The Unfortunate Ultra - a history

Citybus' vehicle of choice during the period 1988-93 was the Leyland Tiger, with the delivery of 7 groups totalling 116 buses in that time. These were followed by a small batch of Dart midibuses in 1994. However, new full sized buses were required to replace the large fleet of Bristol RELLs still in service at that time, and accordingly a number of demonstration buses from various manufacturers were operated in service during 1992-5. At this stage low entrance buses were starting to make an appearance on the market, and indeed Scania MaxCi 2008 (L25 LSX) and Neoplan 2009 (K930 EWG) were to low floor layout. Management had decided to purchase this type of bus for city use, but surprisingly once an order was placed it was not for any of the types demonstrated, but rather for 60 Volvo B10L underframes with Alexander (Belfast) Ultra bodywork.

The Ultra body was based on the Swedish design produced by Säffle (a subsidiary of Volvo), who built the body on the first B10L imported to Britain, L456JCK. A Belfast built Ultra demonstrator did arrive fairly rapidly, with 2700 (HAZ 4809) appearing in summer 1995, based at Falls depot where it was usually used on the 14 route to Ladybrook. Externally 2700 had a very 'European' appearance, with bonded double glazing, a large single piece double curvature windscreen and a variation of the then current red and cream fleet livery, with the red skirt colour swept down towards the front of the bus to highlight it's low floor credentials. Internally there was a step free gangway to just behind the rear axle, and the 44 seats were upholstered in a grey moquette with multicoloured relief; the ones in the low floor section were unusual in being cantilevered from the ceiling to allow for easier intertnal cleaning of the bus.

Construction of the production vehicles proved to be a somewhat protracted affair, with build times being nearly twice the equivalent Tiger bus, and the first vehicles finally appeared out of Mallusk in September 1996. Fleetnumbers for the production batch were 2701-2760, taking registrations LAZ 2701 etc.

Numerous detail differences were evident compared to 2700. The large offside cooling pack, which has resulted in step in the windowline and and an awkward seating layout towards the rear of the vehicle, was moved to the nearside a horizontal position behind the rear wheels, this allowing a much better seating plan. The rear registration plate was moved behind the rear window in the same manner as the Q-types whilst the large 'over and under' wipers on the prototype were also replaced with pantograph style wipers and a split windscreen was provided for ease of replacement. The livery was the same as 2700, minus the manufacturers advertising, however, the traditional Citybus style gold and black fleetnumbers were abandoned in favour of cheaper, but much less stylish, black stick on ones. The destination display at the front was now of the electronic flip dot style, with 3-digit 'segment' type displays showing the route number to the nearside and rear.

The first of the production batch to enter service were 2701-10 at Short Strand on 1st November 1996, followed by 2711/2 a week later. These were initially to be seen on the 16/17/20 group of routes to Dundonald. Surprisingly, given that the low floor feature had been shown to generate much extra custom elsewhere in the UK, no formal launch took place. Deliveries continued at rapid rate, reaching 2725 by the end of December 1996. 2713-8 were allocated to Falls, and 2722-5 at GVS, whilst 2719-21 went to Short Strand and carried a smart two tone green livery sponsored by Marks and Spencer for use on the 100 CentreLink service between Central Station and the City Hall. These buses were fitted with powered access ramps and also saw a slight change to the interior specification, whereby the powder blue coloured handrails were replaced with orange ones. This change was also applied from 2726 onwards. After fleetnumber 2725 deliveries switched to the 10 Ulsterbus vehicles, 2751-60, which arrived in January and February 1997. Apart from the livery, these were identical to the Citybus buses, and were all allocated to Derry, initially for use on City routes. The remaining 25 Citybus buses arrived between February and May 1997 with 2726-9/35-8 going to Falls, 2730-4 to GVS and 2739-50 to Short Strand.

A second demonstrator similar to 2700 arrived in September 1996, taking fleetnumber 2761 (MAZ 3761) and being allocated to Short Strand. This could easily be identified as it had a traditional scroll destination screen at the front. Both prototypes, 2700 and 2761, moved to Derry briefly during November and December 1996, prior to the introduction of Ulsterbus's own fleet of Ultras.

