Monday, 11 July 2016

Life begins at 22...

I suppose you're all due an update, really! Life, unsurprisingly has once again changed quite dramatically for me, and I find myself in a better position than I ever really dreamt of. 

To start with, I'll take you briefly through my thought process as I came towards the end of my studies in Huddersfield, and began to consider the scary prospect of starting full time, permanent employment. The natural progression of course, is to apply to join one of the Big 5's graduate schemes, and indeed, that is what many of my counterparts have selected to do. I was to a certain extent being 'head-hunted' for Go-Ahead's scheme, and was in contact with the (yes, this is a real job!) 'Group Talent Manager'. These schemes are in essence set up to nurture potential talent, giving successful applicants exposure to all parts of the industry and its operations, building knowledge from the ground up, and not particularly presuming prior knowledge, but rather looking for someone who they see potential to mold into what they require. For pretty much these exact reasons, this is what put me off, applying for such a scheme. Without meaning to sound big headed, after studying a specialist course for the past 4 years, and having already had plenty of 'early stage' industry exposure, and knowledge, in particular during my 15 months at Plymouth Citybus, I felt that there was nothing particularly to gain from spending time doing something very similar, all over again. The schemes also do not, in a vast majority of cases, come with a guaranteed job at the end of them, and so my conclusion was that the 2 years spent simply duplicating a lot of what I have already done, could be better spent in a 'real' position, either working my way up, or going straight into the type of position I would have been applying for at the end of a graduate scheme. 

 Whilst my time at Plymouth Citybus had been fantastic, and was very kindly offered the chance to go back, I was somewhat concerned about becoming stuck in a rut. Whilst I was young and geographically fluid, with no ties to specific areas I thought it best to move on from PCB for the time being and try something different, with new experiences. This I felt would expand my knowledge, open me up to new opportunities, and would mean I wouldn't end up being a career Citybus-man like many in the company have become, with quite a number of employees achieving over 40 years of service. I must admit then, that I was being very picky with who I was applying to, because I was still in such a comfortable position, with several good opportunities already open to me. The only job I actually applied to, was for an Assistant Operations Manager position at the Isle of Wight's Southern Vectis. I was shortlisted for final interview, which I attended in late February, but was unfortunately unsuccessful, against a cohort of many more experienced busman, than I! Realising that I was possibly trying to punch above my weight, I looked to apply to managerial positions slightly lower down in the pecking order. Unfortunately, jobs such as the Service Control Manager, Forward Allocator, and so on, are pretty much exclusively the domain of internal applicants, which ruled me out of these to. It was looking therefore like the only option may be to apply to be a driver, and attempt to work my way through the ranks to managerial level. This I was by no means disheartened by, as it meant I had the luxury of being able to carefully consider and choose who I would really like to work for, and ponder the best company available for opportunity and long term career progression. 

To buy myself some time though, I decided I'd try and indulge myself for the summer ahead. Many of you will of course be aware, that my favorite vehicle type has always been the Bristol VR, upon which I first gathered interest in the industry, on trips into Plymouth from home in Cawsand, and on my daily commute to Devonport High School for Boys. Sadly, 2016 marks the very last year they can be used in normal public service, so I thought it was a bit of a 'now or never' opportunity to try and drive one in service, before 'DDA Day' loomed at the end of the year! Luckily of course, we have Riverlink's stalwart fleet of VRs almost on our doorstep, and so I sent a very speculative letter to Bus Divisional Manager, Jim O'Hara, pleading with him to come and let me have a play with his buses. To my delight, I received a swift reply stating that he'd be very willing to take me on for the summer, and after a brief interview, I was set for the summer. What I didn't expect, was what came next! 

