Flicking the ‘Switch’ on the MetroDecker

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Optare, or Switch Mobility as it is now known, has been doing well with the MetroDecker EV, but it also has a diesel option. Richard Sharman looks at the Mercedes-Benz-powered diesel variant to see what it has to offer operators

It has been just over a year since I took Metroline’s MetroDecker EV OME2680 for a test drive around Yorkshire. The result of that test drive was that the MetroDecker in electric form was a good product that had huge potential in the market. In the last year First Bus has taken delivery of 20 MetroDecker EVs, which have been successfully and silently running around York.

A Spectra for the 21st century?
The first double-decker bus to be built by Optare since the success of the DAF-engined Spectra is the MetroDecker. Body number OE340003 was the very first example fully built and made its debut outside the London Transport Museum in May 2014, originally carrying a dark blue demonstrator livery. After two years of testing with a diesel engine it was converted to an EV (Electric Vehicle) by Magtec. The beauty of the MetroDecker’s design, like other Switch Mobility products, is that the engine is on a cradle and can easily be removed for changing or upgrading.

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By May 2016 this vehicle was used as a test-bed for the EV variant of the model. It went on to be registered as YJ17 FXX and was demonstrated to various Transport for London operators before settling down for an extended period of time with First West Yorkshire and then York.

A further three demonstrators would be built with diesel engines between 2015 and 2016. YJ16 DFG, now with Sargeants, was the third example built and carries body number OE34005.
It was new in a light blue demonstrator livery and entered service with First South Yorkshire in April 2016 as 35000, before moving onto Go North East later that year as its 9099.

By 2018 it had entered the Reading Buses fleet as 899, initially operating in demonstrator livery before gaining full Green Line livery and being branded for the 702 London or Heathrow to Windsor Castle service.

By September 2020 YJ16 DFG had been acquired by Sargeants of Kington, Herefordshire, which has a long history of operating Optare vehicles. Spectra VA51 SAR, for example, was owned by the company from new and was withdrawn and entered preservation with the Bromley Bus Preservation Group in 2019.

Rural reliability
Sargeant Brothers, featured in CBW in February of this year, is very happy with what Optare products deliver to its everyday operations. So much so that it not only operates the MetroDecker but also the Solo SR and the MetroCity, along with some older model Solos.

Matt and Kerrie Evans took over the family business in November 2019. In the months that followed – despite the pandemic – investment in the fleet continued, as Matt explained: “Since November 2019 we have purchased at least 10 Optares that have only been a couple of years old, and the support we have had from Optare, Steph Baker and Neil Brain in particular, has made them stand out from the crowd.

“However, to find the sort of vehicles I wanted has often meant making very quick decisions to secure them as they are in high demand. The MetroDecker was one of those vehicles, but that has allowed us to deliver quality at pace.

Operations Supervisor David Lloyd explained that: “The Optare MetroDecker has its own duty and driver, which revolves around the college in Hereford where it operates a 861 and 461 service at peaks, but it is unable to operate the 461 section of the route between Kington and Llandrindod Wells due to a low bridge on the route.”

The OM934 engine is offset to the nearside, with the exhaust system taking up much of the engine bay. RICHARD SHARMAN

Mercedes-Benz power
The diesel option for the Switch Mobility MetroDecker is the Mercedes-Benz OM934 engine, which as many of you will know, is the same powerplant that is used in the Wrightbus StreetDeck. However, the OM934 is a different beast when coupled to the ZF Ecolife gearbox, but we will get to the driving experience later.

When you look in the engine bay of the MetroDecker you will find that the engine is offset to the nearside, the complex exhaust system is in the centre and the electric cooling pack is on the offside, to ensure that leaves and other road debris don’t get sucked into the radiator. This assembly allows for it all to be fitted within the cradle.

The small four-cylinder Mercedes-Benz engine develops 170kW (231hp) of power and weighs only 495kg, helping the MetroDecker to achieve what Switch Mobility calls ‘the lightest double-decker in its class,’ with the test example having an unladen weight of 10,500kg.

