Early 2016 season roundup

Now that May has come (and almost gone) my level of bus activity has returned to normal with the English Riviera Sightseeing Tours kicking off at the beginning of the month.

FFY403-with-crew-2016

One of the first photos to go on the Tours’ new Facebook page was this one, showing my Tour Guide / Conductor smartly turned out in his new busman’s jacket. I’m not sure who the other fellow is…

Loadings have been patchy, which is par for the course in May. However, unusually warm weather in our first week of operation saw up to 30 passengers on board for some tours. The route is unchanged from last year but, just through May, we’re leaving at 11:00 instead of 10:45 just to give ourselves a better chance of attracting more custom.

YDL318-polishedOther outings have included a return to Minehead to support the West Somerset Railway’s ‘Peppa Pig’ special event. My rostered bus was Southern Vectis 573 (YDL318) which appeared to have been polished to within an inch of its life!

YDL318-Blenheim-Road-Minehead

While operating free trips from Minehead station I met up with a lovely couple who used to be regular passengers on the Service 400 ‘Exmoor Explorer’. It was Don who sent me this photo of the bus passing beside Blenheim Park on one of its ‘Peppa’ trips that day. Also in town on the same day was Peter and Jenny Snowden and family. They rode with me and Peter, who is one of the organisers of the Taunton Vintage Bus Running Day, couldn’t resist slipping into conductor mode!

891VFM-210516-Bath

Last Saturday saw me taking Crosville DFG81 (891VFM), an open top Bristol FSF6G, to Bath on an increasingly rainy day. The wedding party started its journey on top but I soon received the pre-arranged signal (3 bells) to pull over so that everyone could retire below! This bus was actually a last-minute replacement for the rostered bus, a Lodekka which turned out to be unserviceable with dead batteries. It was fortunate that, after some delays, I was able to make up time with the 50mph-capable FSF.

HDV626E-fuel-Stoke

Once again I acted as delivery driver for Crosville this week, travelling up to Stoke-on-Trent to collect Southern National 2700 after it had received attention at Reliance Bus Works. The photo shows the vociferous RE (its exhaust note is pleasingly throaty!) taking on fuel before the return journey.

Coming up this weekend I have another trip to Minehead, WSR. This time the visiting ‘celebrity’ is Paddington Bear! Then I’m due to drive at the WHOTT Running Day at Coldharbour Mill Museum, Uffculme. WHOTT and the Mill have teamed up and a number of buses are supporting a Steam-up Day at the Mill, when the 1910 Pollit & Wigzell engine will be operating along with much of the woollen mill’s surviving machinery.

Photo credits:

YDL318 in Minehead – Don Brain
891VFM in Bath – Richard Kemble

 

Another long day at the WSR S&D Gala

My second ‘appearance’ at the West Somerset Railway in support of its celebration of the Somerset & Dorset Railway was just as exhausting as the first one but equally, just as rewarding.

Bishops-Lydeard-signalbox-interior

Leaving home at 04:30 is unusual for me – I’m not normally called upon to work such long shifts. Plus, living so far from the Crosville Motor Services bus depot in Weston-super-Mare is a burden worth carrying when it comes to Gala days like this one. Once again I prepared my bus, ex-Crosville Bristol VRT DVG260 (HTU159N), for its long duty.

HTU159N-at-Taunton-station

I arrived at Taunton Railway Station with plenty of time in hand so I had a chance to eat a late breakfast. Sadly, it came out of a Tupperware box* rather than the kitchen of the Quantock Belle which I would have preferred! I wore my traditional 1960s bus uniform, including a matching heavy overcoat. I was glad to have this because the weather, although forecasted to be bright and reasonably warm later, was decidedly chilly at this time in the morning and there are no heaters fitted to this bus! Moving up to the bus stop next to Platform 2 I loaded a handful of passengers for Bishops Lydeard, most of whom were carrying rucksacks and camera equipment.

The journey to the WSR’s southern terminus only takes about 20 minutes and the first departure of the day was waiting in the station as we arrived at the coach stop. Even at that time, the car parking spaces at the station were filling quickly and I made a mental note to use the service bus stop (which has a clear run to the station exit) on the other side of the bus shelter next time.

