Rail River Link says farewell to the Bristol VRT

Last weekend saw the final runs in regular operational service for Torbay’s long-serving Bristol VRTs and I enjoyed a last fling with them on an evening Mystery Tour.


Rail River Link (the bus operating division of the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company) has operated open top Bristol VRTs in the area since 2000 but now, due to the introduction next year of new regulations to bring all service buses into compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (commonly referred to as ‘DDA’), the VRTs are being phased out.

Jim O’Hara and his team of drivers delighted local transport historians and enthusiasts by putting on a weekend of extra services and Mystery Tours. The 2 remaining RRL VRTs were joined by two other vehicles, another VRT supplied by North Somerset Coaches and a Leyland Atlantean which is owned by a local collector.

I joined the party at Paignton Bus Station after returning from the afternoon Sightseeing Tour on the PD2 (FFY403). Incidentally, this was my final duty of the season as the Tours season also finished the same weekend. A good number of other people also waited near the 100 Service stop for the celebrity VRTs to arrive. A gentleman standing nearby started asking me about the buses which were due to take part and he revealed that he’d seen publicity about the weekend a few days earlier but didn’t know what a VRT was. Apparently he’d found the information he needed on a website written by a local chap who also drives for a company in Weston-super-Mare. Yes, he’d been reading this blog!


Before long 2 of the VRTs had joined a Volvo B7 which was also in the station on the 100 run. I decided to take a ride on VDV138S for the first part of the tour. This was especially poignant because the bus (no 4 in the RRL fleet) was originally named ‘Warspite’ and was part of a batch of convertible Bristol VRTs supplied to Western National in 1977 as its 938 for service in Torbay. These buses replaced the ageing Leyland Atlantean ‘Sea Dog’ open toppers and happily several members of both types of bus have survived. Joining the fun for the weekend was VDV134S, now in Southern National NBC livery and carrying the name ‘Thomas Hardy’. To complete the set, as it were, one of the aforementioned ‘Sea Dog’ Atlanteans joined the convoy not long after we had left the bus station. Now registered MSJ499, it was originally 925GTA in the Devon General fleet and it has been returned to DG’s reversed cream and maroon livery, complete with ‘Admiral Blake’ name.

Camera-clicking enthusiasts recorded the remarkable scenes from the top decks of the 4 buses as they made their way up to Babbacombe. Driver O’Hara led the way in 938 and had chosen a scenic route up to Babbacombe Downs which, by a strange coincidence, was the exact route I’d taken with the Sightseeing Tours bus earlier in the day!

atlantean-vrt-palace-hotelWhen we got as far as the Palace Hotel we stopped to wait for 2 of the buses to catch up. I took the opportunity to fire off a quick photo on my phone before jumping ship (to continue with the nautical theme) and hopping aboard the iconic Atlantean. Although the VRT ahead of it wasn’t repainted when it joined RRL in 2013, the colours of the East Yorkshire Motor Services livery it still carries are almost identical to the Devon General colours carried by the Atlantean.

I joined Paul on the top deck, a Stagecoach controller who oversees departures on Torquay harbourside. We’ve often exchanged waves or a brief ‘hello’ but it was interesting to talk shop with him while ‘Admiral Blake’ was being expertly and smoothly driven by a colleague of the owner. In another fascinating coincidence, the driver used to work in Hants & Dorset’s Eastleigh workshops and was closely involved with the conversion of a Bristol LH6L into a replica charabanc – the one now operated by English Riviera Sightseeing Tours. It’s a small world!

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.

The three remaining buses, all VRTs, continued on into Brixham in the fading light and paused at the quayside for photos (see main photo) after turning around in front of the Fish Market. Then it was ‘all aboard’ for a last thrash up the hill out of Brixham. When will the steep-sided valley echo again with the throaty roar of several Gardner 6LXB engines at full chat? The penultimate stop was at the Churston base for the resident buses, beside the steam railway station. All remaining passengers for Paignton bus station boarded 938 which then departed with nearly a full load.

Further additional duplications were made to regular departures on the following Saturday and Sunday but I didn’t take part in these as I had other things to do. I do have a life outside of buses, you know! You’ll find many photos of the final weekend that are much better than mine (which were all hastily taken with my phone). One of the best is this one, taken by official ‘VRT Farewell Weekend’ photographer William Spencer, showing the two ex-Western National VRTs together for one last time laying over in Totnes. Another is this one, taken in Paignton by Les Eddy as the cavalcade passed by.

Credit for all this must of course go to Jim O’Hara, his drivers and the DSRRB management. Many will agree that it was a fitting event to mark the end of an era – that of a bus design that has become a classic, the Bristol VRT. You will be glad to know that these survivors are not destined for the scrapyard, both have been sold on to private collectors to begin a new life in the world of preservation. Ex-Crosville example WTU467W has already left for pastures new and parts-donor UWV604S has also been earmarked for preservation.

3 comments on “Rail River Link says farewell to the Bristol VRT

  1. William Spencer says:

    Fine write-up John. I noticed you on the tour but never had the chance to come over for a chat! You do feature in a few photos though! Sad to see them go, although UWV614S has still been in use on the 100 this week, but it’s a great credit to the company that they’ve kept them going for so long!

    • busmanjohn says:

      Thanks Will, I noticed you were rather busy on Friday, dashing hither and thither capturing the scenes for posterity. Yes, full marks to the Company for persevering with the VRTs.

      I wish you had been down at Belgrave Road earlier in the day. I had parked the PD2 outside the Singing Kettle tearooms for our morning cuppa and 938 came by on its way to the Strand. I respectfully stood behind our bus and doffed my driver’s cap in funereal fashion as it passed me. Mike, who was behind the wheel, smiled wryly as we shared the moment!

  2. Alan Bond says:

    Sad indeed to see these vehicles go. This legislation is taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut and is a way of delivering accessibility on the cheap instead of giving more assistance to the disabled.

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