Back to bus work for a while

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!

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A typical day as a Bakers Dolphin coach driver

Life has been so hectic lately that ‘Busman’s Holiday’ posts have been regrettably thin on the ground. As promised in an earlier post, here is a flavour of a typical day in my new role as a Baker Dolphin coach driver.

During term time every available driver (except those away on tour) starts and ends his day with a school or college run. Most days will see me rising, blurry eyed, at about 5am (ugh!) ready for an early start at the depot. Regular practice is for the Operations Department to finalise the day’s roster by the evening of the previous day. Unfortunately this means that I won’t know what duties I’ve got until the previous evening, which leaves very little time to do my customary route planning.

As soon as I arrive I pick up my Work Tickets and the keys for my coach and greet some of my colleagues before heading off into the coach park to find my allocated coach. With up to 70 vehicles stabled there overnight, finding the right one sometimes takes a while! For the next 20 minutes or so I complete my walkaround checks and fill in a Defect Report. If anything is amiss – such as a blown bulb – this must be attended to before I can leave.

Depending on which school/college route I’ve been given, I may have to check with another driver or a member of the Operations staff if it’s one I haven’t done before. Although all the pickup points are listed on my Work Ticket the exact locations aren’t always clear. One route which I have done quite often is a Bridgwater College route which starts in Portishead, near Bristol. After a quick blast up the M5 for the first pickup, it meanders through the Gordano valley and into Clevedon to pick up students from a couple of places in the town. I continue southwards and into Yatton and finally Congresbury before re-joining the M5 for a short distance. Arrival at Bridgwater College is normally around 08:40. On busy days I will then have a series of short jobs, mostly conveying school children on swimming trips or other outings.

My favourite kind of duty is a private hire day trip, some of which last for the rest of the day after a school run. One such trip (as illustrated above) took in two venues in Devon. The coach was hired by members of a U3A group in Weston-super-Mare and I met them at the town’s coach park. I welcomed them on board, made sure they were comfortable and checked with the group leader about further pickup stops. After giving a safety talk over the PA we set off, picking up a few more passengers along Locking Road as we headed towards the M5 motorway.

The coach I had been allocated was a comfortable Mercedes-Benz Tourismo, which has an automatic dry-plate gearbox. From a passenger’s point of view, it feels like a manual box (with a pause between gearchanges) but the automatic transmission takes care of all the clutch work. It’s 10 years old and was bought second hand by Bakers Dolphin, with 3 others, from Swanns of Chedderton. I quite like driving these coaches although some of my colleagues don’t get along too well with having to wait for gearchanges to complete. They are rather ‘leisurely’ which is a pain when one is hoping for a swift acceleration!

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Rural Ramblings with school contracts

One of my many roles at Crosville is to drive school buses during term time in rural Somerset. These journeys have added some new challenges to my driving experience.

By their very nature, school journeys tend to involve country lanes as we pick up students from outlying villages and bring them to school and back again. My first taste of school runs was route 724, which was very testing from the outset. My regular bus was Volvo B10BLE R244KRG, new to Stagecoach North East about 20 years ago. Leaving the garage at 07:15 I had a 35 minute empty journey ahead of me before picking up my first student.

I drove a circular route through the lanes passing through villages and tiny hamlets such as Middle Stoughton, Chapel Allerton and Lower Weare before rejoining the main A38 and arriving in Cheddar just in time for school. In places the lanes are very narrow, with the bus often touching the hedges on both sides. The one pictured above is quite broad compared to some!

Fortunately my regular bus has automatic transmission and good all-round visibility, which made the task of manoevering around tight corners and oncoming traffic much easier than the occasions when I was allocated a full size modern coach. We no longer operate the 724 route which is a bit disappointing, as I had mastered its challenges rather well, even if I say it myself!

The VanHool bodied DAF coach pictured left is now almost 25 years old and is now one of the stalwarts of the Crosville school contract and private hire fleet. It’s showing its age in places but still copes very well in service.

As well as school duties, I also take on private hire duties with some of these vehicles. Sometimes a local school hires a coach for a short journey to the leisure centre or a group of residents take a trip to Bristol to the theatre. Occasionally I’ve been rostered to drive a bus service from Burnham-on-Sea to Wedmore. Until recently this included taking fares using the Ticketer system but now this service has been taken on by another operator.

Just yesterday I was up at 04:30 (yawn) to do an early morning trip from Filton to Bridgwater College. This is a fairly simple duty which, apart from fighting my way through the rush hour traffic near Cribbs Causeway, Bristol, is mostly motorway running.

I hope this gives you a flavour of some of my driving duties with the modern fleet. Not all are as old as those pictured – also yesterday I was driving a 2015 Yutong coach. Very nice!

In between these driving duties I look after the private hire enquiries and bookings, both heritage and modern. People are booking vintage buses for weddings up to one year in advance! Part of my role involves marketing the heritage fleet and recently we’ve teamed up with First Choice Wedding Cars, where three of our buses are featured. We’re also due to take a bus to Leigh Court, near Bristol, for a Wedding Fair early next year.

Although heritage bus outings are less frequent now, we’re still operating. Last Saturday I was out in Bristol doing a wedding and there are a couple of vintage buses out next Saturday as well. In my next post I’ll highlight a few of the more notable turns this autumn/winter.

Crosville has a new Heritage Operations Manager

If it all seems to have gone rather quiet recently for Busman John, that’s because the opposite is true. Life has been extremely busy with bus movements, private hire duties and new responsibilities.