Following on from the interview, and after a brief panic when it was discovered the insurers weren't 100% willing to let an under 25 year old onto the policy, Jim e-mailed me ahead of my start date with a new prospect on offer. With his intentions to retire at the end of the 2017 season, the company had begun to have feelers out for a potential replacement for him, and after a discussion with the CEO offered me the chance to be trained up over the preceding year to take over his position when the time came. Jim himself admits this was somewhat tongue in cheek, presuming I'd intend to move on swiftly into one of the multi-national operators, and had no real intention of wanting to play with a small independent bus operator. Evidently, he didn't know me very well at that point! Unsurprisingly to many of you, I absolutely jumped at the chance; for me, this was a position I only ever expected to reach towards the end of my career. For me, it has never been about the money, it's always been about my passion for the industry, and wanting to be in a career I'd really enjoy. Working for an operator such as Riverlink (sorry, I really should start calling it The Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company seeing as I work for them, but it's such a bloomin mouthful; especially when you're answering the phone!) was almost more than I'd ever dreamed of. Being involved with an operation devoted to being interesting! An operation that's there to be fun, offer something unique and evoke memories of bygone eras, to me, is much more exciting than trying to achieve a 2% growth in patronage from a certain suburb of a metropolitan City (although admittedly, that does excite me as well!). And so of course it was with open arms that I welcomed Jim's offer, and over the past month and a half, I genuinely could not be happier that I'd said yes. At the end of a journey that seemed like it had been turning against me, I have somehow managed to end up in what for me, is possibly one of the best jobs in the whole industry. 

Working at a smaller independent had always been my long term goal. Having the freedom to really make your own choices moreso than in one of the larger companies, as well as getting much more hands on with all aspects of the operation, rather than being 'restricted' to one certain role or function, was what I had always strived to work towards. To be in that position so early on in my career I feel is a true honour. My time at the company so far has been truly fantastic. The team not only on the buses, but on the boats and trains as well, are utterly brilliant. They're extremely knowledgable, full of energy (at least after a cup of tea, or two!), and have been very welcoming to me indeed, which I was somewhat surprised about considering that I am the youngest in the bus division by some 40 years! For its size, the company is run extremely professionally, and has evidently been finely honed over many years. And of course, I can't omit the fact that against all odds, I have managed to fulfill a lifelong dream of driving a Bristol VR in public service! I feel incredibly privileged to be among the very last people in the country to be driving a Bristol VR in stage carriage service in 2016, and to have been quite possibly, the very last person to ever be 'trained up' to work on a Bristol VR after 50 glorious years. 

So an incredible set of events over the past six months has led me to being in a wonderful position, with a lot more fun to come. No doubt then, there will be more to update you on over the coming months. I'm sure I've made many of you very jealous indeed...


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

'Ops' and Sods

Another 4 months has flown past in what has been an extremely exciting time to be working at Plymouth Citybus! I'm sure all of you will be well aware of the massive expansion in operating territory that has been undertaken, firstly with the take over of the Liskeard operations of Western Greyhound in December (but doesn't it feel like so much longer ago!?), and more recently, the 75 now stretching deep into North Cornwall after the final bow out of the remaining part of the WGL business.

Now as things begin to settle down with reliability nice and high, and passenger loadings on the up, the next big shake up is about to begin, with a major uplift in service for Callington and Liskeard, and all sorts of new journey opportunities re-establishing some long lost links for local communities in Cornwall. Of course this hasn't come at the detriment to the core Plymouth operations, with many changes also planned to once again bolster and widen the Plymouth network, including most notably, the new 4/A into Oreston, Hooe and out to Mount Batten, covering about the last part of the city left without a red bus! Yellow Flash is of course also on the horizon, and Saltash will receive a much improved network from April thanks to the Go Cornwall services passing through, and beginning to be integrated more fully into the network. 

