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.

3-vrts-brixham-harbour

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!

vrts-final-weekend-paignton

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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Sightseeing Bus Summer Snippets

With the school summer holidays having kicked off, now is a good time to review the Sightseeing Bus season so far.

This my main occupation during the summer months and, with two buses in operation now, I’m doing tours Monday to Friday. The operating season started in May, with the majority of passengers at the senior end of the age spectrum.

Weather is always a major factor in passenger numbers and indeed whether we run at all. There was one day in May when foul weather – wall to wall heavy rain – was forecast so we elected to leave the open top Leyland PD2 covered up until the next day. June was much better, with improving loads as the month progressed. The last week in July brought the best day of the year so far, with 52 people on one tour. The bus has seating for 56 so we were virtually full. I’ll come back to that particular run later.

FFY403-Babbacombe-Inn

One very pleasing development this year has been the decision of the operator to invest in some more busman’s dust jackets. Normally uniform is optional, with some crews opting to wear the more informal printed sweatshirts. Ever since I started, I’ve worn a traditional bus crew uniform and last year bought myself a burgundy and tan dust jacket that matches the bus livery. I’m glad to say that my regular tour guide has decided to wear a jacket and cap so we both look as if we belong! People do appreciate it and I’m sure it helps to draw in some of our older clientele, with whom the tradtitional style of uniform resonates.

FFY403-with-crew-2016In the main photo above, the open topper has just stopped on Babbacombe Downs with a full load of primary school pupils. The bus had been hired as a Year 6 ‘Prom’ treat and we paused here to allow the children on the lower deck to swap places with those on top.

FFY403-front-adverts

You may have noticed that the bus now wears two front corner adverts. These promote two of our local attractions and have been produced in the same style as those which adorned our local Devon General buses years ago.

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WHOTT Running Day 2015, Dorchester

Sunday August 16th was the date of the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) Running Day. Set in the ancient market town of Dorchester, this new format proved to be much more successful than the traditional static bus rallies of previous years.

Dorchester-Lewis-OBs

Although I’d had the date in my diary for some time, no particular task had been assigned to me so I was pretty much free to help out on the day whenever the need arose. As it turned out, I ended up with a couple of very interesting driving turns.

The venue was the Top o’ Town car park in Dorchester, chosen because the erstwhile Dorset bus and coach operator Bere Regis Motor Services once had its offices on the site. The day also saw the launch of a new book by Stuart Shelton, a comprehensive fleet history documenting every vehicle that Bere Regis ever owned. The book runs to 96 pages and I had the privilege of preparing the artwork for this WHOTT publication. This complements a similar book on the history of the company by Andrew Waller.

Dorchester-CLJ413Y

My first task was to help move some vehicles which had been stabled overnight in the Damory yard just round the corner from the event venue. I elected to drive Bristol LHS coach CLJ413Y, which is the sole surviving ex-Bere Regis coach still wearing its original livery. It also happens to be the very last LH chassis built by Bristol Commercial Vehicles. As some of you might know, the Bristol LH is not my favourite vehicle of all time but I was happy to drive this particularly historic coach the short distance to the static display area.

I pottered about after that, watching other vehicles arriving and society stalls being laid out. Of particular interest was a scale model of a Harrington-bodied Commer Avenger coach. This had for many years been on display above the doorway of the old Bere Regis offices that used to stand just a few yards away. In the static display area was an immaculate pair of Bedford OBs in the livery of Lewis Coaches, as seen in the photo at the top of this post.

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Exeter Corporation No 5 shakedown run #1

Exeter Corporation No 5 (FJ6154) was already obsolete when Conductor Wooldridge climbed into its cab to take a driving lesson. The year was 1938 and within 12 months the bus would be withdrawn from service and sold to a local scrap merchant.

Conductor-Wooldridge-1938,-Driver-Dawkins-2015

We can only wonder what Conductor Wooldridge thought of the primitive controls in the cab. Fortunately I can tell you what they’re like because the bus survived its visit to the scrapyard and is still with us today, thanks to the efforts of Mr Arden (a local farmer), the late Colin Shears, York’s Coaches (Northampton) and the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT).

I mentioned in my last post that this 1929-built Maudslay ML3 bus is due to convey the Lord Mayor of Exeter to one of his final public engagements on Saturday May 2nd and, in preparation for this, we took the bus out for the first of two shakedown runs. She had not moved from the spot where I had parked her last September at the conclusion of her debut appearance at the WHOTT Rally at Westpoint. By the time I arrived on Tuesday last week the Maudslay’s battery had been charged. WHOTT’s chairman Robert Crawley prepared to start the engine by turning on the fuel supply tap beneath the autovac and setting the choke. This is done by pulling a rod which is sited underneath the radiator. After ‘tickling’ the carburretor to make sure the float chamber was full, he climbed into the tiny cab and turned the electric starter switch. Amazingly, the original 4-cylinder Maudslay petrol engine sprang into life after only a couple of revolutions. Nick, a WHOTT member who was to share the driving with me, closed the choke once the engine was running normally.

FJ6154-seized-clutch

The bus was gently eased out into the April sunshine and driven around the side of the storage shed. There was a pause in proceedings at this point because a van and two Devon General AEC Regents were partly blocking our exit. It was while we waited that the Maudslay’s clutch decided to seize. Although our exit was now clear the octogenarian No 5 couldn’t be moved because none of the gears could be engaged. There followed some strenuous efforts involving blocks of wood, a crowbar and a hydraulic jack.

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1929 Maudslay relaunched at WHOTT Rally 2014

At last I can reveal the start of my next driving adventure and it involves this stunning 1929 Maudslay motorbus.