LEU263P-Royal-Avenue-Bath-BBC

One of the more unusual private hire duties is pictured above – a day spent with a film crew from BBC Bristol ‘Points West’. This was another ‘get up at silly o’clock’ day, when I had to travel up from Paignton, prepare my rostered bus and get myself in position at BBC Bristol in Whiteladies Road by 08:30.

The people from Points West, the local BBC News programme, were interviewing the six candidates for Mayor and I spent the day with the Bristol VRT open top bus taking the film crew to six locations in the Bristol area to meet and interview the candidates.

Our first stop was the duck pond in Winterbourne, just to the north of the city, then on to Kingswood where we drove along the busy shopping streets while the filming took place on the top deck.

LEU263P-Chew-Valley-Lake

From there we went south to Chew Valley Lake for another interview and a lunch break. Getting there however was a bit fraught because I had only been rostered for the job the day before and hadn’t had a chance to do my normal route research. Planning our route was a bit of a team effort – not ideal. The inevitable happened, we chose a route that included a narrow, weight restricted bridge! I had to turn the bus around in a very small space and go back the way we’d come. How embarrassing!

The other stops included the very elegant Royal Avenue in Bath (pictured at the top of this post), just below the famous Royal Crescent. The footage was aired during the local news programme a few days later and was also published on the BBC Points West Facebook page in six short segments.

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Crosville hybrid decker goes north

Another delivery duty for Crosville Motor Services recently took me on a return journey to Yorkshire, this time with a hybrid double deck bus.

lj58avg-at-crosville-depot

It’s a journey I’ve done several times before so I hardly used the printed route notes I always carry in the cab. On previous journeys I’ve delivered a 1950 Bedford OB and a 1949 Bristol K6A to the restoration premises of Cobus in Yorkshire.

For various operational reasons I was unable to leave the depot until after 10:00 but, not having driven one of these hybrid buses before, I was glad to be able to accompany another driver on a similar bus as we took it into Weston-super-Mare town centre to swap it with the bus I was to take north. Watching his every move, I soon learned that it was really no different to driving any other modern bus with an auto gearbox.

If you haven’t already guessed, a hybrid bus uses a combination of battery power and energy from a small diesel engine for propulsion. Before I left the depot an engineer flipped a couple of switches behind a panel to put the bus into ‘DE’ (Direct Energy) Mode, which meant that the batteries would not be depleted on the long journey. The bus is built for Euro 6 economy on urban services but would require diesel power throughout the 260 mile trip to Hunmanby.

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A visit to Eastern Coach Works, Lowestoft

I’ve done a couple of delivery jobs for Crosville Motor Services recently and one of them took me to the Far East (of England). To Lowestoft, in fact.

Regular readers will know that I’m a big fan of any vehicle built by Bristol Commercial Vehicles. Due mostly to Government ownership, the majority of these were bodied by Eastern Coach Works and it was to the coastal town of Lowestoft, where the ECW factory was located, that each newly-built chassis had to be taken years ago.

site-of-eastern-coach-works

Crosville has sold a Volvo B10M coach to a new owner who lives near Lowestoft and I was asked to drive the coach there from Weston-super-Mare. I knew that the 280-mile journey would take most of the day so I arranged to stay the night in Lowestoft and return the next day by train.

VanHool-bodied K7CJT has carried the number CRZ9825 while in service with Crosville but, by the time I arrived to take it to its new home, it had regained its original mark. The workshop staff had given it a once over the previous day and, not having driven this vehicle before, I spent some time checking it over before venturing out onto the road. Locating the side and headlight switch seemed to take me the longest time and I tried a good number of the rocking switches on the dash before finding the correct (rotary) switch near the steering column. That’s what happens when all the switch labels have worn off after years of use! A colleague at the depot, who is keen on the heritage side of the business, came over to see where I was going and asked me if I was going anywhere near the site of the ECW factory. I said I didn’t know where it was, not having time to research it the day before when planning my route. Lowestoft is quite a big town and I thought it would be unlikely that I’d be passing the site, even if I knew where it had been.

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Brand new Yutong coach receives Crosville livery (part 1)

I had the opportunity to drive a brand new coach last week. Always on the lookout for odd jobs to keep me busy during the winter, I accepted this one with with a mixture of tredipation and curiosity.

Yutong-coach-at-Reading-Services

It proved to be a very long day, thanks to the rail network. The driving sector went like clockwork, fortunately! I can’t tell you much about the coach in question, except that it’s a TC12 made by Yutong in China with a DAF 10.8 litre engine. It was delivered to Crosville last autumn, wearing the livery you see above, after attending a trade show. Before entering service it needed to carry the more usual all-over-green Crosville coaching livery and that’s where I came in. It was my job to drive the coach – as yet unregistered – over to Marden Commercials in South Benfleet, Essex.

After a full hour of preparation, during which trade plates were attached, I was ready to set off. It was a voyage of discovery, even before leaving the yard as I had to find out where all the relevant switches were located. Headlights, wipers/washers, door controls and so on were laid out in front of me on a dashboard that wouldn’t look out of place on the flightdeck of a bizjet! The final task was to take on a full tank of fuel. The provision of a fuel gauge on the central digital display was a luxury for me. None of the heritage buses I drive normally have one at all. I have to rely on a makeshift dipstick and a Mark One Eyeball!

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