Hopping on board

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Jonathan Welch gets behind the wheel of one of the first Yutong E9s in the UK to see how the newcomer stacks up in the midibus segment

Buoyed by the enthusiasm and support of its Castleford-based distributor Pelican Bus & Coach, Yutong has been gaining ground in the UK electric bus market, with recent deliveries of the now well-known E10 and E12 to McGill’s and Stagecoach, and a batch for First Aberdeen in preparation. But now the company has added a new option to the range, sized to fit a growing segment of the market, fitting between van-derived minibuses and a full-sized single-decker. At 8.94 metres long, the E9 is not small, but its narrow 2.42 metre width and short overhangs give it manoeuvrability in a segment traditionally dominated by the Optare Solo.

When I first saw the bus in images promoting Leicester’s ‘Hop!’ free city centre shuttle, operated by Centrebus and the destination of the first E9s, I wasn’t blown away, I have to admit. Boxy, with short overhangs and two doors, a feature which is rarely popular among UK operators outside London. And one which is aiming at a segment which has long been satisfied by venerable single-door Optare Solo, and to a lesser extent more recently by short wheel-base Wrightbus Streetlites and equally short Alexander Dennis Enviro200s, as well as new entrants such as the Mellor Sigma 8s and 9s. In context, it was a bus that I could see the point of – it offered a solution to an operator already familiar with the brand, and on a free shuttle the two doors could be useful – but at the same time I wasn’t expecting to be bowled over by it.

And I have to be honest, dear reader. I was wrong. Although some buses are better than others, it’s hard to find a truly bad one on the market just now, and most of those on offer are reasonable vehicles. So I was surprised to come away from a jaunt around Leeds in the E9 saying to myself “what a cracking little bus!” But now I’ve spoiled the ending, let’s take a look around the E9 in a little more detail and see how I reached that conclusion for something which is, in layout at least, unconventional for the UK market.


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The flat smooth sides make applying branding easy. JONATHAN WELCH


Starting on the outside, the bus tested carried the same base green as the previous deliveries of E10s and E12s for Leicester’s ‘Greenlines’ network, with branding applied before delivery in a similar style to those earlier vehicles.

The first thing that anyone will notice is the face of the E9, which features an updated design. The lineage is apparent, but the E9 features more prominent angled light clusters, housing day running lights, indicators, headlights and main beam; fog lights are fitted in the lower corner panels. Each light cluster is topped with a smart chrome ‘eyebrow,’ whilst the gloss black panel below the windscreen gives a smart modern look, and provides room for the latest style of Yutong badging as well as another chrome strip. I’m told that this new look won’t be spilling over onto the E10 and E12 range just yet.

On a practical level, the separate corner and centre sections make for easy replacement should any damage occur, whilst the centre panel opens to provide access to lights and wiper motors for maintenance; the screen wash filler is located low down – possibly too low down for easy access – on the offside below the driver’s cab, accessed via a flap mounted within a larger opening panel. The windscreen wipers themselves offered good coverage of the screen.

The windscreen glazing continues up to roof height, a separate panel housing the destination screen and also the upper marker lights. Moving around the sides, the mirrors – and they are traditional mirrors on these examples – are mounted on sturdy looking brackets, positioned to be visible through the cab side window and door. Each mirror contains both a standard and wide-angle lens.

Walking around the bus, the sides are quite plain and flat – plenty of space for advertising or livery graphics – though the Yutong badge within the stepped black outline below the front window is a neat touch on the offside. Of course, the twin door layout is the most striking feature on the nearside, and one which I’m sure will provoke a ‘marmite’ reaction in the UK market. Whilst across the Channel, twin-door buses, even relatively small ones, are common, it is something which the UK market rarely favours.

The saloon of the 3.295m high bus has a bright and modern feel. JONATHAN WELCH

Easy access

Looking at the bus as a whole, it is easy to work out why the layout has been chosen. The short front overhang means insufficient space for a full-width door, but even if one were fitted, the narrow width would restrict space between the front wheels for wheelchair users to manoeuvre. The decision having been made to move wheelchair and pushchair access to a centre door, other advantages are opened up too. The short front overhang minimises wasted space on board and aides manoeuvrability whilst maintaining access past the driver for most passengers. At the same time, the cab area is not unnecessarily constrained on an already narrow bus by the need to allow space for a wheelchair to pass.

