Busman John’s Virtual Bus Rally

Of the many casualties of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the one that I have missed most this year is the opportunity to drive at various bus rallies and running days. Some organisations have run a virtual event instead, so here’s mine!

There are many buses I have driven or have seen that I would like to invite to my Virtual Bus Rally but I’ve narrowed it down to this selection. The captions describe my reasons for inviting them to my event.

Back to school runs in lockdown

Another update in case you thought I had lost interest or succumbed to the dreaded Covid-19. No, I’ve gone back to working on school contracts.

I had been on furlough (the UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme paying 80% of my wages) since the beginning of May but about 6 weeks later was recalled by Bakers Dolphin to carry on driving a school contract.

I’m driving a minibus on a regular run to the Kings of Wessex School in Cheddar. My usual vehicle is this Mercedes Benz 515CDI with Mellor bodywork. It has an automatic gearbox and is quite smooth to drive, if a little high-revving when climbing. If there’s anything I would complain about, it’s the lazy electric door. It opens quite quickly but, after pressing the button to close it again, it waits for a second or two to have a think about it before it decides to move. You learn to live with it!

The route is different each day of the week because students go to school on a rota system and the most I’ve carried is 5, so it’s a relatively quiet life for me. Especially this morning, when neither of the two students on my list turned up. The only excitement at the moment is when I come across a road closure and have to follow a diversionary route!

Although some of the full size coaches are in use on other school contracts, these too are only carrying handfuls of students and the bulk of the coach fleet is still laid up in the garage. There are currently no holidays or excursions operating but the company has plans to start these again in August. Whether I will be allocated any day trips remains to be seen, as there are plenty of experienced tour drivers waiting in the wings, absolutely desperate to get back behind the wheel of a coach.

This week, in a change to the usual routine, I and a couple of the other school run drivers took 3 of the Mercedes Benz Tourismo coaches to Nailsea for their MOT tests and yesterday I drove one of the posh Gold coaches up to Bristol for some bodywork attention. These tri-axle Scanias are very smooth and comfortable but you can’t rush them! That suits me actually because I’m quite a sedate driver compared to some others.

That’s it for now, folks. Bus rallies and running days have mostly been cancelled this summer due to the coronavirus pandemic so, in the absence of any heritage driving, I may be forced to put on my own virtual vintage bus rally so look out for the next post from Busman John.

Coronavirus, furlough but no buses

Just a quick update, in case anyone was wondering if I had dropped off the face of the planet. I haven’t, but there has been no bus-related action to write about for quite a while.

Friday May 1st was the last time I drove for a living and that was on the Bakers Dolphin combined school route to Churchill School, carrying just 5 students. From that date I was placed on the Government’s Job Retention Scheme, otherwise known as ‘furlough’. The UK Government pays 80% of my normal contracted hours and effectively I have been on extended leave. In some ways it has given me a taster of what it might be like when I eventually retire! I have been busy under lockdown conditions, mostly working in my garden to set up a secondhand greenhouse, demolish a garden shed, prepare the ground for a new one and build a wooden log store from the good parts of the old shed. Gotta love recycling!

Sadly there has been no bus action and the many heritage bus turns – weddings mostly – that would normally have come my way have been postponed until a later date due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. There is however a rumour that I may be undertaking a few bus positioning runs before and after restoration work but nothing has been confirmed yet. My only involvement with the heritage bus movement has been online, by browsing various groups where bus photos are posted from happier times. Some interaction with The Revivist* via Facebook has however been both fascinating and rewarding. In due course you may see me in a Live Stream talking about driving and if that happens I will post details here.

The prolonged shut-down of the holiday and tourism season has had many casualties, including the recent and very sad closure of Shearings Holidays, together with its parent company Specialist Leisure Group. I shall miss seeing that distinctive blue livery on the roads once we return to normality. The group also included the famous name of Wallace Arnold, an operator with a long history and connections with the west country. The Wallace Arnold name lives on in the form of several preserved coaches, the latest being James Pratt’s Volvo B10M (W656FUM). From what I’ve heard, Bakers Dolphin is in a stronger position to weather the Covid-19 storm thanks to super-human efforts by the company directors and some very good trading in recent years.

It now seems that my period of furlough may be about to end, as I had a call from Bakers Dolphin last week to offer me some work. It would of course be school work, driving a minibus, starting sometime this coming week (w/c June 1st). If I can manage to make something interesting happen, I may be able to squeeze another Busman’s Holiday blog post out of it!

*The Revivist, or to give it its full title ‘The Revivist: Classic Vehicle Restoration & Coach Painting’ is the brainchild of Ashley and Kirsty Blackman and offers not only a world-beating paint finish on your bus but also very informed and generous support to all in the preservation movement. Their regular contributions to Bus & Coach Preservation magazine have demonstrated Ashley’s skill as a vehicle restorer as well as his passion for sharing his knowledge of heritage vehicles and how best to care for them. Their Facebook page (linked above) is the place to start if you want to get involved.

Covid-19: all change at Bakers Dolphin

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.

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Bristol Lodekka outing to Clevedon

My first heritage bus duty of 2020 was a wedding in Clevedon using ex-Southern Vectis 573, a Bristol Lodekka I have driven many times before.

It was also my first duty from Crosville Vintage’s recently established storage unit just outside Weston-super-Mare which is best suited to the double deck members of the fleet. There had been a vehicle change during the previous week because a London Transport RT had originally been allocated but this vehicle was still under repair elsewhere in the UK. I didn’t mind using YDL318 instead as I am very familiar with it. Besides, I have a Tilling winter uniform but not a London Transport one!

Also during the previous week I had used a couple of spare hours between school contract runs to carry out a recce by car in Clevedon because I was not sure about access for the bus into Clevedon Hall. This is a large hotel near the sea, formerly a private residence, which is a popular wedding venue. There is a driveway up to the original main entrance but there isn’t enough room to turn a bus around so I went into the hotel reception and found out that, when they have coach parties arrive, the vehicle reverses up the drive. I walked down and visualised a Lodekka doing a reversing manoever. Satisfied that it was all do-able, I went on to St Andrew’s Church which is only about 10 minutes drive down the road. There is a narrow one-way system serving the church where low hanging branches also posed a problem but I decided that there were alternatives!

Having earlier had a guided tour of the storage unit I arrived on the Saturday morning to prepare and do my walk round checks. Since having an engine overhaul last year, the Gardner 6LW seems to be reluctant to burst into life when cold so there were a few anxious moments while I coaxed the old girl into life. In previous years I remember she would fire up after a couple of turns. The storage unit soon filled with pungent exhaust smoke so I quickly brought the FS outside into the open.

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