From the first air-conditioned buses bringing soothing relief from tropical Lion City heat back then to world-leading automated bus trials now, Volvo Bus has always led the way.
Laying one degree north of the equator, at the southern point of the 'Peninsula Malay', Singapore's humidity is ultimately best addressed by trying to mentally ignore it. Block it out at all costs, they say. Yet while that's still easier said than done these days, the 'uncomfortability' would have been exacerbated tenfold if stuck on a Singaporean bus circa 1979, as it made its way through crawling city traffic, with no immediate cooling relief in sight.
With the only thing moving fast being beads of sweat dripping down hapless bus commuters' faces, this was something that needed immediate addressing — which Volvo did in 1985 with its first trial of the AC B10M, when it brought in the first air-conditioned buses for Singaporean roads.
This, among many other advancements, upgrades and achievements, has undoubtedly made Volvo Bus the leader in the Lion City's public transport world.
Here, we take a nostalgic look at the company's proud history of providing city and private transport solutions there for the past four decades.
Volvo was founded in Sweden in 1927 and a year later its first bus rolled out onto the streets. The company started with a vision of safe and efficient transportation for everyone. Ever since, Volvo has been at the technological forefront and for decades it has maintained a solid position as the world leader in commercial transportation technology, it states.
Bringing its expertise to the Asian transport hub that is Singapore seemed an inevitable feat.
“It's hard to believe it's been 40 years since Volvo Bus first started supplying, maintaining and advancing its state-of-the-art buses here — particularly as a way for commuters to help beat the city's tropical heat,” said Volvo Bus Asia-Pacific vice president, David Mead.
“It's a unique urban environment given the comparative high cost of private-car ownership and Singapore's Certificate of Entitlement, making public transport key to the success and very functionality of many people's lives, so we are proud and honoured to have gone some way to help facilitate that — for locals and tourists alike — during the past 40 years.
“Our technological advancements are of such value to what we are trying to achieve as a global leader in bus and public transport that the best of such endeavours are only realised when tested purely in cities and regions that truly bring out their best. “Singapore has been one of those areas and it was thus a logical choice for us — along with the government, tertiary and public support — to recently launch one of first major fully automated electric Volvo 7900 bus tests.
“Collectively, with the vital assistance of Nanyang Technological University, we'll be helping shape the way such landmark technology is used and future, refining it with ultimate reliability, efficiency and — most importantly — safety in mind,” Mead explained.
A LEGACY BEGINS
For four decades, Volvo Bus has enjoyed many firsts, brought new innovations, and provided great products and services to Singapore, it states.
In 1979 the Swedish giant landed a very large order to supply SBS Transit with a total of 350 units of B57 buses — at a time when local buses were not yet air-conditioned.
Throughout the 1980s Volvo continued to get orders for the B10M, one of the first mid-engined buses ever introduced into Asia, which served Singapore commuters well for more than 20 years.
As Singapore's population grew from around 2.4 million circa 1979 to more than 5.5 million as of 2017, so did Volvo Buses. It's been working tirelessly with local body builders to make the best complete bus unit that can be made, it states.
The European designed and engineered chassis are manufactured in Sweden and the body-builder partners — like Wrightbus, Volgren and MCV to name a few — add their bodies to it. Yet it is not so simple sounding as connecting a few blocks of Lego; Volvo Bus and the body builders have worked exceedingly closely to ensure supreme quality levels are met while there's a lot of adaptation required to meet the needs of local public transport expectations.
One of the biggest moments in the company's illustrious history was the launch of double-decker buses in Singapore. While it was British Leyland that made the double-deck bus concept famous around the world, it was Volvo Buses that bought out British Leyland Buses in 1989 and soon introduced 200 Leyland Olympian units to the market. These were the first three-axle double-deck city buses that were fully air-conditioned in Singapore.
A sensational hit with the local travelling public and transport operators alike, there was soon a continued order of 470 Volvo Olympian three-axle air-conditioned double-deckers to come. As a concept, these double-decks became very popular thanks to their high passenger capacity — and to date Volvo has put in excess of 2500 of them onto Singaporean roads.
FIRSTS UPON FIRSTS
Population booms mean all types of bus sizing and configurations need to be factored in to maximise various-length routes at various peak and low times throughout the day. In 1996, Volvo chose Singapore as its launch pad for a very special product from its vast range, giving it the longest bus in Asia: the 19-metre B10 articulated and air-conditioned bus.
Along with a 14.4-metre three-axle rigid bus, the two niche products were uniquely tailored to local conditions in close collaboration with local body makers and they successfully served throughout their entire vehicle lives in Singaporean operation.
It should be noted that Volvo Bus has been keeping in mind not only the performance of its products, but also the ease and comfort of the driver and its passengers.
