Iconic Evolution

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While this Volvo B11R-based protype is to join the Edwards fleet, a Scania K410EB6x2*4-based prototype will be heading to Skills next month. Both chassis types are in widespread use under the current Levante II. GARETH EVANS

Gareth Evans reports on the plethora of features aboard National Express’ new Caetano Levante III body, which was unveiled at the Portuguese bodybuilder’s Leicestershire dealership last week

National Express UK Coach (NX) unveiled its new Levante III coach body at Caetano’s UK headquarters near Coalville, Leicestershire on Wednesday (September 27). The striking new vehicle will shortly enter service with Edwards Coaches and more immediately will be displayed on Caetano’s stand at the Coach & Bus UK show at the NEC this week. While this example is based on Volvo’s B11R chassis, a Scania-based variant will be heading to the UK from Caetano’s Portuguese factory in the coming weeks.


“We started this project in 2015,” explained Richard Ball, Head of Engineering at NX UK Coach. “At that time, we were working with Richard Hunter, CEO of Caetano UK on a number of secret projects – including the Boa Vista double-decker.

“We’d already got an ongoing project that we were calling ‘safe & light’ which was about improving the safety of our customers. With Richard and his team’s help, we’ve done a lot of work to mitigate the increasing weight that was mandated by Euro 5 and 6 – and replacing it with components that were both stronger and lighter. We were looking out for new products that were coming into the market which we felt could help us and also things we felt could help improve life for the driver and customer alike. Our business is moving people safely and economically – we have to make a coach which does that. Once we’d started this project, we got a number of stakeholders together. Effectively, we had a big wish list of things we really wanted to cover – including aesthetics, safety, customer comfort and others were purely about design. At each point during the process, we were trying to make iterative changes.

“We tried to make a change that we could develop and understand what the output of that change was, so we could feed back again – it was a constant loop. Some of the things that are on this vehicle such as the seats, we’ve tested in the double-decker. Although trimmed differently in the double-decker, they’re the same model of Politecnica seats. Similarly, we removed 240V sockets and replaced them with double USBs on each seat. Again, the genesis of that was in the double-deck product.” [wlm_nonmember][…]

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Explaining the exterior styling of the 59-seater 14.9m long coach, Richard said: “We wanted to keep the design cues of the earlier Levantes. You’ll appreciate that if you’re putting a brand new coach out into the market, everyone will want one. We can’t have the previous versions looking incredibly outdated. The styling cues at the front, such as the smiling face are recognisable features.

“We wanted a road presence – we need a vehicle that represents our brand. We’ve now got a muscular design over the wheelarches for example.”

This prototype lacks the additional offside mirror, but the later, production vehicles will have it as an option.

Stressing that the relationship NX has with Caetano is a “partnership,” Richard added: “It’s in the interest of both Caetano and NX that the vehicles are as good as they can be.”

Also present at the unveiling was Jorge Guedes, Caetano’s Process and Prototype Manager, who project managed the Levante III. He told CBW: “I turned the NX design brief into reality. I worked with a design company. Three sketches were prepared. Visually, we wanted to maintain the family styling of the Levante II and the Boa Vista.”


Highlighting the re-designed crew seat environment, Richard said: “One of the complaints we had, particularly from operators who run long-distance services where there is double manning, was about the crew seat. The team at Caetano took a lot of care to review the crew seat design – so that’s all new. The difficulty with a wide entrance is there’s no room for the second driver to put their feet – their legs aren’t long enough to reach the footrest that would normally be fitted below the dash.

“Jorge came up with a different solution, one I’ve not seen elsewhere. In order to provide the driver with somewhere to put their feet, we automated it.”

The Hidrel cassette wheelchair lift is a slight variant on the model currently used. “The minor difference being how we make the connection between the lift and the coach floor,” explained Richard.

