Most regular readers will know that I prefer to drive half cab buses but last week I was offered some duties driving modern coaches. As I am still looking for full time work as a Graphic Designer or a Copywriter, any offer of work will be considered!
Crosville Motor Services, along with many other coach firms, have been providing a rail replacement service to bridge the gap between Taunton and Bristol. This followed the devastating storms in early 2014 which led to extensive flooding of the Somerset Levels. Part of the Great Western trackbed had been washed away or inundated by floodwater so the coaches were required to maintain a connection for the passengers who would otherwise be stranded.
My first day’s duty started at 17:00 so I collected all the info I would need for the evening’s runs and boarded the firm’s van. In case you were wondering how I was going to transport a load of weary rail passengers in an Vauxhall Astra panel van, I’d better explain that I was using this to position myself down to Taunton railway station where I was to relieve another driver.
I had checked out the route in and out of the station the day before but it was useful to do a ‘dry run’ in the van just to be sure. The rail replacement coaches were using the Down (south) side of the station to set down and pick up passengers so I waited in a nearby shelter out of the biting wind. Once the other driver had arrived, I got him to give me a quick guided tour of the coach so that I knew where all the switches and controls were. The only modern coaches I’d previously driven were the ones I’d trained on before taking my PCV test and the one I drove last year to Millfield School.
After the other driver had disappeared in the van back up to Weston I settled myself into the driver’s seat. Soon a First Great Western despatcher called me forward to the platform entrance for the 19:00 departure and I picked up a solitary passenger. This suited me quite well as I knew that the first few miles would be a bit of a learning curve for me. I was driving CRZ9851 (originally P153FUJ), a Dennis Javelin/Plaxton Premiere with a 6-speed manual gearbox. It took me a while to find a gearchange technique that would give the smoothest ride as, even though it obviously has synchromesh, quicker or slower changes made a difference.
I had been advised to go up the M5 as far as Junction 21 and then use the A370 to get to Bristol. This is a very familiar route for me so I was very happy to continue getting used to the coach on this road. Apart from some temporary traffic signals at one point, there were no delays and my single passenger alighted at one of the bus stops outside Temple Meads station 5 minutes early. I breathed a sigh of relief and drove the coach out of the station approach, took a sharp left turn and parked up beside a tunnel that leads down from the station concourse above (see the photo at the top of this post).
It could have gone horribly wrong on the return journey. With about a dozen passengers for Taunton aboard, I headed back down the A370 but no sooner had we joined the dual carriageway Long Ashton Bypass, we were directed off it by the Police. No diversion was signposted so, heart in mouth, I followed the other traffic. I hadn’t driven along any of the side roads before but, with a name like ‘Long Ashton Bypass’, I assumed that if I followed signs for the village of Long Ashton I might be able to rejoin the A370 further south. A big clue presented itself in the form of a Bakers Dolphin coach emerging from a side turning. I took a calculated risk, hoping that the coach was on rail replacement duties like me, and turned left towards the village. Although the road was narrow in places and full of traffic intent on avoiding the closed bypass, it wasn’t too difficult. Long Ashton is of course served by buses so all was well and we rejoined the A370 beyond the obstruction without any trouble. I breathed a huge sign of relief. Again.
The rest of the journey was comparatively stress-free and I delivered my passengers to the railway station in Taunton just about on time. Secretly I was hoping that nobody would want to go up to Bristol on the last departure, which was scheduled to leave at 22:30. I was beginning to tire of driving in the dark, wet conditions and my bed seemed to be beckoning me. But it wasn’t to be. As before, just one passenger needed to be taken to Temple Meads. “Oh sugarlumps”, I muttered politely under my breath, as I drew forward to the pickup point. It was 23:45 before I reached the station at the other end, electing this time to go up via the M5 and the A4 Portway in case the Long Ashton bypass was still closed. After taking a break I drove back to the depot in Weston-super-Mare, completed my tacho chart and turned everything off. It was 01:45 before I got into bed!
The next day, after a good long sleep, I reported for duty again. This time it was earlier as I had a school run to do before repeating the rail replacement duty to Bristol. Fortunately I was able to follow another driver to Fairlands School in Cheddar but after that I was on my own. Having been given details the day before, I spent part of the morning doing a Google Maps ‘dry run’ so that I knew the route and where the drop-off points were. I was told that the children would have helped me out if I’d got stuck but I thought it best to make sure I knew where I was going!
I had a different coach this time. CRZ9825 is a Volvo B10M Van Hool Alizee and again I had to adapt my technique to achieve the smoothest gearchange. This one favoured a slow change with 2nd gear being particularly reluctant if I tried to hurry it. The school run went without a hitch and was all done within 20 minutes of leaving the school. I headed south empty on the A38, joining the M5 at Brent Knoll and continuing towards Taunton. A fresh storm had arrived by then and the westerly winds, gusting to 60-70mph at times, made the job of keeping within the motorway lane extremely difficult.
After a break I began the rail replacement duty again, carrying a few more passengers than the previous evening. Returning southwards from Bristol on the M5 the wind was even more violent, to the extent that it blew my offside rear view mirror out of alignment. I slid open the side window, admitting a roaring hurricane of slipstream into the cab while I fought to reposition the mirror. I had to do this a couple more times on the motorway while the lane beside me was clear.
Back at Taunton my 22:30 departure time arrived but passengers didn’t so I was waved off by the despatcher, free to return to depot. And so ended another brief encounter with coach driving. Would I do it again? Probably. The life of a coach driver is becoming more familiar but, to be honest, I’d be much happier driving a half-cab bus! Fortunately, I have just such a duty this coming Saturday…