Rail River Link says farewell to the Bristol VRT

Last weekend saw the final runs in regular operational service for Torbay’s long-serving Bristol VRTs and I enjoyed a last fling with them on an evening Mystery Tour.

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Rail River Link (the bus operating division of the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company) has operated open top Bristol VRTs in the area since 2000 but now, due to the introduction next year of new regulations to bring all service buses into compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (commonly referred to as ‘DDA’), the VRTs are being phased out.

Jim O’Hara and his team of drivers delighted local transport historians and enthusiasts by putting on a weekend of extra services and Mystery Tours. The 2 remaining RRL VRTs were joined by two other vehicles, another VRT supplied by North Somerset Coaches and a Leyland Atlantean which is owned by a local collector.

I joined the party at Paignton Bus Station after returning from the afternoon Sightseeing Tour on the PD2 (FFY403). Incidentally, this was my final duty of the season as the Tours season also finished the same weekend. A good number of other people also waited near the 100 Service stop for the celebrity VRTs to arrive. A gentleman standing nearby started asking me about the buses which were due to take part and he revealed that he’d seen publicity about the weekend a few days earlier but didn’t know what a VRT was. Apparently he’d found the information he needed on a website written by a local chap who also drives for a company in Weston-super-Mare. Yes, he’d been reading this blog!

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Before long 2 of the VRTs had joined a Volvo B7 which was also in the station on the 100 run. I decided to take a ride on VDV138S for the first part of the tour. This was especially poignant because the bus (no 4 in the RRL fleet) was originally named ‘Warspite’ and was part of a batch of convertible Bristol VRTs supplied to Western National in 1977 as its 938 for service in Torbay. These buses replaced the ageing Leyland Atlantean ‘Sea Dog’ open toppers and happily several members of both types of bus have survived. Joining the fun for the weekend was VDV134S, now in Southern National NBC livery and carrying the name ‘Thomas Hardy’. To complete the set, as it were, one of the aforementioned ‘Sea Dog’ Atlanteans joined the convoy not long after we had left the bus station. Now registered MSJ499, it was originally 925GTA in the Devon General fleet and it has been returned to DG’s reversed cream and maroon livery, complete with ‘Admiral Blake’ name.

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Summer miscellany

Now that I’m working on the sightseeing tours 5 days a week and also some Saturdays for Crosville, life has become rather hectic of late. Hence the lack of new posts. So, to bring you up to date, here are some recent happenings in Busman John’s world.

VDV138S-Strand-Torquay

A significant sighting this morning was ‘Illustrious’, a Bristol VRT acquired by Rail River Link (the bus operation run by the Dartmouth Steam Railway & Riverboat Company) in 2013 from East Yorkshire Motor Services. Originally 938 (‘Warspite’) with Western National in 1977, it finally entered service last week on the 100 service from Torquay to Totnes via Paignton. It has spent much of the last 2 years in storage awaiting and undergoing an engine transplant. It arrived from EYMS under tow, having suffered an engine seizure before withdrawal. Now, wearing RRL branding over the existing EYMS livery, 938 is active once more in Torbay where it once operated (wearing Devon General fleetnames) when new. When I was working for RRL in 2013 I had a slim chance of driving 938 in service but, as it turned out, its return to active service has been rather protracted.

FD54FGG-Torquay-NT5

If you hadn’t already heard, the Leyland Tiger PS1 which was operated by Greenway Ferry to the National Trust’s Greenway House (Agatha Christie’s former summer home), has not run at all this year and rumour has it that the ferry and bus operations are up for sale. To fill the void, Rail River Link has acquired a 2004 Dennis Dart and is now operating it to Greenway House. NT1 runs to Greenway from the railway’s Churston Station and the early morning NT5 runs from Torquay. This is where I managed a quick passing shot of it a couple of days ago. FD54FGG is especially branded for the Greenway service and carries the name ‘Miss Jane Marple’.

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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!

Nunney-Castle-&-FFY403

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.

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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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Finishing with a flourish

My time with the Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company as a seasonal bus driver came to an end last week and, as I have an interest in the historical aspect of the business, I decided to pay tribute to the former days of the Totnes-Paignton bus route that I have been driving.

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Long before the days of Stagecoach, First and the Dartmouth Steam Railway, Western National used to operate over the Totnes to Paignton route so, on my last day, I decided to wear an authentic Western National uniform. Although to some I may have looked a little out of place driving the No 100 bus (a Volvo Olympian dating from 1996) looking like the ghost of 1970, many of my passengers appreciated my parting shot. Comments such as “That takes me back to my childhood” and “Your drivers should all wear uniforms like that!” were made as I took their fares and clipped their Round Robin tickets.

Some time ago I came across an excellent set of photos on Flickr taken by a chap called Norman Craig, who spent a couple of summer seasons as a conductor for Western National, based at Paignton. With Norman’s permission I created a couple of posters to stick up inside my bus so that those passengers who were to shy to ask could read about why their driver was in fancy dress.

The uniform came from a Western National driver based in Plymouth and included a mint condition winter greatcoat. If the weather is cold on Sunday I will need to wear it at the Exeter Twilight Running Day!

Although my time with Dartmouth Steam Railway has ended for the time being, I may return next season as they have asked me back but that won’t be until May so it depends what employment I can find in the meantime!

Round Robins on the Dartmouth Steam Railway

Now that I’ve had several weeks’ experience as a local bus driver for the Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company, a blog post is well overdue.

Open-top-No3-Steamer-Quay

Briefly, the company runs steam trains from Paignton to Kingswear, ferries and river boats on the River Dart and a fleet of buses to connect them all together. The most popular outing is the ‘Round Robin‘ which gives travellers a train journey, a boat trip and a bus journey to take them back to where they started from. Visitors can choose which way round they go but this decision is usually dictated by the tides because Steamer Quay at Totnes (which is tidal) cannot be reached at low tide.

In addition to linking in with the trains and boats, the buses also run as a timetabled service for locals – effectively a regular local bus service similar to (and sometimes competing with) Stagecoach and First. Some buses also serve Torquay but most ply between Paignton and Totnes.

The buses in use are two open top Bristol VRTs (one ex-Crosville and one ex-Southdown), three ex-East Yorkshire Olympians and an ex-Plymouth Citybus Dennis Dart. The depot is on land next to the railway’s Churston Station, due to be developed with proper handstandings and buildings over the coming winter. Churston-depot

So, what is a typical day like? At the moment I’m working a duty which just runs between Paignton and Totnes. The duty starts at 13:15 so I leave my car at the Churston depot and take a Stagecoach bus from there to Paignton Bus Station (I’ve been issued with a Staff Bus Pass). When the Service 100 bus arrives at Stand 4 from Totnes I relieve the driver, who has been on duty since about 08:00, and operate the service for the rest of the day.

The changeover is quite quick. The other driver will have already changed the destination blind for Totnes at the previous stop so all that remains for me to do is set up my cash tray and log in to the ‘Ticketer’ system. I’m ready for business so will deal with any passengers waiting at the stand. Some will already have ‘Round Robin’ tickets so they just need to be clipped. Some will have Concessionary Passes so they are counted by the electronic reader pad which is part of the ticketing system. Others will buy single or return tickets either to Totnes or one of many other stops on the way.

After signing my name as Driver 2 on the Running Sheet and noting down the actual departure time, I’m ready to go. Headlights on, hazards on, check mirrors, select reverse, sound the horn and reverse carefully back from the stand. If I’m in one of the Volvo-powered Olympians, progress is quite quick but the VRs, being 20 years older and less powerful, are slower. Summertime traffic will hinder progress of course, no matter which bus I’m driving!

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