Running Day to mark Exeter Bus Station closure

The long drawn out saga of the Exeter Bus Station redevelopment had a milestone day recently, as a strong turnout of heritage and modern buses and coaches filled the station for a farewell event.

I say long drawn out because the station was due to have been closed by now and the running day on Sunday 19th March was to have been its final fling. But planning officers, contractors and the square wheels of bureaucracy conspired to delay the closure and the site remains open for the time being.

I played a small part in the running day by collecting Western National 3307, a 1979 Bristol LH6L/ Plaxton Supreme coach which belongs to the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT), from its storage yard and driving it in service during the day. Several other historic vehicles from the area queued for fuel in a nearby town before heading off for Exeter.

I’ve driven this LH before and, although it’s not my favourite type, I found it quite easy to drive smoothly. I had time before my first duty to wander around but, even before I’d stepped off the coach, my planned duties were changed and I found myself covering a duty that was left vacant by a bus which didn’t appear.

Instead of doing a few trips up Telegraph Hill and back I was given two turns out to Alphington and one to St David’s Station. I knew roughly how to get to Alphington (a suburb on the west side of Exeter) but got the finer details about where to turn the LH coach from my WHOTT colleague Inspector Andrews. I drove down Western Way to Exe Bridges, which was very busy as per usual. Passing the Marsh Barton Trading Estate, I turned left and drove through Alphington and turned on a small triangle on the edge of the village. We stopped there to wait time and several passengers took the opportunity to take photos.

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Bristol L tackles a stiff climb out of Bath

It’s not often I get a wedding duty in the depths of winter but yesterday was one such day. The job included a very steep climb which really tested the pulling power of the bus.

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The destination was in Bath, which meant a 30-mile empty journey from Weston-super-Mare. I knew it was going to be a cold day so I set out wearing lots of layers! Even so, I was beginning to feel chilly by the time I had finished my walkaround checks. I was pleased to see that my rostered bus, ex-Crosville KG131 (1950 Bristol L5G KFM893), had been well prepared the day before. She stood in the garage gleaming, wearing white wedding ribbons inside and out. A quick peep into the fuel tank with a torch revealed that she had been topped up to the brim with go-juice as well.

Winter is the time when most of the heritage fleet is serviced, repaired or refurbished so the Bristol L was the only member of the fleet which was active. However, the job involved transporting more than 60 people to the reception venue so a modern coach was to join me. Needless to say, we didn’t travel together as my single decker needed a head start due to its slower performance.

As I drove out of the garage there was sleet in the air so I pulled on a pair of gloves and braced myself for a wintery blast through the cab. I couldn’t help thinking of the poor bus drivers of days gone by who had to endure icy conditions day after day and still get the job done. Busmen of the past were obviously made of sterner stuff – I’m really a fair-weather driver!

Several months have passed since my last duty with a heritage bus and even longer since my last stint in a Bristol L. So maybe I could be forgiven for a few graunchy gearchanges. Fortunately, by the time I picked up my passengers, I was back in crashbox mode.

With the South Bristol Link Road now complete, I was able to cut off a significant corner as I headed towards Bath. Just like a lightning strike, I’m always looking for the path of least resistance!

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Early 2016 season roundup

Now that May has come (and almost gone) my level of bus activity has returned to normal with the English Riviera Sightseeing Tours kicking off at the beginning of the month.

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One of the first photos to go on the Tours’ new Facebook page was this one, showing my Tour Guide / Conductor smartly turned out in his new busman’s jacket. I’m not sure who the other fellow is…

Loadings have been patchy, which is par for the course in May. However, unusually warm weather in our first week of operation saw up to 30 passengers on board for some tours. The route is unchanged from last year but, just through May, we’re leaving at 11:00 instead of 10:45 just to give ourselves a better chance of attracting more custom.

YDL318-polishedOther outings have included a return to Minehead to support the West Somerset Railway’s ‘Peppa Pig’ special event. My rostered bus was Southern Vectis 573 (YDL318) which appeared to have been polished to within an inch of its life!

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While operating free trips from Minehead station I met up with a lovely couple who used to be regular passengers on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’. It was Don who sent me this photo of the bus passing beside Blenheim Park on one of its ‘Peppa’ trips that day. Also in town on the same day was Peter and Jenny Snowden and family. They rode with me and Peter, who is one of the organisers of the Taunton Vintage Bus Running Day, couldn’t resist slipping into conductor mode!