My next run from Taunton was far busier, with an almost full load. It took me several attempts to leave because, as soon as I pulled away, more people would emerge from the station and clamber breathlessly aboard. Even after circumnavigating the station car park I was flagged down by three more passengers, including one in a wheelchair. Getting him and his chair onto the bus was a bit of an ordeal because there was no raised pavement nearby. The VR made light work of the heavy load, thanks to the powerful Gardner 6LX engine and power-steering! I heard one of the passengers, who obviously also had an interest in buses, say to his friend as they boarded “Great – a bit of Crosville VR thrash”. The Bristol VR has a pleasingly raucous engine note and I love to hear it when it’s working hard. But I’m not one for thrashing buses so my usual, smooth driving technique prevailed. Although I may have been quite firm with the ‘loud pedal’ once or twice…

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West Somerset Railway celebrates S&DJR 50th anniversary

Some people called it the ‘Slow & Dirty’. To others it was the ‘Serene & Delightful‘ but, however you wish to recall it, the Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway has become one of Great Britain’s most celebrated railway lines and, 50 years after closure, it still remains as popular as ever.

53808-Minehead

I had the chance a few days ago to be involved in the West Somerset Railway’s excellent Spring Gala, which took the 50th anniversary of the S&D’s closure as its theme. For my part, I provided a bus link between Taunton railway station and the WSR’s southern terminus at Bishops Lydeard.

It was a very enjoyable day but there was a price to pay – I had to leave my house at 04:30 to be in position with my allocated bus by 07:35! Good grief, why do I accept these duties?!

Once again the staff at Crosville Motor Services had done their bit. My bus, a 1975 Bristol VRT originally supplied to Crosville in Chester, had been cleaned and fuelled the previous day before being parked at the front of the garage. Dawn was just breaking as I drove out of the depot, heading for Taunton.

It always takes a while to become really familiar with a bus that’s ‘new’ to me. I hadn’t driven this VR before but I quickly found that it’s in great shape, remarkably free from the creaks, groans and rattles that usually accompany a ride in a bus of this type and age. The semi-automatic gearchange was a delight, too. Some semi-auto ‘boxes seem to hang on to the previous gear too long when changing, making for a rather jerky ride but I found it easy to make changes that were silky smooth. The trick, of course, is to pause in neutral as you would with a manual box while the revs die away, otherwise the bus will lurch forward in the new gear. Not only that but it’s not good for the transmission either!HTU159N-Bishops-Lydeard

My first departure was 07:45, as advertised in the Railway’s publicity. Only four hardy souls boarded! The journey to Bishops Lydeard only took about 20 minutes and on our arrival a member of the platform staff came and introduced himself. He was keen to know how long my journey had taken because the next arrival would connect with the 09:05 train to Minehead.

There was no problem meeting this train and enthusiasts in greater numbers formed a queue at the ticket office window. After two more trips, my morning’s work was done so I parked the bus in a coach bay and walked up to the ticket office myself. I had been in contact with the WSR’s Commercial Department a couple of weeks earlier on a marketing matter and the fruit of this was that I found myself on the platform holding a free Day Rover ticket!

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Days Out with Thomas, Minehead

My latest duty for Crosville Motor Services involved another trip to Minehead in support of the West Somerset Railway. It was an action-packed day which included a surprise appearance by a bus I have been itching to sample for ages.

WSR-Thomas

Rising at silly-o’clock-in-the-morning for an early drive up from Torbay, I booked on at 08:00 at the Crosville depot in Weston-super-Mare. The previous weekend I had done the same duty so the early start was slightly easier to cope with. On the first occasion I led a convoy of three heritage vehicles, a closed top Bristol Lodekka, an open top Lodekka and an open top Bristol VRT. The reason being that, by common concensus, I knew the route to Minehead better having done it twice before already. One of these, ex-Bristol Omnibus 1959 LD6B LC8518 (972EHW), was left in the First bus depot in Minehead as it was required on both weekends. The duty, as previously, involved providing free bus rides for those attending the special event at the West Somerset Railway (WSR) which, on these two weekends, was a ‘Days Out with Thomas’ event.

