Double-deck success for Leyland in Athens
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The British firm is anxious to re-establish its position in the Greek market, and three years' study of the capital's congestion and pollution problems now looks set to pay off
WHAT a conglomerate of buses serve the Athenian population. Ikarus, Samashi, Volvo, Scania, Scania-Vabis, Mercedes, MAN, Magirus Deutz (pre lveco), Hino, Guy with the Gardner 150, and AEC (pre Leyland). These are listed in descending order of age and, consequently, descending order of comfort.
Unlike their cross-border neighbours in Turkey, the Greeks are orderly bus passengers. They queue in silence waiting for the autobus or trolley, they board courteously and they sit in almost complete silence.
This is more than can be said for the car and taxi drivers who display constant impatience with other road users and drive on their horns and brakes. They take a racing start at traffic lights and negotiate righthand bends in top, leaving in their wake nasty black weals of rubber. The tyre business in Greece must be lucrative. In such conditions not only the passengers must show patience, but also the drivers. The condition of the vintage buses would do credit to the Historic Commercial Vehicle Club in Britain. But then I viewed them mainly as a pedestrian, the passengers could think quite differently.
The older buses are about as comfortable as the worst of the prewar British tram car. Slatted seats, upright backs and no suspension to speak of. The stoicism of the Ancient Greeks lives on.
However, a new era is on the way and so it should be for the travel hardened citizens of the birthplace of Western civilisation.
In September, Leyland Bus flew the Union Flag at a fair in Thessalonika. Soon the first 20 Leyland Olympians —an appropriate name in Greece — will be transporting Athenians comfortably, silently and speedily past Hadrian's Arch, the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus and around the smiling, benign statues of Lord Byron. A very reliable Greek source told us that the official order is in the process of being signed but the cautious people at Leyland Bus still sit with crossed fingers. It is too early to say how many will eventually go into service.
Leyland is still fighting to obliterate the image of its recent past in Greece and elsewhere. We have sampled the competition and while the men at Leyland would be unwise to be complacent—which they are not—they are in with a better than even money chance of building a substantial fleet in Greece. Much will depend on the growing strength of the pound. But this is a matter for Government, not bus engineers.
How did Leyland go about getting a share of the Greek market? Assuming our "very reliable source" is accurate, how will it consolidate its position and eventually gain supremacy? To get the answers to these questions, I met Jay Hale LB's director of Overseas Operations, in London. He was cautious but convincing. "This was not the easiest negotiation: we had not only to sell Leyland but we had to sell an entirely new concept to both the customer and passengers," he said.
Jay Hale spent three years in Greece attempting to introduce Leyland to the ageing Athenian bus fleet. He analysed the problems and believed he had found the solution with the Leyland National. "We spent '18 months trying to get National in, but eventually they settled for the Atlas and Ikarus," he said.
It is no secret that the Eastern Europeans won the order because of the heavy discounts they offered. This was particularly attractive to the consortium of owner-drivers — EAS — which runs the Athens bus service under government control almost like a PTA. We believe this discount was 50 per cent.
Another strong influence in Athens is the Mercedes-Benz agent Beamax. It builds the buses on site and naturally it has the sympathetic ear of the Government.
However, Leyland was not to capitulate so easily. The company grasped Athens' two major problems, congestion and pollution The answer was surely a doubledeck fleet.
A demonstration was offered and accepted with some reluctance. Apparently there was a fear that the bus would topple on to the crowded Athens streets! The fears were soon allayed.
Once in service the results were unbelievable. Drivers were desperate to take the decker out. Passenger reaction was incredible. "They would queue for two hours to ride in it rather than take a singledecker," he said.
The Olympian is designed to take 69 seated and 53 standing passengers, but more often it carried 110 fare-paying passengers. The company had to employ extra men to control the queues of hopeful passengers.
Between March 24 and May 30 this year one bus carried 400,118 passengers.
The local press waxed eloquently over the Olympian. Not one adverse comment was voiced throughout the demonstration period.
To ensure a satisfactory demonstration period was achieved Leyland seconded Derek Hall and John Robson to the role of resident engineers in Athens. They were based with Leyland's agent, Kentavoros, from where they trained EAS drivers and maintenance men and at the same time supervised the operation.
The successful demonstration was only the beginning, however. The negotiations were protracted, involving both the operator and the Greek Minister of Transport and Communications.
The Olympian had to conform to Greek C Et U Regulations. Specifications were discussed in minute detail. The end product was heavier than anticipated but the result was worth the effort.
The Olympian operates at 18.8 tonnes gvw, on a Leyland TL 11,210 bhp engine with a fully automatic gearbox and full air suspension.
Athenians will know a new comfort when they ride in the Leyland. Eastern Coach Works has used moquette seats until now the seating on service buses has been mainly slatted wood.
Public interest was stirred up again in September. Even as the official order was passing through the various departments at the Ministry, 250,000 people were passing through the Olympian at the Thessalonika Show.
Leyland is very conscious of its after-sales service obligations. It plans to have a permanent Leyland Bus engineer based in Athens. There will be a comprehensive imprest stock of spares held at EAS. If anything, the demand for fast-moving spares has been over estimated. There will be a 24-hour availability of parts in the UK, they will be airfreighted to Athens on the first plane.
What then of the future and repeat orders? This all hangs on two factors; that the bus operates within the cost parameters laid down; and that there is no failure in service.
Listening to the detailed approach that they have taken to this project, it seems most unlikely that they will fail on either count.
There was one other point of detail which surely helped the Olympian to win this marathon. It was painted in Greece's national colours. A nice touch which impressed the fiercely patriotic Greeks.
• by lain Sherriff