Orion goes electric

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The Mellor Orion has long been popular among community transport groups, and now the Orion E variant has arrived – offering a zero-emission option. Richard Sharman visited the very first operator of the Orion E, community transport operator H.A.R.T., to find out how the new technology is working for them

H.A.R.T. (Holderness Area Rural Transport) was the very first operator to take delivery of the latest Mellor Orion E model. This is significant in two ways. First, it is helping to deliver zero-emission travel to the Hornsea area community; second, it is paving the way for other operators to learn from their experiences of being a small community transport operator running a state-of-the-art electric vehicle.
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Several services are operated by H.A.R.T. to help the community it serves get to the shops, doctors and hospital appointments in its large operating area. The 12-vehicle fleet is dominated by Mercedes-Benz Sprinters, so the Mellor Orion E was a big departure for H.A.R.T. – although a Fiat Ducato-based Bluebird Orion from 2013 was inherited from another community transport group.

The all-electric, fully low-floor bus was commissioned by H.A.R.T. as a joint venture between gas and electricity supplier E.ON and English rural development programme Leader, which is funded by the European Union and UK Government.

Caroline Wegrzyn is the Manager at H.A.R.T., and said: “This vehicle will be running on rural routes where electric vehicles are being tested and infrastructure is not as advanced as urban areas. This is our first Mellor bus in a varied fleet of 12 vehicles. The Orion E will be driven by volunteers, transporting members of the community for shopping trips and days out, and the opportunity of running an all-electric vehicle offered financial and environmental advantages.”

This vehicle represents the second incarnation of the Orion E, the first vehicles having been based on the Euro V Fiat Ducato since 2016. Mellor has worked extensively with electric vehicle specialist Emoss to develop the Orion E to the product it is today.

Talking about the new Orion E on Mellor’s website, Managing Director John Randerson said: “Over the last 12 months our engineers have tested exciting advancements in electric vehicle technology, specifically concerning battery performance, drivetrains and charging systems. Successful testing confirmed that the time is now right to uplift the Orion E’s specification to reflect these advancements and to include small improvements suggested by operators who have learned from real experiences working with the Orion E in diverse operational and geographic environments.”

First impressions
Those unaware that H.A.R.T.’s Orion is an ‘E’ variant would be forgiven for thinking it was simply a standard diesel version with an air-conditioning pod mounted to the roof. This is no bad thing; electric buses shouldn’t stick out like a sore thumb if they are meant to be the new norm in public transport.

The Mellor Orion is an attractive, modern-looking vehicle in its standard form and in ‘E’ guise. The OEM Fiat chassis cowl does have a purposeful look about it though, which is why many of the older standard Orions still look so youthful.

H.A.R.T. has applied a bright green vinyl livery to the white paint, ensuring that passengers and motorists are aware of its green credentials.

Exterior

The Fiat Ducato chassis cowl sets the front of the vehicle up for an aerodynamic angled windscreen to be fitted. Where the destination screen is normally situated on the service bus variant is masked out on this vehicle, as it is not required. This particular vehicle has retained its standard grey bumpers, rather than being body-coloured.

The Orion E manages to pull off a big bus look at 7,472mm in length, although at 2,200mm wide, it is only 300mm short of the width of an Optare Solo.

The lines of the Orion E flow well, thanks to the continuation of the large windscreen through to the side of the vehicle where large saloon windows are also used. Short grey-coloured side panels allow for any accident damage to be easily replaced; these are also fitted with coach-style orange marker lights, a useful touch when operating in rural areas in the dark.

The rapid sliding door opens outwards and stays tight to the body, allowing the vehicle to maintain a large entry area. However, the door controls seem to be overcomplicated; a standard button is used to open the door, but in an emergency a large handle requires pulling up to deactivate the door and pull it out of the body frame to allow it to be slid open. The main advantage to the system, though, is that the entry door is lockable, with the key barrel located next to the red emergency handle.

The two strings of batteries have been cleverly hidden behind the destination dome, which also hides the vehicle’s electronics and the electrically-powered heating systems. The charging point for the batteries is located where you would normally find the diesel tank filler, underneath the cab window.

