Four big questions to ask before investing in bus steering systems

Inflation, increased fuel costs and ongoing maintenance all play a part in long-term fleet costs. As a bus buyer, do you know what questions to ask about bus steering systems?

Nick Jordan, technical engineering manager, Pailton Engineering
Nick Jordan, technical engineering manager, Pailton Engineering

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Fleet budgets are more stretched than ever. Passengers expect more, perhaps without considering the upfront costs of equipment we now take for granted such as WIFI, luxury seats, charge points and contactless payment systems. However, the comfort of passengers is crucial in retaining and growing business, so operators do need to make the right investments.

Before an operator can even consider any additional equipment, they must consider the capital costs of adding new buses to their fleet. You might set out to have the latest design of a bus or coach, but in its freshly polished state, are you really getting a true picture of the ongoing operational costs that this new purchase will bring over its lifetime? Make sure you ask these questions about steering before you sign on the dotted line.

Steering column.

1. Maintenance free, for how long?

As the operator, you would expect to buy these new buses and not have to worry about the maintenance of the steering system for quite some time. But, are you aware of how long this period should be? To keep operator costs down, and fleets out on the road, you need the maintenance to be as minimal as possible. When maintenance is required, is this an easy job, or a laborious chore?

With the right steering system, maintenance should be low or even maintenance free. For example, using sealed parts that have incorporated life-long lubrication to their design can essentially provide a ‘fit and forget’ product for owners, with the exception of critical safety checks. A sealed sliding steering shaft, for instance, can be manufactured using specialist polymer bushes to reduce friction. They don't require lubrication so the need for regular servicing is minimised, saving money and keeping you on the road.

2. What environmental testing has taken place?

Environmental protection ensures the steering system can take on the full variety of temperatures and resist damage from water, salt and grit on roads. This relates closely to maintenance, as harsh environmental factors can have negative impacts on vital components and drastically increase maintenance costs.

Steering systems should use the latest in protective boots, enclosures and specialist greases to ensure vital lubrication is kept in steering components and anything else is kept out. This should be validated by intensive environmental testing, to make sure you’ve got yourself a steering system that can take on the most extreme environments, such as deep-water wading.

Pailton recently put its new generation three bevel box through a 56-week long test at its bespoke on-site testing facilities. The findings showed that after a long period of water, salt and grit exposure even at temperatures as low as -40 degree Celsius, no trace of water had entered the vital internal components and the assembly maintained its smooth operation. This has huge implications for buses running in sub-zero temperatures.

3. Is the steering system bespoke?

All new buses have to be tested against regulatory standards, that’s a given. But that doesn't mean bus manufacturers have to opt for off-the-shelf steering components, such as the steering column, steering shafts and bevel box, to keep costs down.

In these cases, the individual steering components, which make up the entire steering system, haven’t been designed with the end application in mind and you may find the same system in a truck or emergency vehicle. This cost-cutting may result in lower upfront vehicle investment, but at what cost to the ongoing operational expenditure?

But just how different can and an off-the-shelf steering system be from a bespoke alternative? The true difference lies in the core priorities of the supplier. Bespoke steering system manufactures aren't trying to reinvent the system. They are constantly updating and improving parts with new design features. The parts last longer and reduce long-term operator costs, when compared with non-bespoke options. 

4. Has the steering been tested for driver entry?

Buses are like no other vehicle. Multiple times a day a new driver will board the vehicle and will often use the steering wheel for stability and balance as they make themselves comfortable. This puts a transverse load on the steering wheel and steering column on a regular, ongoing basis.

If the steering is not cut out for these daily abusive loads, then this could have detrimental effect on the steering column. Responsive steering, low torque input and an ergonomic driver interface are the bare minimum of what to expect when enquiring about or test driving a new bus. Of course, all parts in a bus should be manufactured to the relevant country's regulatory standards. However, suppliers can, and should, go above and beyond these standards to create the highest quality components.

Any part that goes into a bus, steering related or not, will ultimately have an effect on the cost of ownership. A higher upfront cost now could result in lower maintenance costs and less downtime in the future, which not only benefits the bottom line of the business, but the blood pressure of fleet managers.

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PMV Middle East - June 2018

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