The group of Ultras was only destined to remain intact for a matter of months, as Falls based 2736 became a total malicious loss in July 1997, followed by 2735 in March 1999. 2713 was hijacked in July 2000; initially it was considered repairable, but was written off later that year. 2728 went in September 2001 and 2726 was the last loss in March 2009. 2705 also spent a year off the road between August 2007 and September 2008 after accident damage.

In service, a number of shortcomings of the Ultra were soon obvious. On a hot day the interior of the buses could become stifling. There were no opening windows to allow ventilation, but 2 roof vents were supplied. Unfortunately the one of these was towards the front of the bus where the floor dipped down to the door, and so couldn't be opened by anyone less the 7'6" tall !

Whilst operating in Belfast during the 1990's stone throwing was prevalent (up to 6 windows a day being broken), and the shortcomings of the glazing on a bus which required it for structural rigidity started to show. When a window was broken and needed replaced, the procedure was to jack the entire bus up, check all the appropriate alignments, replace the window and then wait quite a number of hours for the fixative to set before it could be used in service again. Where only the outer pane was smashed it became common for buses to operate in service with just a single pane present before a replacement could be affected. Of course, one big problem was removing the remaining pane, or any broken glass, as it was bonded to the body structure. All of this replacement effort took substantially longer than the matter of minutes it took to replace a gasket glazed pane in an RELL or Tiger.

At this stage the complexity of the B10L chassis was also becoming evident. Although it allowed for a gangway nearly to the rear of the bus, it also had an effect on the reliability which was to affect the Ultra for all of its service life, as all the major units – radiator, gearbox, engine and the associated electronics – were crammed in behind the rear axle. (Conversely, I’m told that the engines in the B10L must have been almost indestructible as only 14 or 15 out of the 62 had to be replaced during the last 15/16 years.) One of the first obvious modifications applied across the fleet was the shortening of the nearside body pillar behind the rear wheel, which was extremely vulnerable to grounding damage, and as a consequence the two-piece engine access covers were replaced with a single piece unit.

The first change made to the livery on the Ultras was the substitution of the 'Citybus' block fleetname with a much less forceful one proclaiming "Citybus - a Translink service", and the replacement of the paperclip logo with light green Translink lettering. With the Ultras being delivered in standard red and cream fleet livery they did not stand out from the rest of the fleet as being 'low floor' buses. Eventually it was decided that a specific livery would be adopted for this type of bus and in late 1999 Citybus 2749 and Ulsterbus 2759 were used for experiments. The basic livery adopted was a sea green colour on the rear 3/4 of the bus, with mint green at the front, separated by a band of 'company' colour, red for Citybus and a purple/blue for Ulsterbus. Two broad swoops were applied rising from behind the front wheel arch, the upper one rising to the roof of the bus being mint colour, and the lower one extending along the length of the bus in company colour. The rear of the bus was a combination of mint and company colour. Whilst the effect was pleasing when freshly painted, it was fairly obvious that this livery was going to be difficult to both apply and maintain, and would not easily lend itself to the application of adverts.

Painting of the new livery proceeded at a slow pace, with many buses getting red/cream repaints rather than the new style. By December 2002 just over half the Citybus fleet of Ultras had been repainted, including the 3 Marks and Spencer buses (2705/9-13/5-24/26-8/31/2/4/5/6/42/6/9). At this stage 2729 appeared in a different scheme which omitted the swooshes completely. Doubtlessly this was much simpler to apply, but it scarcely enhanced the vehicle's appearance, especially when the bus was dirty. This variation was (slowly) applied to 2714/37/44; when 2704/41 appeared they had a slightly different appearance, with the strapline above the rear windows reading 'Call or click' rather than 'A Translink service'. 2724 appeared in an even simpler livery in August 2004 which omitted the mint and company colour at the rear of the bus, this now being allover sea green. This variation was applied to 2705/6/7/9/10/7/32/9/46/7/8.