FJ6154-Westpoint-rally-1

After many years spent lying dormant and away from public gaze, FJ6154 has been painstakingly restored and made its public debut at the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT) Rally at Westpoint last Sunday. Its long history is fascinating and the story of how it came within a hair’s breadth of being scrapped will have to wait for another time.

I’d had the WHOTT rally in my diary for some time and had offered my services as a driver – or indeed any task – for the day. Little did I know that, a few weeks afterwards, I would be given a job I would never have dreamed of in a million years.

Namely, I was invited to become the Maudslay’s official driver.

It seems that my experience with vintage buses of various sorts, especially those with crash gearboxes, over the past 2 years has not gone unnoticed. Two other factors came into the WHOTT Trustees’ decision; I have a current PCV licence and I’m a nimble, reasonably small person. The latter becomes an obvious benefit as soon as you open the cab door!

Maudslay-FJ6154-cab

I had been following the progress of the Maudslay’s 2-year restoration within the pages of the WHOTT newsletter, as I prepare the artwork for this publication every quarter. No expense has been spared and the bus appears exactly as it would have done when it was new. Student-Prince-advert Authenticity has been paramount and, in pursuit of this, I had even prepared a period advert for the interior, based on a newspaper advert which appeared in the Express & Echo the same week that the bus was delivered to Exeter Corporation.

Although I had seen photographs, I had not seen the bus ‘in the flesh’, so to speak, until last week. I travelled up to the WHOTT restoration base to take the Maudslay on its first tentative road run just two days after work on the engine had been completed. Before that, it hadn’t moved under its own power for nearly 40 years! That first run was very momentous and the significance of it was not lost on me.Maudslay-FJ6154-first-road-run

After familiarising myself with the small and very spartan cab I shunted up and down in the yard to get a feel for the clutch and the behaviour of the engine. The bus has remarkably survived complete with its original Maudslay 4-cylinder petrol engine and coping with this alone is an adventure! Then, with the Chairman of WHOTT aboard, along with a Trustee and one of the restoration volunteers, I drove the 85 year old veteran up the farm track to the main road. Drawing heavily on my experience with crash box buses and interpreting the feedback I was getting from the bus, I managed to change successfully up to 3rd gear. After climbing uphill for a while we reached level ground and I changed up to 4th gear at which point emotion nearly got the better of me as the enormity of what I was doing hit me.

We turned the bus and stopped for a couple of photos before I brought the Maudslay back to the farm where it will continue to live for the time being. I will not forget that first journey for a very long time.

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Exeter Twilight Bus Evening 2013

972EHW-at-Crossmead

It was one of those times when a day spent driving a halfcab bus is like a session at the gym. By the time I had parked the bus back at the depot in the late evening of Sunday November 10th, my arms felt like jelly. But it was so worth it!

I met my Simon, my conductor for the day, at the garage and we prepared the bus together. We had ex-Bristol Omnibus LC8518 (972EHW), the same vehicle that I’d driven on a wedding duty the previous day. Also being prepared was London Transport RTW29, a rare 8ft-wide Leyland-engined RT. Its bright red livery was being buffed to a shine by Jon, the MD of Crosville Motor Services, who was joining us at the Exeter Twilight event.

We set off as soon as we were ready and took the Lympsham road out of Weston-super-Mare. As I coaxed the bus up to a breathtaking maximum speed of 35mph, my conductor donned my conductor gear and settled down for the long journey to Exeter. I always feel rather vulnerable on the motorway with such a slow vehicle and kept checking my rearview mirror for traffic approaching from behind. Plan B: hit the hard shoulder!

Just before Taunton a familiar shape loomed up behind the bus, that of a green Bristol L. It passed us and slowly disappeared into the distance, probably doing 45mph or more. Taking a comfort break at Taunton Services, I was surprised to see the same single deck bus already in the coach park. I parked nearby and got chatting to the driver. The bus was in fact not a Bristol L but an earlier Bristol J (built 1934) but received a new body in 1955 along with a more up to date PV2 radiator. This made it look like a Bristol L.

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‘Warship’ open top Bristol VRT returns home

Although the ‘Seadog‘ Leyland Atlanteans operated by Devon General can be described as ‘iconic’, the ‘Warship‘ open top Bristol VRs that followed them can probably be described as ‘classic’. One of them has returned to Devon and is set to re-enter revenue earning service wearing a new livery. I photographed it at Churston not long after it had arrived under suspended tow from Yorkshire.

VDV138S-under-wraps

VDV138S was one of the 11-strong batch of convertible Bristol VRTs operated by the NBC (Western National) on South Devon routes. It is shown here on the 124 route to Brixham, leaving Paignton Bus Station. Incidentally, it was the 124 route that I chose to put on the blind of open top Bristol LDL VDV752 when I recreated its layover in Torquay a few years ago.

Carrying Devon General fleetnames, 938 ran in service until 1992 and carried the names ‘Warspite’ and ‘Illustrious’ during this period. Rather unflatteringly, it also carried the name ‘Wendy’ during a later period when owned by East Yorkshire Motor Services but the less said about that the better.

Coming up to date, Dartmouth Steam Railway has bought 938 from East Yorkshire and, after some remedial work, will run it in service on the 100 route between Torquay-Paignton-Totnes. The Gardner 6LXB engine is currently seized and has been removed from the vehicle. It will be completely rebuilt by one of the Railway’s engineers over the winter period. Other work will be carried out to bring it up to spec, including a repaint into (probably) the same blue and white livery carried by the other two Bristol VRTs in the fleet.

It will be very fitting for 938 to return to its old haunts next year, including Paignton Bus Station, on a regular basis. Whether I will be around to drive it is another matter, although the Transport Manager keeps dangling 938 in front of me like a carrot! Although I would love to drive for this operator again next season it is by no means certain as I have to find some other employment in the meantime.