So to my experiences over the last few months. Well to come right back to when I last wrote in December, I was with the engineers. I must admit that the guys weren't massively optimistic as the Solos started to flood in, having had some questionable experiences with the type in years gone by; but they've been working wonders behind the scenes to really bring them up to scratch, and are now performing very reliably indeed.
This has of course come at a price, and having also spent a couple of weeks in the engineering stores, I've now discovered first hand how much it costs to keep these vehicles in top working order, and 'by 'eck is it a substantial sum! Working in the stores was actually incredibly eye opening in this respect, seeing the sheer quantity of parts and materials passing through, with the money disappearing out exponentially. I can assure you that no expense ever seems to be spared in keeping the fleet on the road, which was fantastic to see. A good storesman is evidently key to the efficient working of the whole company though, and Nigel Britton, aided capably by Darren Preston do an absolutely first class job. They're having to juggle a lot of tasks at once, but by keeping the systems efficient and flowing, as well as having a wealth of knowledge themselves to aid the engineers when they're having problems with their task, and guiding them to the parts they will then require, was quite brilliant to admire.
The working relationship between them makes it even more of a successful partnership, with the storemen acting almost as a mentor, passing on the experiences they've had back when they were on the shop floor. Things like this can so easily be overlooked, and in all honesty, I had scarcely ever even thought about these types of functions existing, but I do now have a great insight into the way it all works. The working atmosphere down with the engineers is brilliant, the banter is top class, and whilst they'll often be scathed when things go wrong, as they're the people often easiest to blame, they really do work wonders! 

Another division of the company which is also so easy to forget is the job of the cleaning staff. I only spent a few days working with them, but to this day the impression they left with me is still well imprinted. The motivation and pride that the guys and girls have in this sector of the business is an absolute delight to experience, they really genuinely care wholeheartedly about their work, and work immeasurably hard every single night of the week to produce and clean sparkling fleet ready for service the next morning. It is a herculean task to sweep, mop out, remove litter from, and put through the wash all 150+ vehicles each night, on top of deep cleaning every single member of the fleet at least once a month (taking around 4 hours per vehicle!), but yet somehow, they manage it, and do an amazing job each and every day.
Quite frankly some vehicles get left in an absolutely atrocious state each evening, but you'd never know it boarding the vehicle the next morning. It's an understatement to say I was humbled by the team, they genuinely have to be some of the hardest working people in the depot, very self motivated, and extremely content in their work. Like in all sectors of PCB, the work ethic and relationships between the staff is second to none; I was absolutely shattered by the time I'd finished each evening, having been completely unable to keep pace with the experienced staff, yet they were still energetic and willing to do even more. Utterly brilliant, and possibly the most eye opening experience I've had at PCB so far. 

Before moving on to my main role over the last few months, I shall come back again briefly to the core business; driving! In this respect, being at driver at PCB is getting better and better, with a wide variety of opportunities. I have been lucky enough to drive a couple of Go Cornwall Bus duties, and I've enjoyed them no end! It's such a different type of driving to what I've been used to, working in the city moving vast numbers of people with lots of traffic to contend with, to the completely opposite end of the scale, driving small buses around providing lifelines to outlying communities, and dealing more with hedges and wildlife than cars! Obviously this isn't where the money is, but this is where it always feels like the bus is providing its core function to the most noticeable degree. The passengers are brilliant, and genuinely appreciate you simply 'turning up'! But from a purely selfish point of view the driving is oh so much more pleasurable, winding and twisting through leafy lanes and single track roads, squeezing between narrow walls and performing the impossible. This, is where you learn to drive! It's been great getting to know the people from WGL, who have been on a steep learning curve since the change of ownership, but again, they're all great people who obviously have a lot of pride in what they do, and provide sterling service to their regulars!

We of course did take the 'Chatterbus' out on it's first outing for a while back in January, to get to know our new customers in Cornwall.

Another really eye opening experience, seeing first hand how we can communicate, learn from, and advise the people that we're there to serve. Events like this seem to do wonders for public perception of the company, and it turned out to be a really positive day with many happy satisfied customers, along with new ideas for us to take back to Milehouse and work on. A great tool which I'm surprised more companies haven't also adopted! 

