The ‘Made in India’ Scania Metrolink HD is a modern and comfortable inter-city coach that utilises technology to make a sustainable business case.
It feels weird at first; the seating position is low. A large windscreen puts it in perspective. It rises to meet the roof like a façade of a modern building, almost vertically. Elephant ear-like protrusions contain the rear-view mirrors as they extend further than the windscreen, at the top, on either sides. While they grant a good view of the sides, a sprawling dashboard seems to declare that this automobile is bigger than the biggest American car money could buy. Costing over a crore Indian rupees, this one’s big. Really big. Measuring a whopping 14.5 m in length, a section of the dash seems to envelope the driver; provide him his space as well as the room to feel comfortable, and in command. The seat is air-suspended, and the steering is adjustable for reach. A small switch on the left column flank operates with a ‘whoosh’ before the column can be moved ahead or pulled back towards the driver. This is made necessary not just to arrive at a good driving position, but also to ensure that the driver can easily exit or enter.
The large diameter multi-function steering wheel matches in scale with the dash, visually speaking that is. Both reflect a high quality of build. Even the bits like the large and easy-to-read instrument panel (with two large and small dials, and an LCD readout at the centre). They form the nerve centre of this modern luxury, inter-city coach from Scania. Arguably the most modern that an operator can lay his hands on, this coach – the Scania Metrolink HD, was introduced at the 2013 Busworld (India) in three variants – a 12 m two-axle coach, and a 13.7 m and 14.5 m multi-axle coach. Until April this year, it was sourced from Scania’s captive coach builder in Malaysia. After the Greenfield facility at Narsapura, Bangalore, went on stream in April (adjacent to Scania’s truck plant), the bus is made in India. The coach body, according to Scania India sources, is 100 per cent localised. The chassis is assembled at the truck plant from components and aggregates sourced from Sweden. An amount of localisation is also finding its way into the chassis. Currently it is at a level where the tyres, batteries, wheels, etc., are sourced locally.
If the high quality of build and fit-finish impresses, sources are quick to state that quality here is guarded like a Swedish fortress. That, robust processes are followed even if it would mean spending some more time to get it right. Hard to fault, the Metrolink HD indeed impresses with its build quality and finish standards. Inside as well as outside. If the coach looks smart and distinct, bringing the front up to speed are the sleek headlamps and a black ‘surround’ that seems to envelope the large screen and the portion at the bottom. The one surrounding the screen has Scania inscribed on it along with the monogram. Capable of seating 53 people in superior comfort levels (seats are from Harita), the sides are made up of bolted or glued aluminium panels that are easy to replace in case of damage. They also contribute to keep the weight down. The bus weighs close to 19,000 kg (GVW). Surrounding the engine area at the rear is a distinctly designed grille. Dominating the rear is a vertical lamp bank, and a stylish window enclosure at the top.
The High-Deck (HD) body is built on a semi-integral chassis. The 410 bhp, 13-litre, six-cylinder, in-line, unit injector, turbo-diesel engine is longitudinally located at the rear. Generating a torque of 2000 Nm @ 1000-1350 rpm, the flow goes to the rear axle (the other axle is a steerable, tag axle) through an 8-speed GRS 875 (Opticruise) automated manual transmission (with retarder). Suspension at either axle is pneumatic, and enables a certain increase in ride height when negotiating unruly speed humps and bad patches. One of the switches that forms the bank to the left of the instrument panel is to activate this function, and is supported by an indication on the dash. Ride height automatically comes back to normal once the obstacle is tackled. To tackle the Indian operating conditions, the suspension, according to Scania sources, has been beefed up. Even certain changes were carried out to the chassis and body to ensure that they can endure the Indian operating conditions.
The two fuel tanks, worth 465-litres, have been relocated to in-front of the rear-axle for safety. Similarly, the battery is placed in an enclosure behind the front-axle. Besides my seat, on the right, is a fire extinguisher. Drivers are trained to use the fire extinguisher before they are allowed to drive the bus. Apart from the use of fire-extinguishers, drivers at the Scania driver training academy, undergo a four-day programme. They are taught to drive efficiently and scientifically; carry out minor repairs like belt change, tyre change, etc., and learn to read the error codes so that they can communicate easily with Scania service in case of a breakdown.