“There has to be a landing place for the lift when it reaches the top. A box to the side of the driver’s seat is the landing place, which has given us the opportunity for two real benefits. There may be a need to isolate the vehicle quickly, so we’ve been able to relocate the isolator to the cab – traditionally that would have been accessed via a panel outside. It’s more like a bus. Another benefit of the box is we’ve been able to integrate some driver storage – a useful space adjacent to the seat to store the ticket book and belongings. We’ve been working on secure driver storage for some time – the challenge has been to find a suitable location.”


NX has been using Volvo’s B11R chassis on the network for some time now. Levante III retains NX’s familiar Traffilog and DriveCam third-party safety systems, as well as Volvo’s systems.

“However, this is the first vehicle we’ve ever had with VDS (Volvo Dynamic Steering),” said Richard. “Our policy is that we’ll fit it as standard from now on. It will come as part of Levante III rather than Levante II.

“Between the steering wheel and steering box is effectively an electric motor. It interposes between the box and the wheel, so that any shock or load that’s applied to the driver as a result of a poor road surface actually gets absorbed. It’s a different and comfortable feel when you’re reversing in particular. Therefore, it becomes less fatiguing for the driver.”

Stressing the importance of considering the driver, Richard said: “We’ve aimed to make the Levante III as comfortable as possible for drivers and also reducing their level of fatigue. That means we’ve got a different air-conditioning box for the driver, so there’s better flow rates to the cab. We’ve got a UVB-absorbing screen to reduce the heat from the sun. We’ve redesigned the dashboard too so that the most commonly used switches are closest to hand.”


In front of the first row of seats on the offside, the driver’s screen and night blind has been retained to prevent reflection at night for the driver.

According to Richard, another striking change in the Levante III is the design of the seats: “Something I’ve noticed from aircraft design is the ability for users to bring their own luggage on board – and as it’s become increasingly the norm for people to bring tech, such as smartphones and tablets, they’re more comfortable keeping it with them rather than stowing it in the hold.

“That means we need to consider where they’re going to put it. You’ll notice at the front of each seat, we’ve put a grey bar that prevents luggage sliding forward, so you can put your rucksack under the seat in front like you would on an aircraft. In order to accommodate that, we’ve removed the footrests, which previously would have blocked access to that space.

“In terms of the NMI seat and wheelchair location, we’re using a similar arrangement to what we’ve had previously. That gives us a couple of benefits – it means driver training is reduced and for customers, we’ll offer consistency of product. From our point of view, we’re happy to continue using NMI and we’ve made some adjustments to the wheelchair space available as clearly, we’re accommodating a crew seat too. With bigger wheelchair becoming increasingly common, we have to be aware of that, so this space is now larger.

“On the back of each seat, there are two USB points. Again, that’s customer demand. If they’re going to use VUER to download a film to watch on their tablet, they’re also going to want to keep their phone topped up.”

The seats still retain their familiar headrest and the belts automatically adjust on the side. The windowsill is now at a lower, more customer-friendly height. The LED lighting control is different, though. The ignition switches them all off and resets, so there is no problem with lights being left on and hence battery drain.

The overhead racks are akin to an aircraft interior, but handrails on the edges of the racks have been maintained. Curtains have been retained in response to customer demand. Those with an eye for such detail may notice that the floor theatre is .3 of a degree steeper.

Underfloor heating

The most striking thing about the floor is that there are no convector radiators. “Again, that’s a new innovation for us,” explained Richard. “We recognise that the process of controlling the saloon temperature is a significant driver for customer complaints – and more importantly, it’s a significant driver for customer comfort. We talked to Caetano about alternative options for saloon heating. I believe we’ve got something that nobody else has now – it’s like underfloor heating in a bathroom.”

Jorge agreed: “This is the first time we’ve used a system like this on a coach. It’s a radiant, electric floor that works with the air-conditioning system, which controls the whole climate on board.

“We have sensors under the seats, which inform the system whether heat is required from the floor for example. Small thin sheets run under the seating bays. We have different zones – back, left and right and front left and right.”