So, on to the world of Operations! This for me is where it really started to get exciting, there had of course been many many interesting activities since I'd started, but the Operations Suite is where it really starts to get serious for me. The guys in operations really encompass a myriad of different roles, and certainly have a hard act to manage to juggle so many vital positions all into one. They're staff managers, agony aunts, accident investigators, discipline givers, network planners, safety officers, problem solvers, sickness managers, and a whole host of things in between.  They're also not afraid to muck in when the need is there, and you will regularly see them either out driving or down in the control room when extra manpower is needed. Brian, Martyn and John have quite honestly been utterly superb at integrating me into the team, and passing down their vast amounts of knowledge to me as the upstart. I've never had the attitude of a 'know it all' straight out of University who's done all the theory and thinks he's capable of it all, but quite honestly I never realised how much I didn't know about what really goes on behind the scenes, and how to be an effective and respected manager. The trio of men have been brilliant role models to me over the last few months, and I cannot thank them enough for the trust they've shown in me, and for the tremendous quantities of advise they've expelled. These words of wisdom really will stay with me forever, when I hopefully one day will fill similar shoes to theirs. I thought I was pretty well educated on the goings on at a bus company, but until you get behind the scenes and see what really goes on, you are in truth seeing but a tiny part of what builds up to create a functioning company. There are so many cogs turning to deliver a great service to the public day in, day out, and in particular, operations is where a lot of these things you'd never even consider, go on. People management is really the key in this department to conclude in a cohesive and effective end result, and without the first rate work these guys do, none of it would happen. They've got huge pressure on their shoulders, but yet again, the division contains a group of highly skilled, motivated, and experienced individuals who have great character and create a really enjoyable working atmosphere. 

There have of course been many other adventures not yet mentioned, but no doubt I will get round to writing about these another time, I won't give you too much of an overload right now! Life continues apace, into what is now amazingly my 9th month at the company already, with many more exciting things still to come, and I'm loving every second of it. It's been a hugely rich experience so far, and this looks set to continue as we delve even deeper into the Milehouse offices. 

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Careers and C regs

Oh dear - evidently I'm not able to balance a career and write a blog! Has it really been 3 1/2 months since I drove a bus on my own for the first time up to The Hoe for the WNPG rally!? Well, apparently so! 

The reason I have now all of a sudden found the time and energy for an update is largely due to the fact I am no longer a full time driver! Blimey, how those guys and girls find time to have any social life whatsoever, or indeed, achieve anything else outside work is quite beyond me! Not only is the changing of shifts and work patterns so all over the place as to have very little continuity in life (I cannot function properly without regime!), but also simply having enough energy left over from a mentally strenuous day of driving and dealing with passengers evades me. On the generally singular days you do have off, all I've wanted to do it lounge, relax and recuperate ready for more work the next day; the last thing on my mind is going out, socialising, chasing and photographing buses, or indeed even writing about goings on! Obviously, things would get better over time, but certainly for me, it was pretty much all-consuming! Tremendous fun, almost to the point where it was addictive, but very tiring! 

There have been many many highlights, a smattering of which have included driving a bus, in service from Plymouth, across the Torpoint Ferry, along Whitsand Bay, and through my home village of Cawsand, something I really never thought I'd get to do in life. Late night fun in a Mercedes Citaro roaming round all sorts of nooks and crannies in Plymouth on 28Bs, 34s and 29s. Thrashing one of our 'tanking' Scanias across Dartmoor to Okehampton. Or even the more simple pleasures of one of our humble old R reg Dennis Darts, surprisingly some of the nicest vehicles in the fleet, on a 4 hour round trip on the 14 from the Plymouth Science Park at Derriford, through everywhere imaginable inbetween there and Langage in Plympton, and back again! Passengers are of course very memorable to, and they really have the power to make the journey even more memorable, both for good and bad reasons, but they really do make the job even more 'worthwhile' from a driver's point of view. From the 'standard' thank you whilst getting off, to the more heartfelt appreciation of good driving or additional help being given, this is what makes you providing that journey for them that bit more fulfilling. I've found it to be a very rewarding job indeed; by no means an easy one, indeed actually, quite the opposite. What seems like a very simple task, driving a large vehicle along a set route picking people up as you go, can in fact throw up a myriad of different challenges and problems that you need to be responsible enough to react to and take appropriate action. There's a lot of pressure on sometimes, but as afore mentioned, fantastic fun, and very rewarding! 

