A spot of touching up for Bristol LH charabanc

A couple of days ago I took the unique Bristol LH charabanc on a trip to Exeter for some attention to its new paint job.

TR6147-at-Stuarts

Some minor work needed to be done to the paintwork to bring it back up to pristine standard in readiness for the 2016 tour season. The bus has lain idle in Torquay since the end of September but seemed eager to go again, starting on the button. As per usual it was rather smoky to start with but that soon cleared once the engine warmed up.

TR6147-smoky-startAfter completing the usual walk round checks it was time to pick up some fuel and head off to Exeter. Everything was fine except for braking, which took a while to settle down. Anything more than gentle pressure brought the brakes full on with a bang, stopping the bus with a shudder! Fortunately this eased after a few brake applications and normal performance returned.

As you can imagine, passing motorists and car passengers gawped and pointed as we passed by. The charabanc is now so familiar to me that I tend to forget how unusual it must appear to other people!

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Seeing double at Minehead, WSR

Yesterday saw me on duty with Southern Vectis 573 (Bristol FS6G YDL318) on a rare Crosville job that wasn’t a wedding. I joined forces with Driver Carpenter to provide free bus rides for passengers who had travelled on the West Somerset Railway (WSR).

2-Lodekkas-at-Minehead-WSR

Due to time constraints we drove our buses (the other was BOC LC8518, a 1959 LD6B) down to Minehead separately. I had no idea how long it would take to drive the 43-mile cross country route so I arrived early to prepare my bus. Being a Saturday, the Crosville depot was still quite full of green buses, some of them local service vehicles and some of them coaches.

YDL318-Elmore-Church

My rostered Lodekka was in a line-up of heritage buses and hadn’t moved since I parked it there the previous week after a long haul up a very wet M5 to Gloucester. This photo shows the bus at Elmore Church on that occasion.

Fortunately the journey down the A38 to Bridgwater and thence via the A39 to Minehead was trouble free and, after 1.5 hours, I arrived at the WSR’s northern terminus with 15 minutes to spare. Despite a fair bit of hill climbing to pass over The Quantocks, the Gardner 6LW-powered bus breezed along in 4th gear. It was very strange to be driving the very familiar section from Williton to Minehead. I had travelled that route many times on a Lodekka but always as a conductor! This goes back to my days working on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’ for the erstwhile Quantock Motor Services.

The photo at the top of this post shows Driver Carpenter, ably assisted by Conductor Grant on the platform, passing my parked-up FS on one of the afternoon journeys. Not only can you see two green Bristol Lodekkas, you can also see two green ‘Hall’ class steam locomotives! Stabled on one of the Minehead shed roads are GWR 4-6-0s no 4936 ‘Kinlet Hall’ and no 6960 ‘Raveningham Hall’.

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2012 – a busy year up at the noisy end

2012 was a momentous year. I managed to pass my PCV bus driving test by the skin of my teeth and followed that with 25 vintage bus driving duties!

KFM767-Clifton-CollegeBut one of my first jobs of 2012 was to promote the Crosville heritage bus fleet at a couple of Wedding Fairs. These were worth doing and many of the bookings I drove for later in the year started out as enquiries at these fairs. For one of these fairs I was invited to drive a Bristol Lodekka. This was before I’d taken my test but, as the bus was empty and not in service, my car licence sufficed. However, slightly soft front tyres and my general unfitness saw to it that I really struggled with the heavy steering, even with no load! I’ve since discovered that, even with properly inflated tyres, that bus is heavier to steer at low speed than some others.

With the fairs out of the way my focus turned to passing my practical test. For various reasons, much time had passed since I’d passed the Theory, Hazard Perception and Case Studies components of my PCV driving test. I had used up my allotted holiday allowance in my day job so I had to wait until new year 2012 to book a week off in February for training and the test. The test date happened to be Valentines Day but, as you will remember if you were following my progress back then, the lunch I had with my wife that day turned into a very sombre affair because I failed the test.

I very nearly gave up altogether, so crushing was the feeling of defeat. However, due to encouragement from several blog readers and family members, I booked more training sessions and a new test with just a few days of entitlement left. I had two years after passing my Theory Test in which to pass my Practical Test and most of that time had been spent waiting in vain for training with Quantock. I eventually passed my Practical Test within a few days of the end of February, which is when my time would run out.

Practical-test-pass

My feelings of elation and relief knew no bounds when I eventually found myself holding that coveted blue certificate! I went on to pass the PCV Practical Demonstration test and soon received my Driver CPC card in the post which entitled me to drive professionally at last.

I wondered how soon it would be before I would find an opportunity to drive a heritage bus in service. I passed the news of my test pass to the folks at Crosville Motor Services and awaited developments. I already had a conducting date in my diary for the week after my test so I was both pleased and daunted to see that, when my Job Ticket arrived, it showed that I was the driver! The management were kind enough to provide me with a conductor for this, my first driving turn with them. It wasn’t strictly necessary as the bus had driver-operated doors and the customer hadn’t paid for a conductor. I was very glad of the support and, even though the conductor was younger than my youngest son, he knew his job very well and everything went like clockwork.

