Coaching gains and losses at Bakers Dolphin

Occasionally I’m asked to do some interesting jobs for Bakers Dolphin, in between school runs. One of these saw me collecting a 2018-plate Mercedes-Benz Tourismo coach from Gloucester.

The two coaches pictured above have recently been purchased by Bakers Dolphin for day trip and tour work, an indication perhaps that things are looking a bit more rosy for the company despite the loss of income suffered during the current Covid-19 pandemic.

A colleague and myself were driven up to an industrial estate in Gloucester by another driver to collect the pair and, after dealing with the paperwork, we were given the keys and asked to see if they would start. My heart sank. Apparently they had been sitting in the yard for a few weeks before the sale to Bakers. Sure enough, neither would start although there was just enough juice in the batteries to light up the dashboard.

I found the yard supervisor and gave him the bad news. Fortunately for us, he had a jump pack in his office and duly wheeled it out. “I don’t know if there’s enough charge in it to start two coaches but we’ll have a go!” My heart sank for a second time. We opened the battery locker on the coach that my colleague was going to drive, hooked up the leads and started it up without any trouble. Then it was my turn. Once again I connected the leads, turned on the jump pack and sat in the driver’s seat. After saying a little prayer I turned the key. After a heart-stopping moment the 11 litre diesel at the back came to life. What a relief!

Matey wandered back to his office with his jump pack in tow while my colleague and I completed our walkaround checks. Fortunately, apart from a non-standard n/s mirror being fitted to my coach, everything checked out. We both decided that there was enough fuel in each coach to get us back to Weston without the need to refuel but, if there wasn’t we had come prepared with some petty cash.

Taking great care not to scratch Bakers’ new coaches, we headed back to the M5 motorway and headed south, destination Weston-super-Mare. These modern coaches have all the latest gadgets and gizmos (aircon, satnav, toilet, galley, automatic everything) and are very comfortable to ride in.

The two Tourismos, at the time of writing, remain in the Bakers garage still in plain white. In due course they will go through the company’s paint shop to enter service in the standard blue and white livery like the one pictured here.

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Furlough ends, back to school

During what most people in the UK hope is the last period of national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I have done no bus or coach driving work whatsoever. But that is due to end tomorrow.

It goes without saying that all heritage bus driving work has been on hold throughout the pandemic as well, but that is due to change and more on that later.

Although I have often envied the hedgehog in my garden, who has been in hibernation during the winter, I have kept up with developments in the heritage bus and coach world by reading Bus & Coach Preservation magazine, checking in with bus groups on social media and joining other preservationists on Facebook and Zoom, courtesy of the excellent Revivist community.

All schools in England are due to re-open to all pupils tomorrow so all the Bakers Dolphin school routes will recommence with a full complement of drivers. According to my instructions, I’m due to operate a route from Weston-super-Mare to Churchill Academy, a distance of about 8 miles. However, due to the fact that the students have a staggered start to their school day, I will need to return to Weston and operate the route again for a second set of students. Once I’m back at the depot I have a driving assessment to carry out, so it’s back down to earth with a bump for me. During my period of furlough I’ve got rather used to what it feels like to be retired!

As for heritage driving, I haven’t done any since I took an RT across to Kent for its new owner (see previous post). But I have been offered a few driving dates (mostly weddings) by Crosville Vintage from May onwards, when hopefully the current restrictions will be eased. There must be a huge backlog of couples desperate to go ahead with wedding plans that have been put on hold for so long!

If you are interested in the vehicle pictured above, it is a 2006 Volvo B12M with a Van Hool Alizee T9 body. UKZ2923 (fleet no 34) was originally new as RB06JSB for Punjab Coaches, Slough. It is pictured here on one of my last school contract duties in January before the current lockdown began. Although far from new, it’s one of my favourite T9 coaches. It has a 6-speed manual gearbox, which I enjoy using but also has a larger engine than most in the fleet (12 litres I think) which gives it a very throaty exhaust note and plenty of power.

While thinking about what else to write about I did wonder if it might be entertaining to bring you a few stories of bus and coach journeys that didn’t go to plan. Although hiccups and breakdowns are not the kind of thing I would normally shout about, they do still occur – even to modern coaches. It’s something that every driver should be prepared for and once or twice that driver has been me!

 

Around Minehead with an open top Bristol VRT

In a welcome return to heritage buses, I spent two days driving around Minehead, Somerset, in an open top 1976 Bristol VRT giving free rides to people who were taking part in a West Somerset Railway event.

The West Somerset Railway has not been able to run any passenger-carrying trains this year because the coronavirus lockdown was announced before the 2020 timetable had begun. But two consecutive weekends were set aside to offer a Living Museum event, where people could pre-book tickets to enter Minehead station and see shunting and turntable demonstrations, see exhibitions and have a ride on a vintage bus. I was asked to drive for the second weekend.

The vehicle in use was 1976-built Bristol Omnibus C5055 (Bristol/ECW VRT LEU263P) and, as it had been used during the previous weekend’s event, it was still in Minehead so I didn’t need to drive it all the way from Weston-super-Mare, where it is stored. So, after a fairly leisurely drive down the A39, I arrived at about 09:45 to find the bus parked up in the coaling bay at the WSR’s Minehead shed.

In addition to my usual walk-around checks, I had to go around the bus with disinfectant and wipe down all the frequent contact areas such as handrails and seat tops. This was just the start of a very strict anti-Covid19 regime. I dipped the tank and found it about a quarter full so, knowing that the bus would be taken back to Weston at the end of the next day’s duty, I stopped off at the Morrisons filling station for fuel.

I finally arrived outside the Turntable CafĂ© beside Minehead station where I met my conductor for the day who, under normal circumstances, would have been checking tickets on one of the WSR’s popular steam train services. We introduced ourselves and ran through the various procedures – face coverings, maximum capacity (only 20 per journey), anti-bac sweeps after every journey and so on. Also in attendance was another railway volunteer who was acting as despatcher in our loading bay.

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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.