For now though it's on to a totally new world, the engineering department! I've only been in there for 5 days so far, but am learning colossal amounts already. Despite of course working to a common cause, engineering takes on totally different challenges, with totally different ways of thinking, with alternative aims and goals to work to. The wealth of knowledge required by each and every person in there is mindboggling, to keep the fleet in good health, and looking presentable. To have the flexibility to react to developing issues, whilst also carrying out the 'day to day' frequent checking of vehicles is really a big juggling act. How anything ever manages to make it out into service after seeing the sheer amount of work and tender loving care that goes into each and every vehicle is quite amazing! It's by absolutely no means a straightforward task to produce some 150 buses for service each day! 

Now onto other business! As you will be well aware of by now, I loved Torpoint's inherited C-HJN Leyland Olympians from Essex, with their coach seating, Gardner engine, and ECW bodywork. As you will know from a previous post a few months ago, the remaining vehicles were reduced to just one after C413 HJN was finally sent to the scrapheap. Fearing the worst, I attempted to find out the current position of the sole survivor, C412 HJN. Unfortunately, the news was bad. She had recently been declared SORN (off the road), and was now languishing in a yard having been replaced by a higher capacity Olympian, and was due to be scrapped in the near future. 

But thanks to the efforts of Martyn Hearson, the man behind Reliance Bus Works, contact was established with the St Michael's Entertainers Dance Troupe, and they offered the vehicle to me at scrap value, a meer £1'500. How could I possibly turn down the opportunity to own the exact vehicle I'd dreamed about owning for so many years. Indeed, in fact, I wrote on this very blog in 2009 after the somewhat premature excitement as C409 HJN was offered for sale into preservation "My sights are now set on C412 HJN". Apparently, I am a man of my word! 

So the deal was done, and she was moved into temporary storage with RBW, some work done on her to get her roadworthy, and then put through MOT. Thankfully, all went to plan, and on Saturday 1st November, myself, and a clan of us from the Plymouth City Transport Preservation Group journeyed to Stoke on Trent to collect her for her new life with me back home in the South West. This year has had so many brilliant moments, so many life goals have been achieved, but I think this might well just top them all! Rounding the corner into RBW, seeing her sitting their eagerly awaiting me in the mid-morning sun, 5 years after saying goodbye, and then the reality hitting me that she was now mine, was utterly incredible, I can't even begin to describe the feeling; but it's not one you get often in life! Starting her up for the first time, with the Gardner erupting into life was totally exhilarating, my first opportunity to drive a 'proper' bus, and it was mine! The one I'd fell in love with all those years ago as a school boy commuting on her to the Cremyll Ferry each morning. But now, I was at the wheel! By far and away, the best vehicle I've ever had the pleasure of driving, although I am naturally bias! 

The journey back to Plymouth whilst huge fun, was actually thankfully, very uneventful! C412 drove like she'd never been out of use; just started on the button, caused no drama whatsoever an happily cruised along at 55-60mph all the way back to Plymouth, but would happily be pushed higher. In fact we became so confident with her, we dived off the M5 at Exeter and delved into the back roads all the way through to Plymouth, to really put her through her paces. She accepted the challenge with open arms, and got a proper chance to stretch her legs and do what she does best! Unfortunately, Plymouth then came into view, and the journey was at an end, so rather than head straight into Plympton, we continued son through until we ran out of Plymouth at Tamerton Foliot, where we turned round and headed to Colebrook to meet her new depot mates. Other than having developed a sticky throttle, her reliability had been truly remarkable. 

As you can see though, this awful tar-based black paint is really not doing her any favours cosmetically. In contrast, mechanically, she seems better than she was whilst with FDC, and the interior, very much thankfully, having been inhabited by many teenage girls for the last 5 years of her life, for hour upon hour at a time, is also in remarkably good condition. Indeed quite frankly, I'd forgotten how sublimely comfortable the DP seating is on those Olympians! The exact details of her proposed restoration haven't yet been decided, but rest assured that she will be out and about in the very near future. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

Return to the region!

