In case you are getting super bored under enforced lockdown conditions in the UK and elsewhere, here’s a bit of an update to help pass the time!
As soon as the new deadly coronavirus ‘Covid-19’ began to raise its ugly head in the UK, Bakers Dolphin’s private hire work started to dry up and tour customers started cancelling. Sales staff promptly worked with them and our holiday venue partners to postpone, rather than cancel bookings to retain as much custom as possible for the future. Even so, morale among the normally jovial drivers began to drop with people beginning to wonder if their jobs would last much longer.
In the meantime, schools work continued. It’s the bread-and-butter of the business but soon that came to an end as well and it began to look like we were in serious trouble.
During the week before the government closed the schools, my regular bus was a Scania Omnidekka service bus (XJI5457, ex-Nottingham, pictured here before Bakers Dolphin branding was applied). Many of the other coach drivers are reluctant to drive it but you know me, I’ll drive anything! OK, the ride is not as refined as a coach, it’s noisy, rattly and takes ages to warm up in cold weather but it has one redeeming feature. Like several other Scanias in the fleet (the Gold coaches), it has a clever switch on the dash which sets the lights going in sequence. This makes my early morning walk round check easy because I just walk around the vehicle and watch as it turns all the exterior lights on and off by itself!
At a staff meeting in the yard, we were asked by the MD if we would voluntarily reduce our contracted hours to help protect the future of the company and many of us put our hands up. This was before the government’s job retention scheme – where 80% of a furloughed worker’s wage would be covered – was announced. However, on the bright side, management were in talks with other employers in the region to see if a deal could be done which would further safeguard our future. As a result of this, 20 of my colleagues have re-trained as ambulance drivers and now operate, partnered with paramedics, for Bristol Ambulance Emergency Medical Services.
Not connected with the Covid-19 situation is a longstanding plan by the local council to redevelop the land occupied by the Locking Road car/lorry/coach park for housing. Bakers Dolphin has for many years leased part of this land to park its 70-strong fleet of coaches, service buses and MPVs but at the end of March the last of many lease extensions expired and we were required to vacate the area.
There is a very long term plan to move the whole business to another location but, in the interim, we have leased a large industrial unit in which to house the fleet. And when I say large, I mean ENORMOUS.
With 20 drivers fully occupied driving ambulances and most others on furlough, it fell to a handful of those who remained to move the coach fleet over to the new unit. In convoys of 6 at a time, we drove all but a few minibuses and MPVs into the cavernous unit. By the time they were all safely parked, I had done 8 separate journeys, returning each time with the other drivers in a minibus. The stored vehicles are now on SORN to save money.
As you may know, some schools remain open to care for the children of certain key workers and those from vulnerable backgrounds. The only paid work we have now is to run three MPVs and a midi-coach to some of the schools in our area.
My willingness to drive almost anything probably accounts for my current allocated vehicle, seen at the top of this post, No 71 (BX10DDL), a BMC 750 with a BMC C27F coach body new to Timberbush Tours, Edinburgh. It’s a weird looking tub, built on a lorry chassis. My first encounter with it was not a happy one. On a school journey from Blagdon to Weston College one day, I pulled up at a bus stop with a raised kerb. Being a driving assessor, I should have known better. As I opened the door it jammed on the kerb and wouldn’t budge in any direction. While the poor passenger waited outside, I got out of my seat and wrestled with the door but it was stuck fast and wasn’t going anywhere. It was at this point that I discovered that the BMC body doesn’t come with a ‘ferry lift’, which raises the body and could have got me out of jail. Luckily, one of the students already onboard came to my rescue. He was a burly chap and he grabbed hold of a handrail and threw his considerable weight from side to side, rocking the coach body from side to side. With me heaving on the door as well it eventually came loose and all was well.
That is until we reached the next village, Sandford. Pulling away from the Primary School stop the gearchange lever got stuck in 2nd. We crawled through the village at a snail’s pace while I fought with the stick. Nothing I did would free it until, after much pulling, pushing and bashing it suddenly came free. Unfortunately it was too free now. I waggled it about a bit and discovered to my horror that the stick wasn’t connected to anything at all. By now I was quite hot and bothered and, as we screamed along at full revs at about 15mph, I debated whether or not to pull over and call for assistance. I reckoned that, by the time one of the mechanics had come out with another coach I would probably have reached Weston so, allowing following traffic to pass whenever it was safe, I carried on to Weston College. Yes, the students were late, but not as late as they would have been if I had stopped and waited for rescue. Fortunately, having stuck in 2nd gear, I was still able to pull away from stops and junctions without too much bother. “Fair play to you!” was the comment I received after reporting back to the workshop.
The gearchange linkage was repaired and I’ve had No 71 recently as my regular vehicle for the lightly loaded combined run to Churchill School. It’s a bit underpowered but, as the roads are very quiet, very few other drivers are inconvenienced!
The only other work available at the yard is to regularly sanitize the vehicles we use. This is especially vital to protect not only our young passengers but us drivers as well. I’ve stayed clear of any symptoms so far and try to be fastidious about hand-washing, wearing gloves while driving and social distancing while on duty.
I do hope that my loyal readers are staying safe and healthy too. We must just hope that we’ll all survive to roam the roads once more!
Photo credit (Scania Omnidekka): Paul Jones