In addition to bringing the first air-conditioned city bus to this tropical island, the first 'true low floor' city bus was introduced in 1999 with the B10TL (Super Olympian model) double-decker.
Merely three years later — in line with a city 'cleaner environment' project — the first 12 B10BLE-CNG units (featuring low entry, running on compressed natural gas) were delivered.
Additionally, as another first, to continuously keep up with the high standard of public transport service and exercising its due diligence in accommodating all local customers' travel requirements, Volvo delivered the Lion City's first batch of buses with wheelchair access in 2006.
BUS CONTRACTS — A TURNING POINT
While the history of Volvo buses in Singapore has been one of continuous development, a big change occurred in 2015 for the company when the Land Transport Authority (LTA) took control of the purchase of city buses, which they then leased to companies such as SBS and SMRT.
The 'Bus Contracting Model' — a new framework for transportation solution introduced by LTA to allow public bus services to be more responsive to changes in ridership and commuter needs — encouraged competition between bus operators. Prior to this, tenders were given by the particular bus operators looking to add to their fleets. However, under the Bus Contracting Model, local and overseas bus operators bid for contracts to operate public bus services on behalf of LTA.
The big impact of the Bus Contracting Model on Volvo was the growth of bus depots.
Previously SBS had five depots where the maintenance work was done, while SMRT had three. When the LTA expanded the depots to 12, and Volvo buses started to operate out of all the depots, it meant parts and services had to be provided over a much greater geographical area, which it has expertly adapted to.
As per current expectations, in 2020 new depots will be added on the island meaning service, technical support, and the parts inventory will again have to be expanded exponentially, which Volvo has already proactively accounted for.
PRIVATE OPERATORS, PREMIUM COACHES
Visitors from around the world will attest to how much of a major tourism hot spot in Asia Singapore is and its reputation as a leading global airline stopover is second to none. Once on the ground and with time to spare, visitors are well primed to take advantage of the Island's beauty and enchanting destinations — and this is where its coach travel sector comes in.
For most of its 40-year history in Singapore, Volvo did not get into private buses in a very big way. Until 2016 that is, when the company started putting more emphasis on this segment and now has a running population of 80 units on the road — and even across the border into Malaysia.
In terms of bespoke product, some coach units have been very specialised, with one unit even going to the Singapore Civil Defence Force as the basis of a special project. Another was sold to Singapore Airlines to be used as a maintenance and repair mobile workshop, which conveniently and safely attends to the aircraft wherever and whenever needed.
With longevity being the key, most buses will be used for 17 years based on local Singaporean regulation; however, the Volvo buses are built for reliability and durability that should last for more than 20 years, the company proudly confirms.
For private operators Volvo offers the B8R 320hp fully automatic transmission chassis — mostly used in Singapore — and the B11R 430hp with the award-winning Volvo I-shift transmission. This advanced piece of technology is more suitable for long-distance touring and city-to-city travel.
With global emissions standards needing to be met, both buses are Euro 6 compliant no less. So who uses them? The near 30 international schools in Singapore are one of the users of Volvo's private buses. Coaches are utilised for 'transporting' both students and company staff. Yes, 'transporting'. For example, Yeap Transport Pte Ltd manages more than 400 buses, and they have become a loyal customer ever since the company started introducing premium coaches to Singapore, Volvo says.
With the tourism segment constantly growing, Sentosa Development Corporation (SDC) has also been an avid supporter of Volvo with its full fleet of 25 units belonging to the brand, as well as SDC also taking the full-time service contract for 10 years, which was recently renewed.
Yet through word of mouth and proven success of the Volvo product in this particular business space, there's always been a growing fan base for Volvo Buses, with companies like Travelzone Network Services, Metro Coach Services, Sin Ann Travel & Coach Services and Regency Travel Pte Ltd etc also happy to enmesh their tourist operations with the big Swede's comfortable, reliable and more environmentally friendly systems and support structures.
As a partner for successful business and as a vehicle manufacturer with an untarnished reputation, Volvo has a commitment to support every customer as best it can, it says. It does so not only with first-class, quality vehicles but also via processes, advice, and services in order to keep the customer’s operation up and running, minimising downtime.
Partnered with ComfortDelgro Engineering (CDGE) since July 2000, Volvo provides a service package for a period of five years, which means the fleet owner doesn’t have to worry about price escalation or the availability of spare parts, it explains.
“It is all locked in and guaranteed to keep the buses in operation. As a solely authorised service workshop, CDGE has been continuously improving its workshop facility and service level, keeping up with new technology and training staff to be able to deal with all the latest developments,” Mead said.
“Not only do they enhance workshop support, but also provide on-site assistance with a fully equipped action service van 24/7.”