Exterior styling
The MetroDecker has been in production since 2015, but its design has not aged in those six years. It is still very much a modern-looking bus.

The MetroDecker has a simple gasket glazed rectangular windscreen with large nearside and offside quarter lights, which benefits the driver, increasing space in the cab area. The angled front of the MetroDecker also assists with the drag coefficient, particularly when at speed. It also helps with the weight of the vehicle as the steel frame of the upper deck of the MetroDecker ends just prior to the last windows at the front of the upper deck, with the section around those two windows, the roof dome and destination display being made of a lightweight GRP mould.

The front dash panel consists of three sections: two easily changeable corner panels and a large centre access panel. The design of these panels allows for easy and quick access to the sequential wiper motor, the rear of the headlight cluster, demister units and air line.

The headlight cluster is the same as the single-decker MetroCity, with three small round high intensity lights on each side of the vehicle which contain a combined daytime LED running light/sidelight with indicator; the dipped beam; and the main beam. On this particular early example of the model, the LED indicator repeater lights are mounted directly under the quarter lights on the side, which I quite like, but later models have had them moved to the more traditional position by the front wheel arch.

The side profile of the MetroDecker remains simple but effective, with large saloon windows for the lower deck, and slightly smaller ones for the upper deck for its 4310mm height. All glazing, with the exception of the windscreen, is bonded.

Any panel damage to the sides of the vehicle is easily replaced thanks to the lower side panels being locked into the waist-rail section and retained by screw fasteners.

Filler points for screenwash, diesel and AdBlue are all located underneath the cab window. The five recently built examples, two of which are at Johnsons Excelbus, have these fill points behind hinged doors. The batteries are located behind the first panel after the offside wheel arch, whilst just above the wheel arch is a large panel to access the vehicle’s air tanks. Their location ensures that they are less likely to suffer from corrosion during the winter months when there is grit on the roads.

Moving to the rear of the vehicle, again, a single GRP dome is used to increase integrity and strength. High intensity LED lighting is used on the rear, with high-level brake, marker and indicator lights built into the recess above the top window. An oval shaped boot lid leads down to a three-section rear bumper. The oblong rear lower window looks great, and really adds a modern touch. In some ways it resembles a modern take on the Leyland Titan.

The only thing that I am not keen on is the see-through panel above the rear window, where three large fans are installed. When the sun is shining it looks like there is no panel covering them.

The driver benefits from a large cab and an ergonomic dashboard. RICHARD SHARMAN

Interior quality
The thing I like about the MetroDecker interior is that it is functional and bright and, most of all, airy. As soon as you board you get a feeling of space.

The first thing that you will notice when boarding is the modern round platform lighting, which is a nice touch.

Moving along the lower saloon, Switch has built in an illuminated panel in the staircase structure, allowing for adverts or notices to be placed for customers.

This particular example was specified with cream and grey interior panels and comfortable, high-backed ISRI seating in blue which gives the MetroDecker a classy feel, although upper and lower deck passengers sitting at the rear of the vehicle only have standard bus seating due to the normal space constraints in these areas.

The LED up-lighting also adds class to the feel of the vehicle. The oval design of the rear window on the MetroDecker is certainly a focal point when walking down the saloon, but it serves an additional purpose: the saloon heating/cooling fan is also located in the trim around it. I was sceptical as to whether this would be enough to warm the interior, but on the the cold day of the test drive when I was trying out the saloon for ride quality as a passenger, the MetroDecker’s engine was cold at the start of the test but as the engine temperature increased whilst on the road the fan automatically came to life and was indeed doing a good job of heating the saloon, after five minutes on the road. The upper deck has a similar system but with the vents placed at either side of the rear dome.

In terms of natural ventilation, the lower and upper saloon have four large opening windows each. The positioning of the upper saloon windows is more of a benefit to passengers sat at the front and in the middle of the bus. Customers at the rear of the bus may benefit from having two opening windows a little further back for those hot summer days when the air being blown out of the fan is not quite enough.