WSR-Thomas-KFM893

Owing to the fact that my rostered bus was already in Minehead, I travelled as a passenger on ex-Crosville KG131, a 1950 Bristol L5G (KFM893), with my friend Dave Moore at the wheel. It was unusual for me to be riding in the passenger saloon and I was surprised at how quiet it was, compared to the racket that I’m used to hearing in the cab! Admittedly it’s a very agreeable racket.

WSR-Thomas-3-heritage-buses

The action kicked off at about 10:20 but, until the first train arrived from Bishops Lydeard with more passengers, takers for the free bus rides were few. Conductor Kemble and I were in charge of the closed top Lodekka and we clocked up a grand total of 3 trips in the morning. As predicted, the open top Lodekka, 1961 ex-Crosville DFG81 (FSF6G 891VFM) was the most popular with people eventually queueing up to board before it had even arrived back from its previous trip.

Our 15-minute route was the same as before – a short jaunt up the main street and then along the seafront to Butlins and back – just long enough to give people a few good views and of course a decent ride on a vintage bus!

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Another open top bus, another seafront

I had another trip to Minehead recently, this time with an open top Bristol Lodekka. There were quite a few similarities with my regular trips with a Leyland PD2 along Torquay seafront!

Once again this duty was in conjunction with the West Somerset Railway, which was holding a special event at Minehead. Crosville Motor Services has been contracted to provide heritage buses for a number of special events throughout the 2015 season.

Following our experience on the first Minehead duty we did at Easter, we decided that the two buses would arrive and depart the WSR an hour apart. This is because of the low passenger numbers at the beginning and end of the day, which a single bus can easily cover. Not only that, but a day of urban driving plus 1.5 hours of driving to and from the depot makes for quite a tiring day, especially in a Lodekka!

891VFM-Minehead-WSR

My rostered bus this time was Crosville DFG81 (891VFM), a 1961 Bristol FSF6G which was converted by the original Crosville company in the 1970s. I hadn’t driven this bus since 2012, mostly because it had suffered with some engine problems and has spent a long time having major surgery in the garage. A dropped valve caused damage and this has meant that the engine required stripping right down with a lot of parts being replaced. The workshop staff also took the opportunity to overhaul the fuel pump and injectors.

The result of all this attention is that the bus now has a super-reliable, very gutsy Gardner 6LW engine. Having driven it over the Quantock Hills to get to Minehead and back, I can safely say that this FSF has the strongest 6LW I’ve encountered! Not only that, but it also benefits from having a high ratio diff, meaning that a top speed of just over 50mph is possible. When most of my most recent empty journeys have been done at 30mph max, this is heritage drivers’ heaven!

The second bus, an ex-BOC Bristol VRT (also open top) with Driver Price at the wheel, arrived about an hour after I did. By then I had already done one ‘tour’ around the town and along the seafront to Butlins and back. Just like last time, it took a while for potential passengers to materialise and I waited about 30 minutes after arriving before I had a handful of people on the top deck wanting a ride. This time we had more contact with WSR staff (last time there was none) and our free rides were regularly promoted during platform announcements.

The railway’s special guest was Postman Pat and his black and white cat Jess. He appeared at regular intervals on the station platform and goggle-eyed children shook his great podgy hand or posed for photos. Beneath Pat’s fixed grin, I wonder if the person inside the costume kept smiling throughout the day? It must have been warm inside – I certainly was and that was after taking my jacket off!

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Vintage bus link to Hestercombe Gardens

Yesterday I had my second duty with a vintage bus at the West Somerset Railway (WSR), when I provided a link between the railway’s southern terminus at Bishops Lydeard and Hestercombe Gardens.

KFM893-at-Bishops-Lydeard

Crosville Motor Services has a new contract with the WSR to provide vintage bus services in support of various special events. However, this duty was the first in a series of weekly excursions which run throughout the season. I arrived at the depot to find my allocated bus, Crosville KG131 (Bristol L5G KFM893), ready and fully fuelled just inside the garage. So it wasn’t long before I was on my way, via the southbound M5, to Taunton and thence to Bishops Lydeard. Despite its age, this bus bowls along at about 40mph as it benefits from having a Bristol overdrive gearbox.

This is really one of my favourite buses to drive at the moment. Not only is it immaculately presented inside and out, it’s very rewarding to drive. It took me several outings to properly get used to it but these days I can jump into the cab, settle into ‘L’ mode and produce a relatively crunch-free ride. Only once yesterday did I miss a gear and that’s because I let my concentration lapse. I fear I may have been thinking ahead to tomorrow’s marathon drive with a 1929 Maudslay!

