sector may be looking to broaden their portfolios. He advised that operators should make sure that they are as prepared to give as much information as possible, often much more than previously, and to ensure that when looking for finance they use a specialist coach and bus broker.

Among the stock which stood out during CBW’s visit was CC62 PGC, one of only two Irizar PB integrals built, all others being on Scania chassis, whilst YN63 ZHR was attracting attention having received the Baumot Euro VI upgrade, as advertised boldly on its sides. With ever-changing stock in a well laid-out and easily-accessible yard, combined with Julie and her team’s positive and friendly attitude, Irizar has a recipe for success in Blyth, which should put it in a good position to respond as the market starts to build back up post-Covid.

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