The rear of the vehicle has also been well designed. A recessed rear window prevents dirt from gathering on it too quickly on wet days, and is also functional as the reversing camera is also built into the recess. Round LED light units have been fitted to the rear of the vehicle with high-level brake lights, and other lights are set at an angle above the three-piece bumper. The rear number plate is slightly recessed.

Vehicle interior

The Orion E had a big bus feel about it; the entrance is wide thanks to the large Ventura hinged, manually-operated wheelchair ramp mounted to the platform of the vehicle. Yellow handrails are mounted to the left of the platform which also double up as forming part of the framework for the cab area. There is a handrail stanchion to the right of the platform, but this is set back too far to be of use when boarding.

Once you are inside the Orion E that big bus feel continues. The saloon floor is completely flat throughout the interior. Tracking is fitted to the floor in the wheelchair area, along with straps required to secure a wheelchair which are mounted on saloon wall panels. Wheelchair access is very good as the wheelchair bay leads on from the ramp. There is a small luggage pen to the right of the entry door, but it has been well set back to ensure wheelchair users have an uninterrupted space to manoeuvre in.

The vehicle tested had 14 passenger seats, the two next to the wheelchair bay being of the flip-up type. Passengers who would rather sit on their own are also catered for, as two single seats are mounted over the rear wheel arches. The two seats at the rear of the Orion E are fitted centrally, allowing for a clear emergency exit area and for a storage pen to be fitted on the nearside rear. This is to contain all the various harnesses and straps that may be required when securing particular types of wheelchairs.

The Rescroft CT Lite seating is quite firm on the back, but the actual seat squab is quite deep. All seats have three-point seatbelts, a headrest and four yellow handrails for each pair of seats. Legroom in all seats is generous. The interior of the vehicle, once you pass the platform, has no handrail stations, but the handrails built into the seats should be sufficient.

Heating in the Orion E is provided by an electronically-powered Eberspacher unit. Additionally, ventilation comes from four sliding windows fitted in the saloon. The Happich opening skylight is surrounded by the battery pack storage area, which is visible from the saloon.

The interior panels of the Orion E are two-tone, with the roof coving being in white and the window frames and rear section in grey. The centre of the roof has fabric panels fitted, into which an air extractor is installed at the rear, along with stereo speakers and an opening skylight. Saloon lighting is provided by two continuous LED strips on either side of the vehicle. Build quality is good and everything fits together very well.

The test drive

The on-dash monitor displays energy information and also doubles as the reversing camera monitor. RICHARD SHARMAN

H.A.R.T.’s depot is located on the coastline of East Riding in the town of Hornsea. Luckily the former milk float depot already had the power system in place to enable the charging system to be easily installed. I was expecting to find a large charging infrastructure, but it was just a simple power outlet fitted to the exterior of the building; the lead then just plugs straight into the Orion E. Mellor lists the charging cycle as 4.25 hours.

However, H.A.R.T. tends to use the vehicle AM and PM so just tops it up in between runs, as it generally only drops to around 80% after a few hours out in the morning.

The Orion E had already been out during the morning before returning to the depot, and was plugged in when I arrived during the afternoon for the test drive.

With the Orion E unplugged, it was time to get familiar with the vehicle’s controls. The OEM Fiat Ducato dashboard controls remain exactly the same as the diesel version.

The dashboard layout is fairly basic, but everything is easily to hand and the driver benefits from in-dash air-conditioning, which was needed on the day. A small monitor is fitted in the offside corner above the dash. This unit displays current charge, the power used and also doubles up as the reversing camera monitor when reverse is selected. It also has the controls for the heating on the touch screen.

Controls for the body electronics are all mounted on a separate Intellitec control unit under the cab window. This contains the controls for the powered sunblind, interior lighting, extractor fan, suspension kneeling, and the door open and close buttons. Ahead of this panel is a large red emergency stop button, which will isolate the vehicle electronics in an emergency. A VDO digital tacho unit is also fitted in the rear corner of the cab.