As I arrived at the station I had a definite feeling of déjà vu. I have been there many times in a heritage bus because that’s where Quantock Motor Services had its bus depot. And there to film my déjà vu moment was my friend Mike with his camcorder!

I had about 10 minutes before the train from Minehead arrived so I had a chat with a chap in the ticket office, just to let him know where the bus was parked. The first train of the day was also labeled the ‘Hestercombe Gardens Express‘ online and passengers booked on this excursion have a vintage bus journey and entrance to the gardens included in the price. The train arrived, hauled by GWR Large Prairie Tank no 4160. As the passengers left the platform I stood near the bus shouting, in my best bus conductor’s voice, “Anyone for Hestercombe Gardens? Bus leaving shortly!”

Only 7 people boarded the bus and, after conferring with the Stationmaster, I prepared to leave. I had a quick word with the passengers after checking that they all had tickets. I also explained that the journey would be ‘leisurely’ as this elderly bus doesn’t go very fast. In fact, it didn’t go very fast when it was new either. They all seemed happy and sat back to enjoy the ride.

My first hazard was a modern ‘Tally Ho’ coach parked just ahead of me beside some parked cars. I edged through, watching the front nearside wing and my mirrors intently. Our route included a quick blast down the A358 past Cotford St Luke and then through the suburbs of Taunton before turning onto Cheddon Road. Soon we were out into the countryside again and the road became a lane. I’d seen ‘Pitchers Hill’ marked on the map and had wondered how steep it would turn out to be. Third gear? Second? First even? With the hill now in sight ahead of me and knowing I had a light load I decided to give it a go in third, changing down well before the hill to enable the Gardner 5LW to wind itself up to full revs. The gradient was short and sharp and our speed soon fell away. The passengers, especially the gentlemen I suspect, must have been thinking “change down man, change down!” But I have a knack of knowing if my bus will make it to the top or not and I stayed resolutely in third gear. It’s a little game I play with my passengers, especially if I have a Gardner lump beside me. These engines develop plenty of torque way down into the rev range. Sure enough, just when you could begin to count ‘1-2-3-4-5’ out loud (OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), our speed began to pick up and I allowed myself a little grin.

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Exeter Corporation No 5 shakedown run #2

My second test run with the Exeter Corporation Maudslay bus took me much further afield than the first one and provided some very useful experiences.

FJ6154-interior

We’re currently only using the autovac’s gravity tank for fuel. This holds a couple of gallons of petrol which is sufficient for a short run such as this. We’re not planning to use the main tank until the weekend due to the tendency of modern petrol to go stale if not used. So, with the autovac (whose real purpose is to suck petrol up from the main tank using vacuum created in the engine’s intake manifold) topped up, we prepared to move the bus out of the shed. Unfortunately the removable trailer board, which contains auxilliary signalling lights and is fixed to the back of the bus for road runs, refused to work properly. This should have been rectified by the WHOTT electrician by Friday.

Climbing the steep track away from the farm, I tried a snatch change up to 2nd gear. It didn’t go well. The 4-cylinder Maudslay engine, even when cold, takes even longer to spool down than a Gardner 6LW so I need to adapt my technique some more.

Out in the quiet lanes I went up and down the gearbox, refining my changes. As in most things, practice makes perfect but this bus is so unique that perfection will take some time to achieve! I drove the bus on a big circular route which included some stiff gradients, which meant changing down to lower gears both to climb and descend. Unusually for the era, the Maudslay ML3 has drum brakes on all four wheels (rather than just the rear wheels) but even so, braking on downhill gradients still has to be assisted by engine braking. Additional braking assistance is also available via the parking brake which on this bus takes the form of a transmission brake, rather than operating the rear drum brakes as is usually the case. It’s really useful sometimes to supplement the footbrake with a partial application of the parking brake which is effectively a mechanical retarder.

Once or twice we started off with a bit of a lurch and some of my gearchanges were rather jerky. I’m still trying to improve my clutch technique! There were no mishaps and, apart from the troublesome auxilliary signalling lights I mentioned earlier, the bus performed as expected.

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