Official BUSRide Road Test: Champion Bus LF Transport
Access and dignity FOR ALL
By David Hubbard
As Jean Moriki maneuvered her motorized wheelchair across the curbside ramp into the new Champion LF Transport™ paratransit bus, she realized she had been waiting years for just such a vehicle.
“An entryway that is accessible for everyone and does not segregate passengers using mobility devices to access a standard lift presents a much more dignified way to enter and exit a transit vehicle,” she said. “It focuses less attention on passengers who cannot use stairs. To me, the entryway is the best feature of this new bus.”
Moriki has been relying on public transit and paratransit services since 1999. Since 2006, she has worked as an advocate for improved transportation solutions for people with disabilities. She says she chose her condominium in central Phoenix specifically for its proximity to the Valley Metro light-rail system, as well as access to low-floor transit buses. However, small and midsize paratransit, shuttle and circulator buses have been another matter.
“In addition to the toll that standard paratransit takes on a person’s sense of dignity, it creates frustration over the amount of time it takes to board and unload,” Moriki says. “It comes across all too often as hindrance and source of irritation to the other passengers. I found riding on Champion’s LF Transport so much more smooth, roomier and far more comfortable compared to so many other standard transit vehicles that I’ve ridden.”
Dallas Smith, founder of Dallas Smith Corp., Greencastle, IN, began pioneering the need for better vehicle accessibility 20 years ago when he witnessed firsthand the seemingly constant challenges a passenger in a wheelchair faced when entering and exiting a bus. And through the product developments his company had made for the truck and trailer industry to provide easier, safer, smarter transport; he would apply those same disciplines to achieve equal accessibility for all public transportation passengers.
“Equal access for all,” he said. “We have responsibility to provide the same level of accessibility for everyone — including people using wheelchairs, walkers, scooters and parents with strollers.”
With that insight, Garrett Smith, Dallas Smith’s grandson and vice president of marketing for Dallas Smith Corp., says it took another 10 years of product engineering, development and extensive testing for his grandfather’s company to introduce the company’s first low-floor transit product to the market.
The Champion LF Transport™ arrives
Champion Bus, Imlay City, MI, a division of Allied Specialty Vehicles, Orlando, FL, met recently with BUSRide to conduct an Official Road Test on its newest iteration, the Champion LF Transport™. Valley Metro RPTA and its paratransit management partner MV Transportation provided the third-party driver for the review, as well as guest advocates. MV Transportation provides the Dial-A-Ride service for the City of Phoenix as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA).
“The small and midsize bus industry segment has needed something like the LF Transport for some time,” says Champion President John Resnik. “So why did it just now happen?”
The LF Transport™ with FLEXBUS® technology is the brainchild of Champion Bus and Dallas Smith Corp., a specialist in low floor chassis.
“It took these two companies putting their heads together on the essential engineering to make this concept work,” Resnik says. “Our companies’ proprietary patent and patent-pending technologies eliminate the need for hazardous interior steps and cumbersome lifts.”
Both Dallas Smith Corp. and Champion Bus say they each worked with other manufacturers and vendors to address the issue of accessibility for small buses.
“Neither company really felt it had found the right business partner,” Resnik says. “We stumbled on to one another three years ago and immediately saw even better product answers starting to emerge, and decided to just keep at it.”
The two companies have since recently formed an exclusive licensing arrangement.
“We take great pride in sharing the challenges with Champion Bus to produce an industry-changing product,” Smith says. “Our aging public, as well as younger generations that include moms with strollers, students and returning veterans with mobility challenges – all passengers are seeking out vehicles with the best accessibility for their day to day transportation.”
What Champion calls FLEXBUS® technology is an integration of systems and components to improve safety and comfort. The Equalizer Ramp® utilizes automatic sensing technology when deployed to provide a uniform single-grade slope based on the height of the deployment surface, creating a flat entrance “bridge” into the 102-inch-wide flat passenger area resulting in easier and faster loading for all passengers.
The LF Transport™ is also equipped with the IntelliSYNC® suspension system which monitors the position of heavy-duty sensors to make necessary adjustments to maintain a smooth ride. The low speed OverRise™ function lifts the entire vehicle up to 2.5 inches higher than the normal ride height to increase approach, break-over and departure angles.
The lntelliSYNC® system is an electronically controlled “smart” suspension system that increases overall vehicle stability and ride quality. The floor throughout the passenger compartment remains level regardless of the crown of the road at full kneel and ride height. All with the available safety feature of a fully independent and constantly charged reserve auxiliary air support system, which provides a back-up road side supply of air to the vehicle if ever needed.