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Last Saturday saw me taking Crosville DFG81 (891VFM), an open top Bristol FSF6G, to Bath on an increasingly rainy day. The wedding party started its journey on top but I soon received the pre-arranged signal (3 bells) to pull over so that everyone could retire below! This bus was actually a last-minute replacement for the rostered bus, a Lodekka which turned out to be unserviceable with dead batteries. It was fortunate that, after some delays, I was able to make up time with the 50mph-capable FSF.

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Once again I acted as delivery driver for Crosville this week, travelling up to Stoke-on-Trent to collect Southern National 2700 after it had received attention at Reliance Bus Works. The photo shows the vociferous RE (its exhaust note is pleasingly throaty!) taking on fuel before the return journey.

Coming up this weekend I have another trip to Minehead, WSR. This time the visiting ‘celebrity’ is Paddington Bear! Then I’m due to drive at the WHOTT Running Day at Coldharbour Mill Museum, Uffculme. WHOTT and the Mill have teamed up and a number of buses are supporting a Steam-up Day at the Mill, when the 1910 Pollit & Wigzell engine will be operating along with much of the woollen mill’s surviving machinery.

Photo credits:

YDL318 in Minehead – Don Brain
891VFM in Bath – Richard Kemble

 

Exeter Corporation No 5 shakedown run #2

My second test run with the Exeter Corporation Maudslay bus took me much further afield than the first one and provided some very useful experiences.

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We’re currently only using the autovac’s gravity tank for fuel. This holds a couple of gallons of petrol which is sufficient for a short run such as this. We’re not planning to use the main tank until the weekend due to the tendency of modern petrol to go stale if not used. So, with the autovac (whose real purpose is to suck petrol up from the main tank using vacuum created in the engine’s intake manifold) topped up, we prepared to move the bus out of the shed. Unfortunately the removable trailer board, which contains auxilliary signalling lights and is fixed to the back of the bus for road runs, refused to work properly. This should have been rectified by the WHOTT electrician by Friday.

Climbing the steep track away from the farm, I tried a snatch change up to 2nd gear. It didn’t go well. The 4-cylinder Maudslay engine, even when cold, takes even longer to spool down than a Gardner 6LW so I need to adapt my technique some more.

Out in the quiet lanes I went up and down the gearbox, refining my changes. As in most things, practice makes perfect but this bus is so unique that perfection will take some time to achieve! I drove the bus on a big circular route which included some stiff gradients, which meant changing down to lower gears both to climb and descend. Unusually for the era, the Maudslay ML3 has drum brakes on all four wheels (rather than just the rear wheels) but even so, braking on downhill gradients still has to be assisted by engine braking. Additional braking assistance is also available via the parking brake which on this bus takes the form of a transmission brake, rather than operating the rear drum brakes as is usually the case. It’s really useful sometimes to supplement the footbrake with a partial application of the parking brake which is effectively a mechanical retarder.

Once or twice we started off with a bit of a lurch and some of my gearchanges were rather jerky. I’m still trying to improve my clutch technique! There were no mishaps and, apart from the troublesome auxilliary signalling lights I mentioned earlier, the bus performed as expected.

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Vintage Bus Running Days in 2015

2015 looks like being a vintage year for bus running days, which seems to be the preferred format for what used to be the traditional ‘bus rally’. The chance to ride on buses that we remember from our youth is of course far more appealing than walking around them at a largely static display as in former years.

Looking through the pages of my Bus & Coach Preservation magazine (others are available from your local newsagent) I can see that there are events up and down the country virtually all through the year. Naturally I can attend only a handful of these because they are mostly on Sundays, when I’m normally busy in church. So, for your interest, here is a list of the few events (not just running days) that I plan to be at. Plus one or two in my local area which I’d love to attend, but can’t.

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Lord Mayor of Exeter ~ May 2
On Saturday May 2nd Councillor ‘Percy’ Prowse is due to attend the final public engagement of his year as Lord Mayor of Exeter. He has asked the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) to provide a suitable vehicle for the occasion, specifically Exeter Corporation No 5 (FJ6154). This 1929 Maudslay ML3 was one of the first motor buses ordered by the Corporation to replace the trams which operated the city’s public transport. It was officially launched after restoration at last year’s WHOTT rally, with yours truly behind the wheel. I’m due to take the bus out for a proving run this week, prior to driving it from its base in mid-Devon down to Exeter under its own power.

