Rail Replacement: Busman John does his bit

Most regular readers will know that I prefer to drive half cab buses but last week I was offered some duties driving modern coaches. As I am still looking for full time work as a Graphic Designer or a Copywriter, any offer of work will be considered!

CRZ9851

Crosville Motor Services, along with many other coach firms, have been providing a rail replacement service to bridge the gap between Taunton and Bristol. This followed the devastating storms in early 2014 which led to extensive flooding of the Somerset Levels. Part of the Great Western trackbed had been washed away or inundated by floodwater so the coaches were required to maintain a connection for the passengers who would otherwise be stranded.

My first day’s duty started at 17:00 so I collected all the info I would need for the evening’s runs and boarded the firm’s van. In case you were wondering how I was going to transport a load of weary rail passengers in an Vauxhall Astra panel van, I’d better explain that I was using this to position myself down to Taunton railway station where I was to relieve another driver.

I had checked out the route in and out of the station the day before but it was useful to do a ‘dry run’ in the van just to be sure. The rail replacement coaches were using the Down (south) side of the station to set down and pick up passengers so I waited in a nearby shelter out of the biting wind. Once the other driver had arrived, I got him to give me a quick guided tour of the coach so that I knew where all the switches and controls were. The only modern coaches I’d previously driven were the ones I’d trained on before taking my PCV test and the one I drove last year to Millfield School.

After the other driver had disappeared in the van back up to Weston I settled myself into the driver’s seat. Soon a First Great Western despatcher called me forward to the platform entrance for the 19:00 departure and I picked up a solitary passenger. This suited me quite well as I knew that the first few miles would be a bit of a learning curve for me. I was driving CRZ9851 (originally P153FUJ), a Dennis Javelin/Plaxton Premiere with a 6-speed manual gearbox. It took me a while to find a gearchange technique that would give the smoothest ride as, even though it obviously has synchromesh, quicker or slower changes made a difference.

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Driver CPC Practical Demonstration Test passed

Hang out the flags and break out the bubbly – I’ve finally qualified as a professional bus and coach driver!

Today I passed the 4th and final module of my Driver CPC qualification, the Practical Demonstration Test. I booked some training time with Carmel Coaches in Exeter, who also provided their training bus for the test. It was the same one I had for the Practical Driving Test a few weeks ago.

I turned up at the Carmel Coaches yard a bit early and wished I hadn’t. I get really nervous in these situations so I took myself off to Sainsbury’s just around the corner to buy a drink (juice, of course) and to calm my nerves. The Carmel instructor, Martin, walked with me along to their storage compound and I started to feel a little more at ease. We found the bus, a Dennis Javelin of 1994 vintage, and went over some of the questions I’d fluffed last time.

Yes, dear reader, I took this test last week and failed. In the ‘show me, tell me’ test there’s a section which deals with security and prevention of crime. This focusses on the steps a driver would take if the bus had been tampered with at a border crossing. I had gone through the motions of searching the bus, inside and out, for hidden packages and children lying in the luggage racks but had forgotten to mention a head count, in case of people trying to smuggle themselves aboard along with the regular passengers. In the ‘daily checks’ section I had spent too long checking the outside of the vehicle and didn’t get as far as starting the engine and building up air. The time allowed for the test had expired and last week I didn’t pass.

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PCV bus driving practical test passed

Finally. After many delays, false starts and one failure, I am the proud owner of a PCV Practical Driving Test Pass Certificate.

If you’re on the top of your game in the world of Showjumping, you can do a ‘clear round’ if you and your horse go round the course without picking up any faults. Well, I’m not that good. I passed my practical test but picked up a handful of driving faults on the way round. None of them merited any comment from the examiner afterwards so they were all minor.

The test route included town driving (through Exeter city centre), country lanes and motorway. There was also a 10 minute period of independent driving, when I was told to follow signs for a certain destination and then left to my own devices. It was such a huge relief to arrive back at the Test Centre and be told that I’d passed. It’s been such a long time since I passed my theory modules that my Theory Pass Certificate was due to expire at the end of the week! So here’s a blow by blow account of my training and test, including the one I failed last week:

Training Day 1. My second attempt at gaining my PCV driver’s licence began with a 2-hour session in Exeter on a cold, bright day 2 weeks ago. This time I did a 3-day course with Carmel Coaches, whose Exeter depot just happens to be right across the road from the Test Centre. Very handy!

I was the only one doing the course (last time there were two of us) but I think on balance that I was happier with a smaller audience! The vehicle we used is much easier to handle than the coach I had last May. They hired a 12-metre coach from Tally Ho! Coaches near Plymouth then, which seemed absolutely huge! I did master it eventually, of course, but the Carmel training bus is only 10 metres long and feels much less bulky.

The Dennis Javelin bus (N205OAE) was originally supplied to the Royal Navy in 1994 and for some reason is very low geared. There are 6 forward gears but I’ve never used 1st. Even starting away in 2nd feels like 1st did on the other coach! In 6th gear with my foot to the floor we just about managed to get 62mph out of it.

To begin with Tony (my instructor) drove out to the A30 towards Okehampton and parked in a layby, where I took over. He was understandably wary of me driving out of the depot and all through the Marsh Barton industrial estate without some idea of my driving skills but I was glad to be able to get acquainted with the old Dennis Javelin on a relatively straight and quiet piece of road. I was pleased to go up through the box to 6th gear without any glitches although I was to miss a few downchanges later on!

Bizarrely, this bus seemed to like being driven as if it had a crash box. In other words, the gears went in nice and smoothly when a suitable pause had been taken to allow the engine revs to drop when changing up. After I’d been advised to slow right down on the brakes before changing down I decided to vary that technique by doing a proper double de-clutch change (revving the engine between gears) and found it even easier.

We trundled out as far as Tedburn St Mary on the west side of Exeter and out the other side as far as Rockbeare to the east, before returning to Marsh Barton via the bypass. This session served the dual purpose of allowing me to become familiar with driving the vehicle and also allowed Tony to assess my skills so that he could focus on certain areas which needed improvement in the following sessions. I was reasonably happy with my progress but I think I realised that the pace would quicken the next day!

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