Back to bus work for a while

Most of my driving work for Bakers Dolphin involves coaches of various sorts but I’m sometimes rostered on one of the two registered bus routes as well.

Bakers Dolphin operates two bus routes on behalf of Somerset County Council, both of which serve the Bridgwater campus of Bridgwater & Taunton College. The No 62 runs from Weston-super-Mare town centre to Bridgwater College via Locking, Banwell, Churchill, Highbridge and Pawlett. It runs twice a day to serve the beginning and end of the college day.

The No 66 starts in Axbridge and passes through Cheddar, Wedmore, Mark, East Huntspill, Woolavington and Puriton before calling at Bridgwater College and terminating at Bridgwater Bus Station. It’s this route that I’ve driven most often although I sometimes get the 62 when its regular driver is off.

Now, I’m no stranger to bus service work but I’ve discovered since starting work at Bakers Dolphin that there’s a heirarchy in PCV driving work. Local bus service work is definitely near the bottom of the heap as far as coach drivers are concerned! Apart from the one regular No 62 route driver, I’ve yet to meet another driver who actually likes driving the bus routes!

Perhaps because I’m an easy-going guy who rarely complains, I often find that I’m allocated to the 66 route… sometimes for several days in a row. So what’s it like?

The duty starts at 06:30 and after 15 minutes or so of walkaround checks and preparation, I set off out of town towards Bridgwater before joining the A38 northwards. Usually I have a few minutes in hand so, in order to time my arrival in the narrow streets of Axbridge, I wait time in a layby beside the Bristol-bound A38 road.

My usual vehicle is No 97 (MX12DYS), a 2012 Wrightbus ‘StreetLite’ midibus. It’s very similar to its competitor, the Optare Solo. The rear-mounted Cummins diesel engine drives through a Voith fully automatic gearbox. Compared to most of the coaches at Bakers, the StreetLite is not a very sophisticated or comfortable bus. Braking in particular is very harsh and difficult to do smoothly. The retarder kicks in with an unexpected thump and the downward gearchanges only make it worse. Although it has air suspension, it is very hard and, together with the aforementioned deficiencies in the braking department, the ride is unpleasant and jerky. Not my usual style at all!

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Rural Ramblings with school contracts

One of my many roles at Crosville is to drive school buses during term time in rural Somerset. These journeys have added some new challenges to my driving experience.

By their very nature, school journeys tend to involve country lanes as we pick up students from outlying villages and bring them to school and back again. My first taste of school runs was route 724, which was very testing from the outset. My regular bus was Volvo B10BLE R244KRG, new to Stagecoach North East about 20 years ago. Leaving the garage at 07:15 I had a 35 minute empty journey ahead of me before picking up my first student.

I drove a circular route through the lanes passing through villages and tiny hamlets such as Middle Stoughton, Chapel Allerton and Lower Weare before rejoining the main A38 and arriving in Cheddar just in time for school. In places the lanes are very narrow, with the bus often touching the hedges on both sides. The one pictured above is quite broad compared to some!

Fortunately my regular bus has automatic transmission and good all-round visibility, which made the task of manoevering around tight corners and oncoming traffic much easier than the occasions when I was allocated a full size modern coach. We no longer operate the 724 route which is a bit disappointing, as I had mastered its challenges rather well, even if I say it myself!

The VanHool bodied DAF coach pictured left is now almost 25 years old and is now one of the stalwarts of the Crosville school contract and private hire fleet. It’s showing its age in places but still copes very well in service.

As well as school duties, I also take on private hire duties with some of these vehicles. Sometimes a local school hires a coach for a short journey to the leisure centre or a group of residents take a trip to Bristol to the theatre. Occasionally I’ve been rostered to drive a bus service from Burnham-on-Sea to Wedmore. Until recently this included taking fares using the Ticketer system but now this service has been taken on by another operator.

Just yesterday I was up at 04:30 (yawn) to do an early morning trip from Filton to Bridgwater College. This is a fairly simple duty which, apart from fighting my way through the rush hour traffic near Cribbs Causeway, Bristol, is mostly motorway running.

I hope this gives you a flavour of some of my driving duties with the modern fleet. Not all are as old as those pictured – also yesterday I was driving a 2015 Yutong coach. Very nice!

In between these driving duties I look after the private hire enquiries and bookings, both heritage and modern. People are booking vintage buses for weddings up to one year in advance! Part of my role involves marketing the heritage fleet and recently we’ve teamed up with First Choice Wedding Cars, where three of our buses are featured. We’re also due to take a bus to Leigh Court, near Bristol, for a Wedding Fair early next year.

Although heritage bus outings are less frequent now, we’re still operating. Last Saturday I was out in Bristol doing a wedding and there are a couple of vintage buses out next Saturday as well. In my next post I’ll highlight a few of the more notable turns this autumn/winter.

Busman John in a modern coach? Surely not.

This post might seem out of place on a blog that’s almost exclusively devoted to buses which are more than 40 years old. It’s here because it is part of my bus driving story.

F17CMS-at-depot

I’ve been job hunting recently and the good folk at Crosville Motor Services kindly offered me a few extra duties to help me out. One of these was a modern coach duty and I agreed to take it because I knew it would broaden my experience, apart from anything else. As it happens, what I learned on this day would come in very handy just a few days later.

I arrived at the depot to find three coaches, in Crosville’s white coaching livery, lined up in the sunshine. We were to provide these three coaches as part of a 16-coach hire to Millfield School, Street, Somerset. I had been allocated a ‘mentor’ to help me through my first duty with a modern coach and we worked through the walkaround checks together because there are more items to check than on a heritage bus. Seat belts, for instance.

Soon it was time to set off and initially I regretted saying that I knew the route into the school as I had done a ‘dry run’ at home with Google Maps. The other drivers saw this as their chance to get an easy drive and said “OK then, you can lead!” I’d had a guided tour of my new ‘office’, with all its dials and switches so I gingerly led the way out of the depot. The coach allocated to me was a Scania L94IB with 53-seat Van Hool bodywork. It has an automatic gearbox which is controlled by a series of push buttons located in a panel on the driver’s right, along with the air-operated parking brake. The journey out of Weston-super-Mare and along to the motorway junction at Brent Knoll was a bit hairy, as I hadn’t driven a coach of this size since the day I passed my test. In fact this one was larger than the one in which I took my test and I had to work hard to adapt my driving technique to cope with the longer wheelbase. I did nudge one curb on the way out of Weston but I think that, under the circumstances, that’s allowed!

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