Round Robins on the Dartmouth Steam Railway

Now that I’ve had several weeks’ experience as a local bus driver for the Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company, a blog post is well overdue.


Briefly, the company runs steam trains from Paignton to Kingswear, ferries and river boats on the River Dart and a fleet of buses to connect them all together. The most popular outing is the ‘Round Robin‘ which gives travellers a train journey, a boat trip and a bus journey to take them back to where they started from. Visitors can choose which way round they go but this decision is usually dictated by the tides because Steamer Quay at Totnes (which is tidal) cannot be reached at low tide.

In addition to linking in with the trains and boats, the buses also run as a timetabled service for locals – effectively a regular local bus service similar to (and sometimes competing with) Stagecoach and First. Some buses also serve Torquay but most ply between Paignton and Totnes.

The buses in use are two open top Bristol VRTs (one ex-Crosville and one ex-Southdown), three ex-East Yorkshire Olympians and an ex-Plymouth Citybus Dennis Dart. The depot is on land next to the railway’s Churston Station, due to be developed with proper handstandings and buildings over the coming winter. Churston-depot

So, what is a typical day like? At the moment I’m working a duty which just runs between Paignton and Totnes. The duty starts at 13:15 so I leave my car at the Churston depot and take a Stagecoach bus from there to Paignton Bus Station (I’ve been issued with a Staff Bus Pass). When the Service 100 bus arrives at Stand 4 from Totnes I relieve the driver, who has been on duty since about 08:00, and operate the service for the rest of the day.

The changeover is quite quick. The other driver will have already changed the destination blind for Totnes at the previous stop so all that remains for me to do is set up my cash tray and log in to the ‘Ticketer’ system. I’m ready for business so will deal with any passengers waiting at the stand. Some will already have ‘Round Robin’ tickets so they just need to be clipped. Some will have Concessionary Passes so they are counted by the electronic reader pad which is part of the ticketing system. Others will buy single or return tickets either to Totnes or one of many other stops on the way.

After signing my name as Driver 2 on the Running Sheet and noting down the actual departure time, I’m ready to go. Headlights on, hazards on, check mirrors, select reverse, sound the horn and reverse carefully back from the stand. If I’m in one of the Volvo-powered Olympians, progress is quite quick but the VRs, being 20 years older and less powerful, are slower. Summertime traffic will hinder progress of course, no matter which bus I’m driving!

We head out of town up the Totnes road, past the Zoo and out through Collaton St Mary and up to Blagdon. I have to be listening out for the bell (or buzzer) all the way along in case passengers want to get off. Intending passengers will usually signal as I approach a stop if they want to get on. All standard stuff really.

To begin with it was quite hard to get into the routine of stopping and starting, being more used to private hire driving which has none of this stop-start malarkey. However, dealing with braking, the kerb, the doors, tickets, doors again, mirrors, indicators and traffic all in quick succession soon became second nature. VR-&-Olympians-Steamer-Quay Another thing that caught me out a number of times when I first started was my position on the road. There are a number of pinch points on the route where there are static hazards beside the road or just a narrow carriageway. The Olympians are a bit wider than the VRs and the driver’s position in the cab is closer to the offside too. These factors meant that I sometimes rubbed a curb or brushed a hedge while passing those narrow points. I remember one of those early days when I brushed the hedge and knocked the nearside mirror out of position EVERY time I passed through. I would have to re-adjust the mirror at the next safe place every time!

Apart from at the end of my first Paignton-Totnes journey, when there is a 45 minute layover, the turnaround at Steamer Quay is quick. Usually because I’m running late. The buses are quite capable of keeping to time, even with frequent stops along the way but when the traffic is heavy I can soon drop 10 minutes or more. Totnes is the worst place for delays. There are two bottlenecks where the queues are often long and slow moving during the afternoon. It’s frustrating but there’s nothing I can do except make as much progress as I can the rest of the time. I try not to hurry – it’s not safe and also gives the passengers a rough ride!

Sometimes capacity is an issue. If there happen to be two boats coming up to Totnes from Dartmouth there will be a large number of people who need to get back to Paignton or Torquay. Dartmouth-Castle-Steamer-Quay Fortunately there’s another Service 100 bus that duplicates two of the afternoon journeys so that takes the pressure off a bit but there have still been times when I’ve been full, with standing passengers too. The bus feels really heavy then! If I’m driving one of the VRs, progress up the hill out of Totnes is v-e-r-y  s-l-o-w!

My last journey leaves Totnes at 18:30 and I run out of service to Churston depot once I reach Paignton for the last time. The company doesn’t employ cleaners for the buses so one of the last tasks for drivers is to sweep out the bus and wash the outside. For me, when the time is approaching 20:00, this can be rather hastily done. By then my tummy is beginning to think that my throat has been cut as pangs of hunger will have been niggling for a while!

In another post I will ramble on about the differences between the VRs and the Olympians from a driver’s point of view. There have been many other bloggable occasions to write about as well. Some involve weather conditions, some involve cyclists and some… well, you’ll just have to wait.

If you’re impatient, you might like to read some of the news items on the Dartmouth Steam Railway website. Most of you know that I have a passion for writing as well as for heritage buses and I’ve been contributing some material there too.

6 comments on “Round Robins on the Dartmouth Steam Railway

  1. William Spencer says:

    Rail River Link, or River Link, has always had a fine choice of deckers, with a Leyland Olympian/Atlantean & Bristol VR all owned and sold by the company in the last few years. The three East Yorkshire liveried Olympians are a rare touch of quality in an area dominated by Tridents/Enviro 400s! What with the cruise ship visits to Torbay these past couple of weeks the Olympians have seen a decent amount of extra use!

    I can see from a driver’s perspective why the Olympians would be favoured, but the Bristol’s do sound good on the inclines.

  2. JOHN IMMINS says:

    Having to sweep out your bus and then giving it a wash at the end of a shift is not something I would have wanted to be doing after a hard OMO shift. By the way, did you sell the conductors leather cash bag as I am on the lookout for one.

    • busmanjohn says:

      Yes, it’s hard graft at the end of a shift but I think it’s worth it to be able to drive Bristol VRs in regular service!

      Sorry, I did sell the cash bag. Sometimes they turn up at country markets or car boot sales and it always worth keeping an eye on Ebay.

  3. […] The breeze was getting decidedly chilly as we returned to Paignton and continued on towards Brixham. Passing through Goodrington a brief stop was made for Paul and me to rejoin 938 as the Atlantean was returning to its base. Climbing the stairs to the top deck of the VRT, I couldn’t resist calling out “Any more fares?!” particularly as I was still wearing my bus uniform from my earlier sightseeing bus duty. “You’ll be lucky, mate” was the quick reply from one of my former RRL colleagues! Some of my loyal readers may remember that I worked for RRL on the Paignton-Totnes run during 2013. […]

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