Ambulance chasing


With the National Health Service celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, The Van Expert is taking the opportunity to acknowledge one of the driving forces behind this great British institution; the ambulance.

Across the NHS’ ten ambulance authorities, a number of specially-converted Peugeot Boxers, Renault Masters and Vauxhall Vivaros are used to ferry passengers around and as support vehicles.

But when it comes to the emergency vehicle of choice, it’s the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter that has accounted for around 70% of front-line ambulance orders across the UK for more than a decade.

What makes the Sprinter an ideal front-line ambulance?

The Sprinter’s well-established workhorse attributes of reliability and durability, coupled with driver comfort, are every bit as beneficial to ambulance sector customers as they are to any other fleet operator.

As far as the ambulance sector specifically is concerned, it is not unusual for Sprinters to operate at very high mileages for up to ten years in front-line work. But, with NHS Trusts closely focused on controlling their transport budgets, the Sprinter also offers highly attractive whole-life costs.

What’s the most popular model?

The model of choice for ambulance services across the country is the medium-length Sprinter 519 CDI.  This model has a 5.0-tonne gross weight, so offers sufficient payload for the body, equipment, tail-lift, crew and patient. Its 190bhp 3.0-litre V6 diesel engine also provides the power and performance needed for blue light use.

Crucially, the availability of an automatic gearbox contributes to enhanced safety by freeing up the driver to concentrate fully on their surroundings and traffic conditions. Indeed, some years ago Mercedes-Benz became the first manufacturer to offer an automatic transmission on a vehicle of this size – it did so as a direct response to demand from customers in the emergency services.

Who does the conversion work?

Most of these vehicles are chassis cabs, with box bodies provided by specialist converters such as WAS Ambulance Services, Wilker, O&H and Cartwright Conversions.

The ambulance services covering Scotland, the North-East, the North-West, Northern Ireland, Isle of Man, Isle of Wight, Wales, the East of England, London, South Central Region, the South-East Coast and the South-West, all operate Sprinters with box bodies and tail-lifts, which afford enhanced space for equipment and for paramedics to stand up and perhaps administer interventionist treatment while the vehicle is on the move.

However, some Trusts, including Yorkshire, the East and West Midlands, the North-West, and parts of South Central, operate converted panel vans for A&E work.

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter ambulance for Scottish Ambulance Services
Not all emergency-response ambulances are painted yellow

How are the vans supplied?

Most are supplied in sulphur yellow, although some Trusts prefer white. Sprinters assigned to front-line A&E work are always fitted by Mercedes-Benz with an optional passenger airbag, while the manufacturer also uprates the alternator, and does the preparatory work required for subsequent fitment of a Telma retarder to further enhance the braking system.

How are the vehicles serviced and maintained?

Maintenance arrangements differ amongst the authorities: some rely on the Mercedes-Benz Vans dealer network, while others service their vans in their own workshops, calling in technical support from the manufacturer or dealer when necessary.

Mercedes also holds six-monthly dedicated aftersales sessions with the Trusts, to ensure they are all kept fully up to date with product developments and any ongoing service matters.

What does the new Sprinter bring to the party?

The latest-generation Sprinter, launched in 2018, has many additional benefits for ambulance services.

Firstly, it features an advanced autonomous braking system which will appeal to operators in this most safety-conscious of segments.

Secondly, its ground-breaking telemetry offers opportunities in terms of enhanced vehicle management and supplier consolidation.

Thirdly, it is available with a higher gross weight, of 5.3 tonnes. This extra 300 kg is likely to appeal to operators of front-line ambulances.

What about non-emergency ambulance roles?

The Sprinter might dominate the front-line emergency response ambulance market in the UK, but it’s a different story for non-emergency roles, such as patient transfer vehicles.

That sector is pretty much dominated by the Peugeot Boxer, with 660 ambulances supplied each year into the Patient Transport Services for patients who can occupy seats, wheelchairs or stretchers.

Peugeot Boxer ambulance for patient transport services
The Peugeot Boxer dominates the non-emergency ambulance sector in the UK. Image (c) VCS Ltd

The Boxer (along with the Renault Master and Vauxhall Vivaro) are all available as front-wheel drive models, whereas the Sprinter has previously only been available in rear-wheel drive.

A front-wheel drive layout means that the back axle is much lower compared to a rear-wheel drive vehicle, making it far more suitable for the wedge ramps typically used to provide wheelchair access at the rear of patient transfer vehicles.

However, the new Sprinter range includes, for the first time, a front-wheel drive variant. This will present Mercedes-Benz with an opportunity to increase its share of the market for non-emergency and patient transfer vehicles, which may help reduce servicing costs for Trusts due to increased commonality within their fleets.

What do the operators say?

They’re big fans! Take Trevor Spowart, Scottish Ambulance Service’s general manager for fleet services, who says: “Our ambulances often average over 1,000 miles per week in a demanding operational environment. The Mercedes-Benz Sprinter meets our needs for a reliable front-line emergency response vehicle, both in the immediate future and the longer term.

“The weight of their fully equipped box bodies means these ambulances operate constantly at close to their maximum gross weight. This, coupled with the need to make rapid progress during blue light incidents, means a responsive engine is essential.

“The Sprinter’s V6 is very capable, offering all the performance we need, while also being impressively economical when fitted with the latest automatic transmission.”

Mercedes-Benz Sprinter ambulance

Curtis Hutchinson
Curtis Hutchinson
Curtis Hutchinson is a member of the Guild of Motoring Writers and has been a senior motoring journalist for over 25 years. He has written extensively about the automotive industry as editor of both Company Car and Motor Trader where he won the coveted Newspress Business Publication of the Year Award. His work also appears in Fleet World and Fleet World International. In 2016 he was part of the founding team behind the relaunched London Motor Show.

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