Most of my driving work for Bakers Dolphin involves coaches of various sorts but I’m sometimes rostered on one of the two registered bus routes as well.
Bakers Dolphin operates two bus routes on behalf of Somerset County Council, both of which serve the Bridgwater campus of Bridgwater & Taunton College. The No 62 runs from Weston-super-Mare town centre to Bridgwater College via Locking, Banwell, Churchill, Highbridge and Pawlett. It runs twice a day to serve the beginning and end of the college day.
The No 66 starts in Axbridge and passes through Cheddar, Wedmore, Mark, East Huntspill, Woolavington and Puriton before calling at Bridgwater College and terminating at Bridgwater Bus Station. It’s this route that I’ve driven most often although I sometimes get the 62 when its regular driver is off.
Now, I’m no stranger to bus service work but I’ve discovered since starting work at Bakers Dolphin that there’s a heirarchy in PCV driving work. Local bus service work is definitely near the bottom of the heap as far as coach drivers are concerned! Apart from the one regular No 62 route driver, I’ve yet to meet another driver who actually likes driving the bus routes!
Perhaps because I’m an easy-going guy who rarely complains, I often find that I’m allocated to the 66 route… sometimes for several days in a row. So what’s it like?
The duty starts at 06:30 and after 15 minutes or so of walkaround checks and preparation, I set off out of town towards Bridgwater before joining the A38 northwards. Usually I have a few minutes in hand so, in order to time my arrival in the narrow streets of Axbridge, I wait time in a layby beside the Bristol-bound A38 road.
My usual vehicle is No 97 (MX12DYS), a 2012 Wrightbus ‘StreetLite’ midibus. It’s very similar to its competitor, the Optare Solo. The rear-mounted Cummins diesel engine drives through a Voith fully automatic gearbox. Compared to most of the coaches at Bakers, the StreetLite is not a very sophisticated or comfortable bus. Braking in particular is very harsh and difficult to do smoothly. The retarder kicks in with an unexpected thump and the downward gearchanges only make it worse. Although it has air suspension, it is very hard and, together with the aforementioned deficiencies in the braking department, the ride is unpleasant and jerky. Not my usual style at all!
First pickup is in the centre of Axbridge at 07:40 but often there’s nobody waiting so I continue empty to Cheddar. Turning off the main road, I head for Tweentown. This can be tricky because there’s a quarry cut into the Mendip rock nearby and artic lorries use this narrow route so I have to peer over the tops of the hedgerows to gain a glimpse of any oncoming wagons. Shortly after this there’s often a student who appears to leap out of the undergrowth at the bus! He’s actually waiting opposite a marked bus stop but there’s no pavement and he’s hidden until he steps out and waves his arm.
There are a couple more stops in Cheddar, by which time I’ve got a handful of students onboard. Most use their ‘Love the Bus’ passes which are issued by the college. The Ticketer machine registers the embedded chip with a ‘beep’. Students who travel less frequently pay for their tickets with cash so I always have to carry a decent float with me, even on days when I’m not due to be driving the bus service. There are times when the rostered driver doesn’t turn up for duty so muggins here often gets a call from Ops changing my day’s work!
From Cheddar I take the B3151 road to Wedmore. There’s a sharp left-hand bend followed immediately by a narrow bridge over the Cheddar Yeo stream which requires me to borrow most of the opposite carriageway to enable me to avoid hitting the bridge parapets. Most of the road into Wedmore is quite narrow, with only just enough room for large vehicles to pass each other.
Picking up more students outside the Swan Inn, Wedmore, I weave my way past St Mary’s Church and watch for reflections in the paintwork of the parked cars to get advance warning of any oncoming traffic.
And so it goes on. We pass through Blackford, Mark, East Huntspill, Woolavington and Puriton picking up more students as we go. The bus is rarely full and I’ve yet to carry a standing load.
Soon the 1 hour journey ends. Along with other buses and coaches, I deposit my passengers in the college’s own bus station (see main pic above) and continue – usually empty – to the last stop, Bridgwater Bus Station (see pic below).
All that remains is for me to drive the short distance to Colley Lane, where there’s space for four of our vehicles to be stabled. I travel back to Weston-super-Mare either as a passenger in the other StreetLite bus or in the one I’ve been driving, with the No 62 driver as my passenger.
Usually I take a few hours’ break at this point, unless I’ve been given some private hire work with a coach. Returning later to Colley Lane, I prepare one of the two coaches stabled there with the StreetLite buses. There’s usually an automatic and a (much older) manual to chose from and I prefer the latter, a Volvo B10M. Fleet number 18 (NIL4981, recently re-numbered 48), along with several other similar ones, is now one of the oldest in the Bakers Dolphin fleet having entered service with Smiths Shearings (Wigan) in 1988. In fact, at more than 30 years old, it’s elderly enough to qualify as a heritage coach!
Compared to its more modern counterparts, no 18 is noticeably underpowered and changing gear feels like you are stirring porridge. The upholstery is tired and faded, so its touring days are long since past.
At around 14:45 I pootle off across the town to Chilton Trinity school and carry out a school contract to Woolavington. It’s only a short run but that suits me – the children are rather loud and unruly! Once the last ones have left, quietness decends once more and I return to Colley Lane and change back to the StreetLite bus for the return journey to Axbridge.
Although the No 66 service is provided primarily for Bridgwater College students I have had regular passengers join the bus occasionally, but this is usually down to chance rather than choice as the service isn’t advertised openly.
Returning empty to the depot at around 18:15, I will either park the bus in the Locking Road coach park or take it into the yard for fuel, AdBlue* and a wash first. Logging out of the Ticketer machine produces a printout on which is shown the total cash taken during the day, which makes it easy to pay in the correct amount. Long gone are the days when I used to fill in a Waybill and subtract Setright counter numbers to determine the day’s takings!
Next up is a genuine heritage duty with a Bristol L.
*AdBlue is a watery additive that is sprayed into the exhaust gases before they exit the vehicle to neutralise some of the more harmful emissions.