A heavy-duty, high-capacity DC-driven suspension compressor continuously maintains air pressure with the capability to kneel at every stop. According to Champion, full air system recovery from a fully kneeled position to vehicle ride height takes only 3.5 seconds.
The leveling feature adjusts for weight imbalances from varying passenger loads, positions and weight variances.
Smith says a vehicle that is always stable and level equals less maintenance, as components like tires wear evenly.
As Dallas Smith Corp. focused on the chassis and suspension, Champion looked for ways to improve the overall ride and passenger experience. With both companies resolving the engineering challenges with the low floor, the focus turned to the subfloor structure, interior configurations, dash panel design and body styling.
Resnik says customer feedback was critical to learning what essential improvements Champion needed to address.
“This meant not only listening closely to their comments,” he says. “It also meant that we needed to recognize the fact that they were right.”
He cites an instance when Champion delivered eight early LF Transport™ buses to a customer, who pointed out a small but disconcerting hump in the in the flooring near the front entrance.
“We went back and forth on this issue for a bit,” Resnik says. “But the customer stood his ground and we listened. In the end, we determined we needed to address this issue.”
Chalking it up to a learning experience, Resnik and his team took the customer’s critique back to the factory, where they elected to tear out the existing flooring and reengineer an all new floor structure for which Champion Bus now holds a patent.
The Official BUSRide Road Test
Veteran driver Tim Bogue, whose career began in paratransit with MV Transportation in Chicago, IL, was eager to get behind the wheel of this new bus.
“I drove six months in Chicago before I transferred to Phoenix with MV Transportation nearly in 1994,” he says. “I have always driven paratransit. I enjoy the closer connection with the passengers. They make my work far more far more interesting than driving a fixed route. Every day is different.”
Enough to say Bogue is very much at home in small and midsize buses. Bogue would have preferred one measuring at 25 feet, most suitable for his purposes. Nonetheless, he was comfortable with the handling of the larger test vehicle at 27 feet.
“Some drivers have trouble switching from conversion vans to a larger longer midsize,” but the suspension and handling of this model would make the transition easier,” he says
To begin the Road Test, Bogue’s first stop was to pick up Moriki at her home. From there, his drive through central Phoenix continued to emulate a typical day in paratransit.
“This bus offers a number of improvements that make the ride better for both the driver and passengers — especially the self-leveling feature and the entrance ramp,” Bogue says. “Between the tight turning radius and the air suspension system, I would have no problem with some of the tight squeezes at some of my stops. As for passenger comfort, I especially like the centrally positioned HVAC unit. Blowing both front and back is more comfortable for everyone.”
On the expressway and quiet backstreets, Bogue put the vehicle through sudden accelerations and controlled stops.
“Not that I drive like this normally, but it’s good to know beforehand how the bus will handle in emergency situations,” he says. “This bus certainly has what it takes.”
When the bus returned to the yard, MV Transportation maintenance personnel put the LF Transport™ on a heavy-duty lift for a closer look underneath. Again, as is their practice, Resnik, Smith and the team spent a considerable amount of time listening to their comments and critiques on the positioning of several underneath components.
Advocates on board
“I want to feel as much a part of mainstream society as I can,” Moriki says. “I do not want to feel that I am different, and need a totally separate vehicle with a lift.”
George Fogg serves as custom relations service manager for MV Transportation. As a person with a low-vision impairment, he says his ability to relate to passenger needs and requests is rooted firmly in his personal experience. As one of the more outspoken customers relying on Valley Metro Dial-A-Ride, Fogg says MV Transportation realized the insight he could bring to the operation.
“It is a pleasure to see that a bus such as this available,” he says. “I naturally like the ramp and being able to walk easily into the bus. Once inside, I especially appreciated the brightly painted yellow handrails. As I am somewhat visually impaired, they helped guide me to my seat and through the bus.”
Champion also thought to align the securement rails for mobility devices parallel with the bus, which lessen the chance of a passenger tripping over the tie-downs.
Inside, for additional safety and easier access to the back passenger area of the bus, the LF Transport™ offers the option of a small ramp up to replace the customary step. The DynamicRamp™ is a step that coverts to a ramp at the push of a button.
“This may not seem like much to the average rider,” Moriki says. “But it is a very important consideration for wheelchair passengers.”
Mission nearing accomplishment
“As a society and an industry, we have fixed this issue in big mass transit buses,” Resnik says. “Nonetheless, equal access remains an issue for a majority of the people who rely on the dial-a-ride services using small and midsize buses. We believe that the LF Transport™ with FLEXBUS® technology represents the answer to this problem.”