Getting ready to depart the depot, I found the driver’s seat comfortable and all-around vision very good, but there was one crucial thing missing: an interior mirror. This would normally be mounted under the destination box, but this example had not had one from new. To prepare the vehicle to move, you are still required to use the key to turn the ignition on, as you would with a diesel.

Once the ignition is on, the monitor on top of the dash comes on and displays the vehicle’s power level and battery level. The engine temperature, fuel gauge and rev counter are all disabled however, as they’re not required. The Orion E uses an AS-Tronic-style gear selector unit and retains the OEM handbrake. Whilst in drive the vehicle stays perfectly still until you apply some acceleration. A hill-hold function is also a feature on this vehicle. The charging area where the vehicle was parked was in a slight dip. My experience of electric vehicles is that acceleration is often rapid, so I teased the pedal slightly, but wasn’t enough – the Orion E is not the same as other electric buses I have driven. Pulling away is not instantaneous, so in this case, I had to press down fairly hard on the pedal to get it out of the dip.

Once at the main road, it was a case of getting used to the acceleration; progression from a standstill is smooth but at a steady pace, but once over 5 mph it picks up speed fairly quickly thanks to the transmission’s gear ratio of 7.3:1 and the 5,000 Nm peak torque delivered to the front wheels. Heading down the hill into Hornsea town centre, I was expecting the Orion E to feel quite heavy with the weight of the batteries on the roof, but in fact, it felt quite light, with the suspension taking care of potholes without issue. The rear suspension is air rather than coil, which as on the Mellor demonstrator allows the vehicle to be lowered and a hinged inboard lift to be lowered through ambulance-style rear doors.

Around the town of Hornsea, the steering was light and the interior was, impressively, completely rattle-free. The only noises that could be heard were the loud fan in the engine bay for the air-conditioning and the sound of the brake cylinder when in use.

Heading out of Hornsea towards the coastal town of Aldbrough, there were a few roundabouts to take. At low speed, the Orion E remained composed and easily manoeuvrable, so once out onto the B1242 I picked up some more speed. Progress from 30 to 50 mph was fairly rapid and, given the size of the Orion E, the suspension remained smooth at speed.

One feature of the Emoss electric drive is that as soon as you take your foot off the accelerator, the Orion E slows; this is where the regenerative braking kicks in. It would easily be possible to plan ahead and drive this vehicle using that feature. This would assist in helping maintain the battery’s charge.

There were quite a few bends on that road which could have been taken at relative speed, but after testing the Orion E on some of them, the weight in the roof became apparent. No more than 40mph appeared to be the comfortable limit when taking bends on the open road. Building that speed back up again was no problem though, and thanks to the 96 kW of power under my right foot, progress to the village of Aldbrough was quickly made. The vehicle tested was limited to 62 mph, although I only had the chance to take it to 50 mph on the B-roads.

Departing off the main road onto some of the narrower country lanes, I encountered a few service buses coming the other way. Whilst the Orion E is not the narrowest of minibuses, it is small enough to allow a standard-sized bus to easily pass without having to put the vehicle into a hedge!

Arriving at Aldbrough, where coastal erosion is a major problem, I had to turn the Orion E around. The car park that could be used to do this had fallen into the sea a couple of years ago, so I used a pull in to turn around. Reversing the Orion E was easy thanks to the large OEM mirrors and the reversing camera.

Whilst returning to the depot, I thought to myself that this really was a viable product for use on service work. Of course, the range and charge time has to be factored in, but it is ideal for town or city services. At its highest capacity, the Orion E can seat 16 passengers, although no standees, which is enough for most town service operations depending on frequency.

Arriving back at the depot in Hornsea, I felt that the vehicle design and concept worked really well. Mellor has done a great job of offering operators an alternative to the standard Fiat Ducato in diesel form.


Technical Specification

Range 100 miles
Passengers As tested 14 seated or 12 seated plus 1 wheelchair
Motor EMOSS motor with E-Gear 7.3:1 Transmission
Max torque at wheels 5,000 Nm peak/2,400Nm nominal
Battery Two strings 92kWh
Max. speed 62mph
Tyres Kumho 225/75R 16C with steel wheels
Charging time 4.25 hours
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