The optional fire suppression system, which sprays foam in nanoseconds after detecting fire, and which usually originates in the engine chamber, has not yet been bought by any Scania client. The company sources are hoping that the government makes it mandatory. Each pillar has bright red-coloured hammer fixed on it to facilitate the breaking of glass in case of an emergency. Some competitors are known to mark one of the many window glasses as an emergency exit. On this buses either glass can be broken. An emergency exit door, like in an aircraft, is also provided. Made aware of the nitty-gritties, it is now time to step on the gas. This is facilitated by turning the knob on the multi-function stalk to the right of the steering column into ‘D’. ‘D’ engages power. There are only two pedals – brake and accelerator pedal. The knob also has ‘N’ (for neutral), and ‘R’ (for reverse) written on it. A far-cry from the manual transmission found on some of the other luxury, inter-city coaches, a press button at the edge of this stalk enables to choose ‘Auto’ or ‘Manual’ mode, and is marked as A/M. In manual mode, every uplift of the stalk gets the transmission into a higher cog. Alternatively, the transmission will shift at redline.
Push the stalk down, and the transmission downshifts. Release the parking brake, situated to the right of the instrument panel, and press the accelerator. Like a gentle giant, the coach silently takes off. With hardly any engine noise reaching thus far, the only medium to know what’s going on is the instrument panel. If this marks the difference between buses built on truck chassis with the engine at front, and modern ones with the engine at the rear, the tacho needle moves up and even before one is aware, the transmission has shifted from 2nd to 4th. No jerk, or any sign of trepidation whatsoever.
The only reminder for what otherwise feels like driving a car, is the size and the mass of this bus. It’s big. It is, in fact, one of the longest buses currently available in India. I am seated ahead of the front axle. The position is in-line with the fact that a bus should dedicate maximum amount of space to its occupants. The seats on this bus are the most comfortable one could buy. There’s however a choice for the buyer on which seats he could opt for. Going down a slope the need for the exhaust brake arises; it is one of the buttons on the switch bank to the left of the instrument panel. A tiny flip switch on the gearshift stalk has already been turned to ‘1’. The retarder will engage every time brakes are applied. I don’t need to pull the stalk towards me every time I have to engage the retarder.
It does not take much to reach speeds in the region of 100 kmph on the highway. Speed, on this bus, is limited to 100 kmph. A sticker clearly mentions it on the dash. Laced with an understanding of ergonomics, driver comfort and much of what would make the driver drive safe, this bus, no doubt, marks an amalgamation of modern technology and a promising business proposition. Seeming to wrap around the driver, though not quite like a sports car, the Metrolink HD feels equally at home on a narrow stretch of road. Perhaps an outcome of the fact that this coach provides a pliant ride over a variety of surfaces, and the driver a good view of the surrounding. The steerable tag axle at the rear aids manoeuvring. Use of manual mode also enables better control over narrow, and congested roads. Auto mode is not bad either, and it finally is about what makes the driver feel in command, state Scania sources.
Every manoeuvre is reminding me of how comfortable, and manageable this bus is, to drive, and on a variety of roads – wide or narrow; straight or fairly twisty. Given its length (turning radius is close to 12,000 mm), this luxury coach will not make a suitable productivity tool for an operator in the hilly regions of the north, or over the twisty back roads of Konkan. It is a long-legged highway animal, and will be at home on a modern, four-lane highway rather than a single-lane highway like the one that goes to Shimla. For highways like the one that goes to Shimla, the 12 m two-axle luxury variant would be suitable. Back to the 13.7 m and 14.5 m multi-axle design, and it is clear that the Metrolink HD facilitates the carriage of people in superior comfort.
At the end of the drive, Scania sources mention that one bus per day is currently made at the Greenfield site. Perhaps, in-line with the fact that the market amounts to less than 1,000 units per annum. As demand picks up, the number will be hiked to two per day. As of now, Kerala State Road Transport Corporation orders are being catered to. The next dispatches are expected to be to Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC). The bus that I just drove is set to leave for Kerala. It will undergo trials at the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation. It came back a couple of days ago from Kerala after conducting trails with a private operator there. Aiming at public as well as private operators, it is clear that Scania is here for a long-haul. It is here to work closely with the CV market and address its need for a sustainable and profitable solution. An effort in this direction would also include the Ethanol-powered city bus plying at Nagpur. With an aim to introduce bio-gas propelled city bus, Scania got Swedfund to invest in India for local production of bio-gas from urban waste. In view of such developments, the Metrolink HD luxury inter-city coach reflects the abilities of its manufacturer. It also reflects the desire to provide a modern coach; a coach that is comfortable and safe. What counts most is that the Metrolink HD is made in India.