With preparations underway for the 'Metro' revisions in Belfast, 2727 painted with magenta rather than red relief, whilst 2749 went even further with a complete magenta front end on the green livery. At this stage the Ultra fleet was an utter mess, with a multiplicity of differing liveries, all too often without fleetnames, logos or any form of identification. As late as November 2004 2718 got a red/cream repaint - so it was something of a relief when it appeared in the following month in a completely new Metro colour scheme. This consisted of overall stone gray colour with a magenta skirt and relief and a magenta/white swoosh applied in vinyls towards the front of the bus. The livery was applied at different levels on each side of the bus; eventually the nearside version was chosen and 2718 entered service in this form. It started off with white fleet numbers, these were later replaced with black ones. Priority was given to repainting the buses in red/cream and 2707/8 were the last Metro buses to carry these colours in March 2005. Some vehicles, for example 2749, had ended up carrying 4 different livery styles during their life (red/cream, swoops, swoopless, Metro). The Derry based Ulsterbus Ultras also received the blue version of the Metro livery; however the style applied was different to the Citybus buses, with the blue being applied higher up the bodywork, and the front being in stone rather than blue. Completion of the Ultra repaints to Metro colours did not happen until Spetember 2008. 3 buses carried overall advertisements, Citybus 2746 in green for low sulphur fuel, 2749 in white for Investors in People, and Ulsterbus 2751 in a blue scheme also for Investors in People.

2708 was the subject of an experiment in August 2001 when an illuminated advertising board was fitted to the nearside. This was not rolled out to any other vehicles in the fleet, although 2708 retains the frame to the present day and it still works. The original electronic destination screens supplied with the Ultra's did not prove successful, being prone to failure. Indeed a number of buses ran with a large stick on display for '14 Ladybrook' after their electronic screens expired. In May 2003 2716 received a set of orange LED screens at the front, with smaller number screens at the side and rear. This modification was rolled out across the rest of the fleet in the next year, with the exception of 2750 which received a green replacement display. Another modification applied to 2700/61 in August 2003 was the installation of 4 opening windows. Whether this was an attempt to alleviate the overheating on a hot day is not evident, but again this wasn't applied to any other buses. Both demonstrators also had their original one piece windscreens and 'over and under' wipers replaced with split screens and pantograph wipers as with the production batch, doubtless to alleviate the cost of screen replacements. In 2005 2730/40 both received 'Buspak' advertising boards in the manner of previous Leyland Tigers. Again this modification was not generally rolled out, and indeed 2740 later lost it's boards. The only significant interior change was the re-upholstering of a number of buses in the green moquette used in the B10BLE and Scania fleets.

With the large batch of EEZ B7TL double deckers arriving with Metro during 2005, some of the Ultras were considered surplus to requirements in Belfast. In October and November that year 2700/37/41/2/4 moved from Metro to Craigavon and 2746/7/8/61 to Derry, joining Ulsterbus own examples there. Surprisingly Ultra operation had spread to more rural routes with the Derry ones operating from Strabane and Limavady and the Craigavon ones often making the journey along the Lagan valley to Belfast. The next group of deckers bought for Citybus (B9TL's 2201-20/2330-54) made more B10L's surplus. With the lack of relability there was no enthusiasm to use these with Ulsterbus, so 2701-5/7/9/10/6/23/30/33 were placed in to reserve, after just 12 years service. 2733 later was reinstated at Craigavon to replace 2700 which had become extremely unreliable.

The first Ultra to be sold was 2730 in November 2010, which went to Orchard County Enterprises in Co Armagh. This was converted to a church outreach bus styled "Give way to Jesus" and can often be seen in Belfast; surprisingly it looks rather smarter than when it operated in the City. Service cuts during summer 2011 saw all the Craigavon based Ultras taken off the road (2744/33/7/41/2) , together with a number of the Derry based examples (2747/8/51/4/56/7). 14 other Ultras have been withdrawn and sold for scrap (all to Hamill, Ahoghill) during 2011/2. These were 2700/1/2/4/7/16/9/23/37/8/40/4/8/61 and at the time of writing Citybus has 22 left in use, with a further 6 in Reserve and Ulsterbus 7 active and 8 reserve, but with 30 B7RLE/Wrightbus expected in mid August it seems unlikely any will last beyond the end of the summer. Interestingly the Ultra could probably be considered much more of an 'accessable' bus that the current generation of single deckers where the low floor area ends in front of the rear axle and which have multiple steps to the rearmost seats.

