Running Day to mark Exeter Bus Station closure

The long drawn out saga of the Exeter Bus Station redevelopment had a milestone day recently, as a strong turnout of heritage and modern buses and coaches filled the station for a farewell event.

I say long drawn out because the station was due to have been closed by now and the running day on Sunday 19th March was to have been its final fling. But planning officers, contractors and the square wheels of bureaucracy conspired to delay the closure and the site remains open for the time being.

I played a small part in the running day by collecting Western National 3307, a 1979 Bristol LH6L/ Plaxton Supreme coach which belongs to the Westcountry Historic Omnibus & Transport Trust (WHOTT), from its storage yard and driving it in service during the day. Several other historic vehicles from the area queued for fuel in a nearby town before heading off for Exeter.

I’ve driven this LH before and, although it’s not my favourite type, I found it quite easy to drive smoothly. I had time before my first duty to wander around but, even before I’d stepped off the coach, my planned duties were changed and I found myself covering a duty that was left vacant by a bus which didn’t appear.

Instead of doing a few trips up Telegraph Hill and back I was given two turns out to Alphington and one to St David’s Station. I knew roughly how to get to Alphington (a suburb on the west side of Exeter) but got the finer details about where to turn the LH coach from my WHOTT colleague Inspector Andrews. I drove down Western Way to Exe Bridges, which was very busy as per usual. Passing the Marsh Barton Trading Estate, I turned left and drove through Alphington and turned on a small triangle on the edge of the village. We stopped there to wait time and several passengers took the opportunity to take photos.

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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.

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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!

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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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Crosville Bus & Steam Rally 2016

Taking part in Crosville’s Bus & Steam Rally this year gave me a variety of jobs, including possibly my last chance to drive a vintage bus on a regular bus route.

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During the run-up to the rally I found myself more involved in the planning stages than I had envisaged so it was quite a relief to watch the day unfold successfully. In a new – but possibly one-off – joint venture with the Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-Mare, Crosville sited its Bus & Steam Rally at the Museum. The company’s bus depot was also open, of which more later.

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I travelled up on the Friday before the rally, bringing a coach with me. This was Western National 3307 (Bristol LH6L AFJ727T) which belongs to WHOTT. The LH was parked up inside the Crosville Motor Services garage until it was required for the rally.

My main concern, having planned the layout of the static exhibits, was whether we would be able to fit all the resident and visiting buses along two sides of the rectangular site. Thankfully, due to the fact that a certain number of vehicles were always out in service, there was just about enough room.

I helped with setting up early on the previous day and began by touring the site with the Crosville Safety Officer, who also acted as Chief Marshal. The rest of the morning was spent ferrying various buses over from the Crosville garage to the Museum site, with Southern National 2700 (HDV626E) acting as shuttle bus for the drivers.

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The Museum staff did a great job setting up tables for the Trade Stalls within the Museum buildings. We’d had so many stall entries that several more were allocated spaces outside with the buses. Thank goodness we had dry weather!

The day of the rally itself brought ideal weather – mild, mostly sunny. I began by helping in the garage where, a few days previously, the mortal remains of GWR 4-6-0 ‘Thornbury Castle’ had been placed on display. Some of the modern bus and coach fleet were also tastefully arranged nearby.

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Crosville Bus & Steam Rally 2016 update #1

Plans are coming together for the Crosville Bus & Steam Rally 2016, at which I plan to be very active! The date is Sunday September 11th.

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Back in 2014 there was a rally and running day based at the seafront at Weston-super-Mare but this year’s event is centred on the Helicopter Museum in Locking Moor Road. Since the 2014 rally Crosville has expanded further, adding fresh vehicles to its heritage fleet and many others to its modern fleet of local service buses and coaches.