For those requiring access through the centre door, a manual wheelchair ramp is provided. I would have preferred a ramp with a side-mounted handle as easier to lift, but that’s a minor point. The doors give direct access to the wheelchair space, which is provided with a folding arm – a bespoke design created at Pelican’s request – for added security when the bus is in motion. On a service such as Leicester’s free city shuttle, where fares are not collected, centre door boarding poses even less of a problem of course, though it’s not beyond imagination that on a commercial service, a passenger with a pushchair could walk the few steps forwards to pay the driver, or the driver – who already has to leave the cab to deploy the ramp – could take those few steps to the centre door.

In reality, despite the instinctive feeling from a British perspective that the layout is odd or flawed in such a small bus, I found it anything but. In fact, on first impressions I found the interior as a whole very well laid out. Access is further aided by twin handrails on all doors, giving a high and low option, whilst the required wheelchair user ramp request button produced a pleasing tone to alert the driver of their presence.

Taking a closer look at the interior, the chosen finish matches the buses already in use on Leicester’s ‘Greenlines’ network, with a smart green moquette and two styles of wood-effect flooring which work in harmony with the grey handrails and panelling to offer a relaxing and welcoming travelling environment and reinforces the bus’ green credentials.

For standees – of which there will likely be many on the short hops around Leicester – ample stanchions, linked by horizontal grab rails above head height, provide a means to steady themselves. Seats in the low-floor area are fitted with folding arm rests. To provide circulating room, seating in the low-floor area is arranged as two rows of 2+1, whilst at the rear are two rows of 2+2 seats plus the rear row of five. One inward-facing seat above each front wheel completes the seating, along with a pair of tip-up seats in the accessible area.

Legroom was variable, the rear row feeling a little tight though still acceptable on a short trip, whilst the first row of raised seats had more than enough. This seemed quite practical, really; on a short shuttle, most people will make for the seats nearest the door, whereas I suspect fewer will make for the back corner. A perforated grey metal half-height partition separates the raised seating area from the wheelchair space and door.

USB charging sockets are fitted for each seat, along with standard bell pushes; there has been talk of adjusting these to make a frog-like ribbet rather than the usual bell or chime. I’m told discussions are ongoing as to whether such a sound would be permitted by PSVAR.

Emergency egress comes in the form of a number of windows fitted with the increasingly common punch-to-break-glass buttons, whilst a fire extinguisher is located alongside the driver’s cab. I do find the opening windows within windows slightly strange, and wonder whether a simple opening pane would not be cheaper and lighter; the ones fitted were at least easy to open and sufficiently large as to be useful, though air-conditioning is fitted as standard.

The cab layout matches that found on the manufacturer’s E10s and E12s. JONATHAN WELCH

Cab area

Moving to the front of the bus, the small front wheel arches are topped with a luggage rack on the nearside, and a box housing electrical equipment on the offside. Pelican Bus & Coach’s Ian Downie explained that Pelican is looking at moving this on future deliveries, though it didn’t feel intrusive. The cab partition is tinted but clear, allowing passengers a forward view; useful on a busy city shuttle.

Despite a different external appearance, anyone who has already driven its bigger brothers will feel at home in the cab of the E9. Even those who haven’t will find the cab layout easy to adjust to; buttons are arranged in an easy to reach manner, and are easy to operate.

The door controls are within easy reach, with options to open and close each door individually or both at the same time. I found it useful to have a European-style hold brake operated by a short flick-switch alongside the steering wheel, whilst opening the doors also applied the hold brake. To prevent the bus being left without the handbrake applied, a warning sounds when the weight is removed from the driver’s seat as a reminder; I couldn’t help thinking that the alarms and warnings fitted were much more suited to a pleasant working and travelling environment – and no less effective – than the shrill squawks and screeches found on some other manufacturers’ products.

A common gripe I find with bus cabs is the controls for heating and ventilation, located overhead and out of the driver’s eye-line. Whilst I would prefer these to be dashboard-mounted, the standard control unit for heating and air-conditioning was at least easily visible and pointing towards the driver. Electrically-operated sun blinds are fitted, whilst each end of the fixed dashboard has air vents built in to demist side windows, in addition to those on the main binnacle pointing at the driver.