In 2001, Volvo opened its regional parts warehouse for all Asia in Singapore. With this excellent access, for years Volvo Buses has been reaching parts availability up to 98 per cent at customer level, it confirms. In fact, Volvo and CDGE pride themselves on driving towards 100 per cent uptime for their buses, says Volvo.
ZERO ACCIDENTS, FATALITY FREE
The aim is as simple as it is noble: zero per cent accidents and fatalities in the region where Volvo's products and services are concerned. The company says it's always been at the forefront of technology with safety as its prime focus — and that proof is in the iconic, world-famous three-point seat belt. How so?
Volvo proudly talks of its development of such life-saving technology, which few will know it let other manufacturers have for free as the company believed it was in the public’s best interests to do so.
Volvo also provides driver training for all bus drivers, regardless of if they are a customer. That is, if they drive city buses or coaches, any driver can take the course. And Volvo has been offering this service for 30 years — again, and all for free.
DATA IS KING
The complexity of the work needed to offer the safest, most comfortable and most environmentally friendly buses and coaches these days is increasing, with new technology rapidly developing and being integrated into the humble bus.
LTA helps drive this development as it looks for innovations that are commuter friendly — ones that are going to make more people want to take public transport and leave their cars at home. With new accessories constantly being added to buses this requires more coordination with suppliers — no easy task given timeframes, deadlines and other associated KPIs all 'round.
To do so, Volvo says it also brings new ideas to its products and so new buses will, “...better meet the riders’ needs and increase safety for all road users.”
Telematics now is crucial, its data is key. This eminently important service for operators is instrumental in the success of their businesses and Volvo says it fully understands this and never underestimates that. And never will...
“Today’s buses are connected so the fleet owners can track their position and monitor how the bus is being driven. This is an initiative from Volvo, where we're enabling them to further enhance and develop driver performance and further reduced fuel consumption — all the while increasing safety,” Mead explained. “Both active and passive safety features are developed and added to all buses as a continuous effort to Volvo’s vision to reach zero accidents,” he said.
Forty years is a long time. Not the shortest of time for businesses to be in operation in a particular area, and not the longest either. Yet at just over halfway through the average age of a human lifetime it's time spent well enough to anticipate what other advancements and 'firsts' Volvo Bus can bring to the Lion City in its next 40 years here.
Electro-mobility is a strong focus at Volvo Buses now and in 2018 it delivered the first 50 units of diesel-hybrid buses — the Volvo B5L — to the city. These highly efficient hybrids require no external charging infrastructure, and the batteries are charged during braking. Ever since the B5L hybrids hit local roads, passengers have been enjoying a smoother and quieter ride, with the average fuel saving for operators often reaching up to 40 per cent when compared with a diesel bus — based on proven data collected from these Volvo hybrid buses running in many cities around the world. Yet this is not the end...
On March 5, 2019 — as stated in partnership with Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) — Volvo launched the world’s first fully autonomous electric bus, leading the way in such new technology, it states.
One month later, two of the Volvo autonomous electric buses were involved in trials on closed public roads. The first operated in the NTU smart campus and the second is undergoing tests at a bus depot managed by local transport operator SMRT.
With Singapore working to be a leader in the development of autonomous vehicles, it's arguably best placed to do so because of its goal to be a 'smart nation'. Its advanced infrastructure and commitment to smart technologies undoubtedly bodes well for it in this regard. You can expect further developments as technology moves forward, especially in terms of the charging time of bus batteries and their ability to power Volvo buses for even longer distances, the company says.
Indeed, the past 40 years have been very exciting in terms of development and use of Volvo buses in Singapore. The next 40? Who knows? But Volvo Bus promises even more excitement in here, especially with the emphasis the LTA is putting on making the bus an important part of the city’s transport system.
Add in the rapid development of new technologies that are changing both the way the bus is driven and is 'moving' an enhanced passenger experience, and Volvo guarantees it will be part of this amazing continued development.
Leading the way...
A 40-YEAR JOURNEY
1979 First bus order in Singapore: 100 units B57 single-deck city buses
1985 Launch of first mid-engined bus: the Volvo B10M
1991 Delivery of 200 Volvo Olympian fully air-conditioned double-deck buses
1999 Launch of first low-floor double-deck bus: the Volvo B10TL
2002 Introduction of the Volvo B10LE CNG bus
2006 Delivery of 200 Euro 3 Volvo B9TL double-deckers with wheelchair access
2010 Delivery of 450 Volvo B9TL Euro 5 double-deckers
2017 Introduction of first Euro 6 Volvo B8R chassis
2018 Launch of first Volvo diesel-electric hybrid bus for Singapore
2019 Launch of world’s first fully autonomous electric bus in Singapore