For this reason Crosville has struck up a partnership with the Helicopter Museum which – like Crosville – is based on what used to be RAF Weston-super-Mare, albeit on opposite sides of the airfield site. It seems quite appropriate to team up with a museum which celebrates another form of transport history. There is ample room for static displays, indoor areas for society and trade stalls as well as the added attraction of the museum itself. I’ve never been there myself and am looking forward to seeing what’s there.

New for this year is the addition of a steam section. It was originally planned to have Crosville’s own Sentinel DG6P Steam Bus ‘Elizabeth’ in action, fresh from restoration. However, as is often the way with these projects, work is behind schedule and the steam bus won’t be ready in time for the Rally. There will still be plenty of steam power present though as several entries have already been received from traction engine and steam roller owners.

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Welcome return for Hants & Dorset Bristol FLF

You’ve no doubt heard the old phrase “You wait ages for a bus and then two come along together” (or similar). Well, in an odd way, the same has happened with my most recent Crosville duties. I’ve now had two consecutive wedding jobs when I’ve been allocated a bus fresh from restoration/refurbishment.

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After nearly a year off the road, Hants & Dorset 1220 has made a very welcome return to service. I almost regarded this 1965-built Bristol FLF6G as my regular bus in 2012, my first season with Crosville. There were times when I was rostered with it so often that I used to envy some of the other drivers when they were allocated different buses. Just a minute, how blasé can you get? We’re talking about 50-year-old buses here – I’m lucky to be driving one at all!

While filling in the vehicle’s running sheet on Saturday morning, I discovered that I was the last driver to use this FLF on a job before it was taken out of service. Since then it has had all its seats re-trimmed, ceiling painted and the interior generally tidied up. You may have read in some of my posts last year that the interior of this bus was looking very tired, with many of its leather seats showing plenty of wear and tear, so this refurbishment makes the FLF very presentable again.

FLF-top-interiorBut, appearance aside, the biggest benefit for me is the FLF’s top speed. I had a reasonably long empty journey to make so it was very pleasing to be bowling along the motorway at 50mph!

My destination, for an 11:15 pickup, was the Guyers House Hotel in Corsham, Wiltshire. This was my third visit to this venue so the only route research I needed to do was the bit from the hotel to the church in Atworth.

It didn’t take me long to become re-acquainted with driving the FLF, it really is easy compared to the Bristol L I had last time. However, the 30ft length caught me out as a turned into Guyer’s Lane on the approach to the hotel. I didn’t make a wide enough sweep and couldn’t quite make the turn. Fortunately the following traffic had seen me shaping up for the turn and had slowed to a virtual halt so there was room behind me for a quick shunt to get me round. How embarrassing!

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Finishing with a flourish

My time with the Dartmouth Steam Railway & River Boat Company as a seasonal bus driver came to an end last week and, as I have an interest in the historical aspect of the business, I decided to pay tribute to the former days of the Totnes-Paignton bus route that I have been driving.

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Long before the days of Stagecoach, First and the Dartmouth Steam Railway, Western National used to operate over the Totnes to Paignton route so, on my last day, I decided to wear an authentic Western National uniform. Although to some I may have looked a little out of place driving the No 100 bus (a Volvo Olympian dating from 1996) looking like the ghost of 1970, many of my passengers appreciated my parting shot. Comments such as “That takes me back to my childhood” and “Your drivers should all wear uniforms like that!” were made as I took their fares and clipped their Round Robin tickets.

Some time ago I came across an excellent set of photos on Flickr taken by a chap called Norman Craig, who spent a couple of summer seasons as a conductor for Western National, based at Paignton. With Norman’s permission I created a couple of posters to stick up inside my bus so that those passengers who were to shy to ask could read about why their driver was in fancy dress.

The uniform came from a Western National driver based in Plymouth and included a mint condition winter greatcoat. If the weather is cold on Sunday I will need to wear it at the Exeter Twilight Running Day!

Although my time with Dartmouth Steam Railway has ended for the time being, I may return next season as they have asked me back but that won’t be until May so it depends what employment I can find in the meantime!

‘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.

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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.