Richard added: “We’ve recognised that if you’re driving a coach down the motorway and the sun’s bright, there’s normally a hot and a cool side – and there’s a bit over the engine and a bit in front of the windscreen. Trying to get perfect temperature in a vehicle that’s many cubic metres is always going to be difficult. Caetano recognises optimisation of the system will be required, but we’ve factored that into our plans.

“Removing the radiators means we’re not transporting water. One way to improve reliability is to remove water and hence leaks.”


“The toilet has been a lot of work for us. We’ve made it larger, more spacious and smoothed the design out to remove the corners,” explained Richard.

“There are a couple of things that impact on the way a WC performs. One is the last person to use it, so we want to make it easy to use. The second is the physical location – which means you’re trying to deal with volumes of waste above a hot engine. You have to really think how its designed and how you can reduce the smell and deal with that waste effectively.

“We’ve relocated the WC from its traditional nearside location to the offside. The change of side was driven by Jorge’s desire to try to make the drop between WC and waste tank as smooth, straight and simple as possible.

“After all, the easier you get rid of the waste and the better you treat it, the less likely you are to have a smelly WC. A great deal of effort has gone into it.

“Again, looking at the design, 99.9% of coach WCs have swing doors. Early in the process, we decided we wanted a sliding door, but it’s subject to G-forces, which means that if it’s open slightly and the driver brakes, the door will bump – so we’ve fitted a soft close feature.

“The challenge is to keep the environment clean. We’ve replaced the fibreglass bowl with a stainless steel bowl. It makes cleaning easier and frankly, it looks better.

“In terms of the space inside the compartment, there is twice if not three times more volume compared to centre sunken WC. A WC is important to our business. Having a floor-mounted WC removes a tripping hazard – there are no stairs as there would be with a continental type. It’s also important that there’s enough room to change a child in there. I work on the basis that if I can fit, the likelihood is so can everyone else.”

As is increasingly found in WCs in restaurants and bars, there is an occupant detector, which is linked to pressure sensor fans, helping to deal with odours.

Addressing operators’ concerns, cascading the Levante III will be easier as the WC module can now be demounted in situ and removed via the rear exit. A rear dome has been manufactured and four seats can be inserted in its place for its second life.

Richard said: “Operators told us they wanted a second life for their Levantes. In fact, if you look round the vehicle, there is Levante branding but none for NX. The only NX branding is on the staircase and that plate can quickly be changed. The key is to design that in from the beginning – this coach has already been homologated.”

Emergency exits

To comply with European step regulations, when the emergency door is opened, steps flip down.

“We can’t have customers hopping out the emergency door, so again in advance of the forthcoming legislaion we’ve fitted an emergency door lock that comes in once the vehicle reaches a speed of 5kph (3mph). That lock prevents the unintended effect of a customer opening a door. A test button is fitted to help staff check the system is operational,” explained Richard.

Since 2009, NX has had a policy of having floor lights. “This is photoluminescent technology,” Jorge enthused. “When the vehicle enters its emergency state, the light indicates the way out. From next year, it will be a legislative requirement, so we’re ahead of the game – and we don’t want to change the product in 2018/19. NX is the first customer to have this system as far as I’m aware. Another piece of forthcoming legislation we’ve built this coach to comply with is larger roof hatches.”

A proud partnership: Richard Ball, Head of Engineering at NX UK Coach and Jorge Guedes, Caetano’s Process and Prototype Manager, who project managed the Levante III. Jon Hopkiss

Front, back & sides

Impressively, the front bonnet parts all come apart like a clamshell by pulling a chord next to the nearside headlamp. It means routine checks such as screen wash can be carried out with the utmost ease.

“During our regular engineering forums, one of the things we talk about is service accessibility and maintenance – and the ability to repair vehicles quickly. It’s crucial,” Richard enthused.

Turning to the rear, he said: “The ability to advertise on the back of the vehicle is of great value to us. The requirement for ventilation increased under Euro 6, but Caetano has come up with a smart way providing of complying with the regulations, while maintaining the advertising space for us.