Although these were the first low floor buses purchased for the Translink fleets, and have a surpringly long and rich history, the 'Ultra' can not be considered a successful product.
Apart from the 2 demonstrators and the production batch of 60 for the Translink fleets, Alexanders built just 38 other Ultras, giving a total of 100 buses. The non Translink ones are shown in the table below:

UL01.01 1 M394 MRW Volvo demonstrator 1995
UL02.01 1 M10 ULF Volvo demonstrator 1995
UL04.01 1 N141 VDU Volvo demonstrator 1995
UL04.03-05 3 N301-3 WNF Timeline 301-3 1995
UL05.01-03 3 N41-3 RRP Northampton 41-3 1995
UL06.01-03 3 N304-6 WNF Timeline 304-6 1996
UL11.01 1 P501 KOX West Midlands 1501 1997 cng powered
UL12.01-13 13 P502-14 KOX West Midlands 1502-14 1997 cng powered
UL13.01-06 6 P501-6 MVV Northampton 501-6 1997 cng powered
UL14.01-04 4 97-D-59001-4 Dublin Bus VL1-4 1997 dual door
UL14.05 1 98-D-2005 Dublin Bus VL5 1998 dual door
UL15.01 1 98-D-2006 Dublin Bus VL6 1998 dual door - cng powered

Indeed even with the Wrightbus body, the B10L didn't sell particularly well, and it wasn't until the simpler Volvo B10BLE and Dart SLF models arrived, that the market for low floor buses really took off, including a large batch of 90 for Translink. Ultimately, of course, we know that Northern Ireland did become a centre of excellence in the production of low floor buses; it's just that the B10L/Ultra wasn't the bus to start that particular revolution and the factory which achieved the most success was located in Ballymena rather than Mallusk.

Early Years:

Above - the initial demonstrator 2700 (HAZ 4809) , seen at the ITT Rally in Carrickfergus.

Above - production bus 2704 (LAZ 2704) at Alexanders prior to delivery to Citybus. The numerous detail differences between this and 2700 above can be clearly seen.

Above - interior view of 2702, again at Alexanders. The step free gangway contines to behind the rear axle, although at the cost of chassis complexity and ultilately, reliability.

Above - 2756, of of 10 new to Ulsterbus, seen in Foyle Street, Derry

Above - 2720 at Central Station; one of 3 (2719-21) painted in this special promotional livery for use on the Centrelink service.

Above - the second demonstrator to arrive was 2761, seen passing the Albert Clock in original condition. Both this and 2700 were later purchased.

Above - when new the Ultras looked smart, although this rapidly wore off. 2731 seen short after delivery to GVS>

Above - The mostly cream livery didn't go well with Northern Irish roads (and weather !). 2710 show a fair coating of grime at Dundonald terminus.

Livery trials and tribulations:

Above - 2759 was used to prototype the low floor livery for Ulsterbus; 2749 similarly for Citybus. The style eventually adopter differed slightly from this variation and included a fleetname at the front (see the picture of 2716 below).

Above - the initial Citybus version of the low floor livery, as applied to 2716.

Above - 2731 shows the 'swoopless' livery variation, prior to the introduction of Metro.

Above - 2749 in the 'swoopless' livery with magenta relief and front end. Hopefully this was never seriously considered as a fleet livery.

Above - Former demonstrator 2761 was later purchased. After operation with Citybus it moved to Ulsterbus and is seen in the 'swoopless' livery variation. Note the modification of opening windows and a split windscreen.

Above - 2718 demonstrates the initial prototype of the 'Metro' house livery. The offside variation was adopted for the Ultras, although the nearside style is closer to that applied to the Wrightbus vehicles with their higher waistline.

Above - 2748 shows the Ulsterbus Derry application of the 'Metro' style livery.

Above - 2710 shows the replacement LED distination displays fitted in 2003. The application of adverts over the swooped livery is very untidy.

Ultras 2012 style:

Above - 2712 contemplates retirement after a hard life serving the population of Belfast.

Above - Ultras 2012 style. 2750 looks rather tired in it's 15th year and should be replaced by a B7RLE later in 2012. Note the unique replacement destination screen.

Above - 2730 was the first Ultra to be sold, and has gained a new lease of life (and a smart paint scheme) as a church outreach bus.

Above - the end of the line for 2761 as it is collected for scrap by Hamill, Ahoghill.

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