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Taunton Bus Running Day ~ May 10
This is one event that I’m not able to attend, but am happy to list it here for westcountry folk who don’t yet know about it. Normally run under the auspices of Quantock Motor Services, the Taunton Bus Running Day will feature most of the Quantock Heritage fleet plus a good number of visiting vehicles (photo © Ken Jones). More details on this poster.

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Warminster Vintage Bus Running Day 2014

So I finally made it to the Warminster Vintage Bus Running Day! It was a long but satisfying day as I drove a shiny Bristol L bus around the country lanes in the county of my birth and also carried a Very Discerning Passenger.

I’ve known about this high profile event for some time but have not managed to attend until this year. As some of you will know, on most Sundays you will find me in church but I like to make one or two exceptions during the year and this time it was Warminster’s turn to make it onto the calendar! I didn’t manage to take many photographs (too busy driving) but the best of the bunch are here, starting with this peaceful scene outside the Parish Church at Sutton Veny.

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My day started early, arriving at the Crosville depot at 08:15 to prepare Crosville KG131, a 1950 Bristol L5G. The management had very kindly agreed to let me take this fine looking bus to Warminster. They had cleaned and polished it especially – even the tyres were shiny! Paul, a fellow driver with whom I’ve been teamed up before, was already busy preparing Southern National 2700, an early Bristol RELL. He too was going to Warminster but left ahead of me (as did a Bath Services KSW6B in the hands of a former owner) as his first duty on the extensive programme of free services was earlier than mine.

Everything on the bus was ticketty-boo so, after topping up the fuel tank, I set off. My route took me through Cheddar, Wells, Shepton Mallet and Frome, and the long journey provided a useful opportunity to brush up my driving technique. These events are fun but I do find them a bit daunting because of the high percentage of enthusiast and bus-owning fratenity that they attract. These guys flock to the older vehicles to ‘sample the ride’ but really they’re dying to see the driver make a pig’s ear of the constant-mesh gearbox! But having driven this particular gem several times this year on private hire duties for Crosville I was quite confident I could give my passengers a good ride.

Albion-DXK851

With at least 40 vehicles attending, including this charming 1930 Albion lorry, the small-ish car park which served as the centre of operations was run with military precision. Full marks to the organisers and marshals, who knew just where every bus (each one carried a running number) was supposed to be, just by checking it on a list.

I was directed to a parking space near the exit, which gave me a chance to freshen up and meet up with my conductor. He’d been for a ride on a Silver Star Atlantean and got to our bus in the nick of time! Fortunately I’d sent him all the route and timetable details previously so our briefing was, well… brief! I noticed another Bristol L lurking in the car park with the same destination and route number as ours and discovered that we were to run together. Just as well, because the queue at the departure stand was huge!

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The Railway Connection

Many of you will have followed my driving adventures since I was a lowly conductor and will know that the subject of railways has cropped up more than once. In fact it’s curious how often the buses I’ve conducted on – or have driven – have crossed paths with trains of one sort or another. Naturally, those hauled by steam locomotives grab my attention more than any others!

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This was the scene a couple of weeks ago when the Sightseeing Tours bus was parked at Preston Sands halfway through the afternoon tour. The coastal road passes over the railway line by Hollicombe Beach and I’d spotted a plume of steam rising from the stationary loco as it waited for a path into Paignton station. Fortunately I had plenty of time to position myself for a photo before the train passed by. The loco was GWR 4-6-0 No 5029 ‘Nunney Castle’ which was hauling the Cathedrals Express into Paignton from Westbury.

king-&-standard-tank

Several years ago I was a conductor for Quantock Motor Services (sadly no longer trading) which had its depot right next to Bishop’s Lydeard station on the West Somerset Railway. I was able to see, hear and smell many steam-hauled trains while preparing buses.

Quantock used to provide a fleet of buses for a Christmas Park and Ride service into Taunton town centre and it was while conducting on one of these services that the bus I was on passed over the new Silk Mills bridge just as Gresley Pacific ‘Sir Nigel Gresley‘ passed directly underneath!

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