The wheelchair bay on the MetroDecker is immediately behind the front nearside wheel arch, and when not in use there is three flip-up seats. There is also an area for buggies behind the staircase, which also has three flip-up seats.

Of note on this model is the nearside centre emergency exit. I remember seeing the original demonstrator in Yorkshire Tiger livery at the NEC and thought that it was an unusual location, however the offside also has emergency exit windows with glass breaking push buttons, so in an accident passengers can exit the vehicle with ease.

In terms of build quality, the ride I had as a passenger prior to driving the vehicle was impressive. Bear in mind that this example was new in 2016, but the 83-seater interior is incredibly well put together, there is no rattling or creaking from the interior panels. The ride quality throughout the vehicle is also excellent – even on rural roads the MetroDecker remains a smooth ride.

The saloon has a welcoming feel; the halo style platform light and illuminated panel behind the cab can be seen in this view. RICHARD SHARMAN

Driver’s environment
Having previously driven buses for a living, I know how important a good cab layout for the driver is. A bad working environment can lead to an unhappy driver providing poor customer service, but I am pleased to say that the designers of the MetroDecker have fully embraced the needs of the driver in the design.

As soon as you sit in the driver’s seat you immediately notice how much space you have; the windscreen is a good distance away from you, there is plenty of leg room and the driver’s seat has plenty of movement available.

The good thing about the MetroDecker is that if you have ever driven a Solo or MetroCity, you will know the vehicle controls instantly.

Like the Solo, the fuel tank is located under the driver’s seat which is a good space-saving design, however, from experience it is imperative that the cleaners ensure they do not overfill or spill fuel down the side of the vehicle as it can lead to the driver having the smell of diesel in the cab all day if not cleaned off afterwards.

The original Iveco steering column switchgear and steering wheel has long gone and the OME steering wheel is pleasant to use, with plenty of adjustment.

The handbrake, ZF gear selector and demister air-conditioning/temperature control switch are well placed on a panel under the cab window.

Controls above the driver’s head include the Mobitec ICU 402 destination controller, CCTV monitor and exhaust regeneration controls.

On the road
Having driven the sure-footed MetroDecker EV a year ago, I was keen to see how the ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) example would drive.

The Mercedes-Benz (as Switch describes it, others may know it as a Daimler unit) OM934 may sound familiar – that’s because it is the same engine that is used in the Wrightbus Streetdeck. However, that is where the similarities end, as this OM934 is connected to the ZF Ecolife gearbox.

I travelled as passenger to Hye-on-Wye from the depot to sample the ride quality, while the return trip was mine to drive. As a passenger I had noticed that the gear changes were very smooth, and the gearbox has a pleasant whine to it.

Departing the outskirts of Hye-on-Wye I found that the MetroDecker was a lively performer. ZF has got the gearbox working perfectly with the power of the OM934 engine. The gears change up fairly quickly, but the torque is also there. The gear ratio on the top gear is quite long which makes for a smooth top cruising speed of 59mph; the MetroDecker EV can do 52mph and get there quicker, but then it has no gears to go through.

The roads back to Kington from Wales featured long straights, but also some sharp bends. The MetroDecker took it all in its stride thanks to the ZF 8098 steering gear and good integral chassis dynamics.

Knorr-Bremse SN7/SB7 air disc brakes with non-asbestos linings are fitted and these are smooth in operation, as is the gearbox retarder.

By the time we arrived back in Kington it was starting to get dark, and the interior LED uplighting was effective but did not impede the driver’s vision by reflecting off the windscreen.
Overall, I was impressed with both the EV and ICE versions of the MetroDecker, in terms of both passenger comfort and the driving experience.

Under its new identity of Switch Mobility, I think the MetroDecker is still a solid contender going forward, and the recent high-specification examples with Johnson’s Excelbus show what can be achieved and that it is also a good candidate for longer distance services.