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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Coach driving for Bakers Dolphin

As some of you already know, I now work full time for Bakers Dolphin coaches in Weston-super-Mare. There isn’t a heritage element sadly but I’m able to keep my hand in with the ex-Crosville vehicles occasionally.

Bakers Dolphin can trace its roots back to 1889 when Charles Baker first started trading commercially in Weston-super-Mare. It’s come a long way since then and currently has around 70 vehicles in its fleet. I joined in June and straight away found it hard work.

I spent the first three days on an induction course and then learned a school contract route with another driver. The next day I was out on my own! There has been a huge amount to learn – Bakers does things very differently from Crosville and learning the new routines and procedures was not easy. On the whole though I have enjoyed the experience so far, particularly as Bakers have the flexibility to offer me the kind of work that suits me best.

During term time this is mostly a school run in the morning, private hires in the middle of the day and a return school run to finish. Other work, particularly during the recent school holiday, has included day trips, feeder trips and day-long private hire duties. In another post I will write about a typical day trip just to give you a flavour.

The vehicles in the fleet range from cars and minibuses to luxury touring coaches. So far I’ve driven cars, minibuses and a midi service bus (Wrightbus Streetlite) at the small end and coaches of all sorts at the bigger end. Although I once had a luxury coach for a day trip that was only 2 years old, I haven’t yet risen to the dizzy heights of the ‘Gold’ service, which has a courier and all the latest bells and whistles.

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