Retrofitted and easily identifiable by it’s round button on the bank of switches is a tram-style gong to warn passengers of the bus’ presence. Fitted to allow the service to operate over pedestrianised streets, before launch of the service, this was further modified to also make a frog-like ribbeting noise, which despite expectations seemed to be both more effective in drawing attention and not as irritating or cringeworthy as it could easily have been! Certainly, the gentle dong-ribbet…dong-ribbet got the attention of passers by, and one Arriva driver in particular was rather amused during the launch event in Leicester! See our YouTube video for the full effect.

Raising a more serious point, whilst the gong is a good move in the right direction, I think it would be further improved by being operated by either a foot switch or stalk within reach of the steering wheel. I also strongly advocate that such a device should be mandatory on all electric or hydrogen vehicles; it provides a much friendlier warning than a horn, and gives the driver a more active method of warning of the bus approaching than the scratchy, passive, background noise of AVAS systems.

Access for wheelchair users is easy via the centre door. JONATHAN WELCH

On the road

So, what was the bus like to drive? Stepping into the cab, I felt like I was driving a ‘big bus’ rather than a large midi or mini. The coach-like driver’s seat helped the impression, and meant I was easily able to find a driving position that suited me, in combination with the adjustable steering wheel and dashboard. A key feature, and one of the first I look for when stepping into a cab, was the coat hook behind the driver’s seat along with retaining strap.

Further practicality came in the form of a large door pocket, enough for a document folder or small bottles, while there was enough space for a small bag by my left foot. Wheelarch intrusion behind the seat means no storage space there. Above my head, a dual mirror gave a good view of the saloon.

The dash itself has Yutong’s usual dual speedo, showing speed in both numeric and gauge format, as well as a gauge showing the real-time energy use. Other information includes the state of charge and range. It would be unfair to make a judgement on the available range displayed at the time of the test, as our test bus had only delivery and demonstration mileage, but had also been switched on with heating and lighting active whilst stationary for a significant amount of time for demonstration and viewing purposes, skewing the displayed average figure somewhat.

Starting the bus is easy with the push of two buttons, and having made myself comfortable, I found myself immediately at home. On the road, once I’d adjusted to the smaller dimensions, I quickly felt confident positioning the bus on the road, and was impressed by the smooth yet powerful rate of acceleration. On our trip into Leeds, the bus quickly reached its 50mph top speed and maintained it with a composure that many larger buses struggle to match. That was all the more impressive considering the small wheels and the weight of the 255kWh batteries on the roof; of course, that weight – the E9 tips the scales at 9,920kg – also plays a part in helping the bus feel solid and planted on the tarmac.

I took in a number of routes around Leeds city centre, encompassing fast and slow, wide and narrow, smooth and rough roads, and found it difficult to unsettle the bus. The short overhangs and narrow width further helped counter any potential centre door issues, making it easy to position close to the kerb at stops.

Build quality appeared very good throughout, with no unexpected rattles or noise from the bodywork or fittings apparent. I’ve driven other new products with cab doors that rattle or ceiling panels that clatter; none of that was in evidence here, even without the noise of a diesel engine to mask it.

Reversing sensors are fitted, and a visual and audio warning is given if the driver leaves the seat without applying the handbrake, even if the translation is not perfect. JONATHAN WELCH

Overall thoughts

There are lots of plus points about the E9; its size, its quality, and dare I say it, even its layout. I suspect the latter is what will sell it – or otherwise – to operators, but it does seem to solve the problem faced by ‘wheel forward’ models of the driver having to twist around to take fares, whilst still maintaining easy access for wheelchair users and pushchairs. It does away with the wasted and otherwise unusable space of a long front overhang to accommodate wide doors, and means no bashed knuckles for wheelchair users in a narrow aisle.

Capacity for 23 seated and up to 39 standing passengers is likely to be more than adequate for the use cases it is aimed at. It’s a bus that seems very competent at what it does, but will need a shift in mindset from drivers and passengers if it is to achieve its full potential as a contender in the midibus segment. From the driver’s seat, I have no hesitation in saying that the solidly-built E9 appeared to offer an excellent workplace, as well as a pleasant travelling environment. Look beyond the unconventional layout, and the E9 appears to have great potential in a market where operators are increasingly looking to match provision to demand.