Farewell 2011, welcome 2012

So another year ends. Where does the time go to? It seems an appropriate time to reflect on 2011, a relatively dry year for me in terms of bus activity.

With just one wedding duty for Quantock Motor Services and only four ‘Exmoor Explorer’ duties in the shortened summer season, this has been a year of few opportunities to see any action in my favourite pastime. You will have read of the probable demise of the Service 400 route around Exmoor in some of my earlier posts. I still don’t know what will happen next year with QMS, if anything.

I didn’t even get involved with the Exeter Nocturnal Running Event this year. I conducted on an ex-City of Exeter Guy Arab IV for the 2010 event, which was held on a bitterly cold November evening. This year’s event seems to have been successful again so maybe I’ll offer my services for 2012. Dan Shears, are you listening?!

I almost got as far as taking my PCV test but backed out on the day before the test due to a change of location (Plymouth). I’m planning to enrol on a course in Exeter in February.

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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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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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Quantock Open Day

Conducting at this year’s Quantock Motor Services Open Weekend had its ups and downs. Mostly ups, I’m glad to say.

As you can imagine it started early, with an hour’s drive from Paignton first. That turned out to be insignificant, compared to the distance one visiting crew had travelled. Two young chaps from a museum near Glasgow had made the journey down from Scotland, just for this event. Now I like old buses, but I’m not that keen! I take my (conductor’s) hat off to them, they did a great job between them today.

The depot had been cleared of all but one of the modern fleet of coaches and buses. The one remaining coach was up on the lift so that people could see underneath. When I arrived the arrival/departure lane was full of red buses awaiting their turn with the first four departures to Taunton.

Drivers and conductors (all volunteers) gathered in one of the offices to be briefed by the Controller. Jonathan is from somewhere south-east of London and he was the brains behind the whole event. He, together with Peter (a local Quantock volunteer driver), put together the routes, timetables and crew rosters. I was given a late duty, which meant I was at a loose end until 12 noon. Unfortunately the Boss got to hear of it and I was assigned to gate duty for the morning! Armed with a fistful of programmes, I accosted every camera-toting punter who even glanced in the direction of the gate and demanded that they part with £5 in exchange for a copy of my work of art (a programme). Yes, dear reader, that was the result of many hours slaving over a hot computer.

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Running Weekend Twitter feed

I’ve recently set up a Twitter account for Quantock Motor Services to enable folks to keep right up to date with news about the Running Weekend at the end of May. If you have a Twitter account, follow “quantockms” on your computer or mobile phone to receive updates.

It will really come into its own during the week prior to the event and during the actual weekend (May 28th/29th). We plan to post snippets of news about final preparations, changes to timetables and other useful information. During the event, if you’re following us, you’ll be notified as soon as a change or delay happens. If for instance one of the buses becomes unavailable, we’ll post news of its replacement. If there’s a delay to a service, we’ll try to post information as soon as possible.

This is a bit of a trial, as the person doing most of the updates will also be the Depot Despatcher, a very busy person! Full details about the weekend (I’m conducting on the Saturday) are on the Quantock website.

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Conducting turn to Canonteign Estate

This afternoon I had a surprise conducting turn to Canonteign Estate, Devon. Fortunately I didn’t have to drive all the way up to Somerset first, I’d arranged to meet my driver at Exeter Services. In fact we arrived at almost the same moment! As I drew up to the lights beside the motorway, so did 2 double deck buses from Quantock Motor Services.

The job was to pick up a large wedding party (hence the two vehicles) from St David’s Church, Exeter and take them to Canonteign Estate, a splendid Georgian mansion deep in the stunningly beautiful Teign Valley near Chudleigh. My driver was also the boss and we had an ex-Ipswich Corporation AEC Regent V. The other bus was an ex-Stockport Corporation Leyland PD3. Strangely enough they both had the same bodywork – by Neepsend (East Lancs) so, apart from the liveries and engines, they looked quite similar.

We drove in convoy through the centre of Exeter, drawing glances from the Saturday shoppers, in plenty of time to meet the wedding party. Almost as soon as we arrived the church bells began to ring. Were they for us or the happy couple?!

Two ushers hurried out of the church, both bearing large metal vases containing spectacular flower arrangements. Worryingly, they headed towards the buses. Apparently the flowers needed to accompany the guests to the reception venue but the only place on the bus they could travel was on the platform! The other conductor and I both agreed to prop up the flowers on the journey, lest they topple over. Which was a pity because I was then unable to issue any souvenir tickets after we set off!

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