Madeira, also known as the "Pearl of the Atlantic", is famous for high peaks and breath-taking views.
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Volvo buses manage the steep hills of Madeira

The dramatic hills of Madeira are no match for the committed professionals at Horários do Funchal. Every day, the passenger transport company’s buses overcome steep obstacles in order to ensure that isolated populations enjoy vital links to the rest of the community.
To meet its challenges, the company has been relying on Volvo Buses’ solutions for years. Over 90 per cent of its fleet is made up of Volvo buses.

 

It takes a fair amount of cool-headedness to be a passenger on some of Horários do Funchal’s bus lines. Madeira, also known as the “Pearl of the Atlantic”, off the coast of northern Africa, is famous for its high peaks and breath-taking landscapes.

In a way, making the best of a rocky geography is what the people of the island have always done, ever since this natural gem was occupied by Portuguese settlers in the 15th century. It was on the side of these mountains that the locals managed to carve the amazing “levadas”, man-made conduits that were used to bring water from the springs up high to the fields down below – by the way, these “levadas” make for some of Europe’s best hiking trails, with stunning views of an island that, despite welcoming millions of tourists every year, maintains an unspoilt, practically untouched wild beauty.

Overcoming the mountainous obstacles is the job of Horários do Funchal. The company runs urban passenger transport in Madeira’s capital, Funchal. More than a business, it is a vital social responsibility. Without its buses, isolated people living high in the hills surrounding Funchal would have no means of reaching the city. This transport is their only physical link with the rest of the world. For those in charge of providing the service, the stakes are high. Horários do Funchal’s buses need to be able competently to navigate the long, winding roads of the island. Steep roads, too, with gradients that often exceed 20 per cent. They need to make sharp turns on narrow streets, rain or shine.

Duarte de Faria Sousa, head of the Engineering and Planning Division at Horários do Funchal, makes sure the company’s buses get where they need to go. A mechanical engineer, Mr Sousa lights up while talking about the challenges of running transport services in such inhospitable conditions. A veteran of the company, who knows the difficulties of the terrain, he exudes the kind of energy and confidence you often find in people with curious minds, who thrive on solving puzzles, finding solutions.

Horários do Funchal makes a point of providing a service of proximity – most streets in the upper parts of Funchal are difficult to climb on foot, which means buses need to reach them street by street, almost house by house. Reducing the quality of service is simply not an option.

“It’s unthinkable to leave these remote populations without transport. Horários do Funchal was established to provide a public service. The moment we stop serving these people, we stop performing the mission we were created to perform,” he says.

Better than explaining the challenges is experiencing them first hand. Born and raised in Madeira, Roberto Pereira has been with Horários do Funchal for 20 years. He started out driving buses on the city’s lines, but, for the past 11 years, has been working as an instructor for new drivers on the company’s rosters. He took the Global team up the mountain in a Volvo bus that has been specifically customised to take on the region’s roads. As we pass Funchal’s famous Botanical Garden, the road gets steeper and steeper, meandering along the forest in sharp turns.

Focused but relaxed – confident in his many years of experience, Roberto Pereira admits there is a steep learning curve if you want to be a bus driver in Funchal. Working here, he tells us, is not like driving in any other city you know. Looking down a deep crevasse as we make another sharp turn, it is difficult to argue with him! Roberto’s training of new bus drivers includes teaching them safety techniques and cautious, economical driving. However, a large part of it involves helping apprentices keep their nerves in check while they get used to the demanding terrain.

The terrain certainly is demanding. It takes a lot out of the bus, too: brakes, tyres, steering and gearbox are pushed to the limit on these roads. Even the length and width of the vehicles need to be adjusted to the special characteristics of this hostile environment. The pressure shows on the fuel consumption – and, inevitably, on operating costs.

 We play by a different set of rules. For instance, when we prepare a tender for the purchase of a new bus, we need to be extremely careful about the conditions we demand, because engine torque needs to be high enough to overcome the island’s gradients,” explains Duarte Sousa.

To meet its challenges, Horários do Funchal has been relying on Volvo Buses’ solutions for years. Over 90 per cent of its fleet is made up of Volvo buses.

In the past few years, massive investments in infrastructure have created a solid network of tunnels and viaducts that allow for faster, simpler connections between Funchal and the more remote parts of Madeira. However, for those living on top of the city’s highest peaks, it is the zealous work of the public transport company that allows them to relate to rest of the community.

As soon as Roberto Pereira meanders to the top of the hill at Curral dos Romeiros, with the entire city dazzling us at our feet, there they are, the locals, waiting at the bus stop for their ride into town.

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