Many more driving turns followed. 25 of them, to be exact! I often had to pinch myself to check that I wasn’t dreaming. I had pursued this ambition to drive a vintage bus since I was a young boy but never in a million years thought that I would have the opportunity to learn to drive a bus, let alone drive Bristol Lodekkas (and other Bristol marques) in service. I spent many hours as a youngster standing (and then kneeling, as I grew taller) on the bench seat watching the drivers of Wilts & Dorset Lodekkas at work in the cab. I was fascinated by the skills and techniques involved in handling a crash gearbox. I’m convinced that those childhood experiences helped me enormously when I eventually came to occupy that cab seat myself and take charge of a Bristol Lodekka. The fact that so many of them survive is remarkable in itself but the fact that I’m able to drive them in the 21st century is truly amazing.

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Rain stops play… almost

Yesterday dawned slowly. In other words, it was barely getting light at 7am when normally it would be bright enough to set the senses jingling at the prospect of a new day. It hadn’t improved much by the time I left home for what may possibly be my last conducting turn on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’. Arriving at the Bishops Lydeard garage of Quantock Motor Services I was rather alarmed to see Bristol LDL6G VDV752 already out on the road and ready to go. Even more worryingly, there was already a conductor inside! However, it turned out a ‘clerical error’ had been made in the office and the aforementioned conductor left soon afterwards. Home to bed again, I was told.

We proceeded up to Porlock for breakfast, about an hour’s drive with an empty bus, through several showers of rain. On the way we passed through the appropriately named village of Washford (above). Today, I decided, it should be re-named ‘Awash-ford’. Arriving at Porlock’s Doverhay car park, I decided to delay wiping down the upper deck seats until AFTER we’d had breakfast at the Lorna Doone Hotel. I needn’t have worried. There weren’t any passengers to occupy them. We departed, still empty, for Minehead and parked at the seafront stop in a huge puddle of rainwater.

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Service 400 – last one ever?

Taking a rest at Wheddon Cross

This Sunday’s conducting duty on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’ could be my last one ever. Prospects of a further season as a commercial enterprise continue to look bleak, unless I can persuade Mr QMS to take a chance with the revival plans mentioned in my last post! I will of course write next week about how it went.

One of the ex-Western National Bristol LDL open top buses is also due to run on Sunday September 25th, the final run of the season. The pair of LDLs have been a popular and familiar sight as they have plodded around the tortuous Exmoor route for the best part of 10 years.

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Reviving service 400 – ‘Exmoor Explorer’

So what can be done to revive the fortunes of service 400, the ‘Exmoor Explorer’?

I’ve been conducting on the service 400 open top tour for about half of its existence and in that time I’ve seen a slow decline in passenger numbers. I don’t know its early history but I believe it started as a minibus service, running one round trip per operating day. At the peak of its popularity there were three departures per day, using 2 open top Bristol Lodekka buses but this proved too costly to sustain and a two-trip format has been in place for the past 7 years.

In all that time, the service was supported financially by Somerset County Council (SCC) to the extent that Quantock Motor Services, as the contracted operator, was being paid a set amount to provide the service. This being the case, SCC took responsibility for promoting the service. The Council designed and printed attractive timetable leaflets which were distributed around the Minehead area and carried on board the buses to cater for passing enquirers. Timetables were also posted on all the bus stops around the route and a dedicated page was maintained on the SCC website. There may also have been other forms of marketing that I’m not aware of.

Now that SCC has withdrawn funding from the route, their only contribution is to print a limited number of leaflets and maintain the Service 400 web page. The service now has to support itself as a commercial venture and depends on good loadings to generate sufficient revenue. Unfortunately there isn’t a great deal of expertise within the company when it comes to marketing and promotion. The QMS website hasn’t even been updated since May and I get the impression that there isn’t the will to make the 400 successful again.

If I had the chance, there are a number of things I would do in an effort to drive passenger numbers up:

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Exmoor Explorer – a shadow of its former self

This past weekend was spent conducting on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’, running two trips from Minehead seafront each day.

As regular readers will know, this service lost its County Council subsidy earlier this year and the operator, Quantock Motor Services, decided to continue with a shortened season on a commercial basis. The service has been running at weekends, Tuesdays and Thursdays during the school holidays. The adult return fare went up from £7.00 to £10.00, which is a huge increase on last year but I presume this was done in order to at least break even.

The loadings so far have been disappointingly low, by all accounts. This weekend was no exception. The weather of course is a significant factor but even so, we only carried 5 people on the first trip on Saturday and one of those got off at Exford!

VDV752 high on Exmoor with an empty lower deck

The sun came out at lunchtime and drew in a few more passing punters but even so, we only carried 26 on the afternoon trip. In previous years we would be almost full on a day like that. The round trip is still great fun, even though my driver gave us quite a rough ride. He tended to lift the clutch very sharply and banged the gears in noisily when he couldn’t be bothered to wait for the engine revs to fall away. Such a shame, when I know how much more smoothly it can be done.

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