Engine bay fire protection is a mandatory requirement from 2018, but NX has been using the Fogmaker system since 2009.

Describing it as “another simple improvement,” Richard said that because a reversing camera gets heavily salt laden, it’s been moved them up the top of the coach: “This provides a better view, reduced risk of damage and means it’s further away from the salt, but more importantly, gives a better view for the driver.”

Highlighting the fact powered lockers are located on the nearside only, Richard said: “We don’t load from the offside anyway, so there’s no need for the power or complexity.

“We’re proud of how open the hold is on this coach. A lot of equipment was previously located there, including the water tanks and the Fogmaker fire extinguishers. The electrical panels were roof mounted and that reduced the headroom. Jorge and his team have decluttered and turned into an open, easy to access space for drivers and engineers alike. We’ve applied what we learned while researching the design of the lockers for the double-deck.

Jorge explained: “We relocated the electrical boards behind the front axle, so they can now be opened like a book. Previously, they were located in the ceiling. They can now be worked on comfortably. Engineers’ tools can be placed on the floor and they don’t have to twist their necks. This has also helped reduce weight.

“The hold is all stainless steel. Assuming the maintenance regime is followed, we expect no issues with corrosion.”

Jorge highlighted another important feature: “Importantly for the driver, we’ve got a new anti-spray system inside the wheelarches. The idea is the salt laden air will be contained within the box, preventing body damage. The box can be unbolted and replaced with ease.

“Outside, the rear wheelarch panel is large but its lightweight.”

Richard took up the story: “The idea of corrosion resistance below the waistrail is all the way round this coach. We’ve bolted the Volvo chassis to the corrosion resistant element of the body, but we’ve not forgotten accessibility for the people who’ll be using these vehicles.”

A new anti-spray system is located inside the wheelarches, containing salt laden air and thus preventing body damage. GARETH EVANS

Next steps

The second prototype – based on a Scania K410EB6x2*4 chassis – which will be operated by Skills – is expected to arrive in the UK in early to mid-November.

During the unveiling, the final livery had to be applied – despite their absence, NX’s familiar radiator stripes may not be ditched.

As for the ‘switchover’ between the body types, Richard said: “There will be a transitional period as we can’t just turn everything off at the factory – it will be before mid-2018.

“In future, NX coaches will generally be tri-axles. There are certain depots and routes which are unsuitable for tri-axles – such as those serving the Mid Wales coast and Cornwall. We have to ensure we have the right design for the right service.

“This coach is a prototype. Some aspects, such as the palette may change in production vehicles. Series production will begin early next year. That will give us the opportunity to test the coach in the real world and to incorporate feedback into subsequent deliveries.”

With so much innovation which is not always apparent in more ‘mainstream’ coaches, Levante is clearly a product of NX’s design process – and it would be easy for some to wonder why it’s not been renamed.

“We wanted to keep the name and family look,” said the ever-modest Richard. “It would be easy to say this is a revolution rather than evolution, but actually look at the way we’ve designed it. Every year we’re doing something different. We’re listening to the operators and the people who are actually driving them and making the changes.”

Edwards debut

Edwards Coaches, which runs NX coaches from depots in Bristol, Swansea and Llantwit Fardre is to operate the inaugural Levante III, with delivery expected in two to three weeks.

Edwards MD Jason Edwards told CBW: “It’s humbling to be asked to be first operator. We will always try to support NX. We need to develop to continue to energise the market and stand out from the crowd.

“Levante is a tool that works – both the body and the Volvo chassis eats up the miles with no fuss. Even our 2011 former NX B9s are immaculate, despite having 1.5m kms on the clock.”

As for where the Levante III will be based, Jason said: “We need to try it on a variety of routes to gain a complete picture. Its inaugural depot has not been decided yet, although Bristol is top of the tree at the moment.

“Richard Ball and his team know the way we work and respect our constructive feedback. It’s no exaggeration to say the NX staff are always open to feedback – it’s a two-way process. That sums up our relationship – a trusted partnership.”