Hello and welcome back once again to PTOTPA, and to hopefully what will now become fairly regular blogging! For those who don't know, I'm now back in the area full time, and commenced employment with Plymouth Citybus around a month ago now. As part of my Transport and Logistics Management degree, we have the option to do an official year out in industry to boost our degree classification, and of course to gain valuable experience in a real job, applying all the theory we've learnt up until now. Richard Stevens has been very kind in taking me on for the year, and the opportunity laid out in front of me sounds truly fantastic! Unlike what other operators had offered me for the year, PCB has in essence given me the 'freedom of the depot' to work in a whole host of departments throughout the year, rather than just being stuck in one position and told to get on with it. 

Within my first month I have completed the driver training course, and am now a fully qualified driver ready to go out on the road from tomorrow. It's been an extremely exciting first month, finally fulfilling a lifelong dream of driving a bus on the public highway, and already I've gained huge appreciation for what bus drivers do every day, it's certainly not easy! The sheer amount of forward thinking and planning involved in threading a 40ft vehicle through a busy town, or even a quite suburb is quite remarkable; you can't just react to developing situations like you can in a car; every eventuality must be anticipated to avoid any mishaps! It's also of course far more than just the driving, and indeed understandably, the new recruits are made very aware that this is becoming more and more of a customer service industry, not just a tool for movement. So on top of driving, all new driving employees go through extensive customer service training and disability awareness, as well as other essentials for the job such as ticket machine training (absolutely mindboggling!), and of course, route learning! Learning some 30 routes before being let loose in service is no mean feat. Luckily of course I'm at a huge advantage having ridden on a majority of Plymouth's routes more times than I care to think, but for people new to Plymouth, or even native Plymothians, remembering that quantity is certainly a test. Thankfully all new drivers are sent out with a mentor for their first week of driving which is a chance to re-cap quite a few of the routes to hopefully avoid any errors when they're sent out alone. The driver training team I have to say are absolutely excellent at what they do, all very passionate and enthusiastic individuals (practically all of which have come out of the services!) who really identify issues and mould their teaching around individual's needs. After my 'mentor week' this week I go solo in service on Tuesday 12th which happens to co-inside with the British National Firework Championships, and I'm on a late shift! That's certainly going to be a baptism of fire! I'll then be out in service for the next 2-3 months to gain a decent appreciation for the job before moving on into other sectors of the business including operations, commercial, engineering, and schedualling, as well as others on top of that no doubt. An incredibly exciting year ahead! 

My first solo drive though came yesterday when I was allowed behind the wheel of 'Red Flash' Alexander Dennis Enviro 400 WF63 LYR to take her up to the Hoe for WNPG's annual Plymouth Rally. Another brilliant day, helped very much by good weather! With kind permission of Richard Smith, here I am (that feels strange to say, I'm normally the one behind the camera!) departing the rally to head back to Milehouse. (Top photo with thanks to Kameron Allan)

Saturday, 10 May 2014

C-ent to the scrapheap

As I'm sure you're all already well aware, the Eastern National Leyland Olympians that graced the streets of Torpoint in the latter half of the 2000s are a batch of vehicles I have a large soft spot for, despite them forcing the withdrawal of the last of the Bristol VRs. In fairness, we could have asked for nothing better than the coach seated, Gardner engined beasts that were C409, 412, 413 and 417 HJN. Two of the four managed to escape into another life after withdrawal from Torpoint depot during 2008 and 2009 to join Dance Troupes in Crewe and Manchester, but unfortunately, five years down the line, the living examples have now been reduced to just one. 

C413 HJN was the one that went to Manchester with The Sherenades Dance Troupe, replacing their Ex-East Yorkshire Bristol VR WKH 525X. The livery was never hugely modified from her days with First, with merely some black paint applied to cover up the pink areas of the Barbie livery. She worked with them for the successive 4-5 years after she left First in 2009, but now, after 28 years of constant use, she's finally been sent to the cutter's torch in the infamous town of Barnsley, where so many vehicles go to die. She's certainly lived a varied life though, having been bought new by Eastern National to operate from their Silver End depot on route 53 linking the major towns of Chelmsford and Colchester of which the former has now become a City. She then progressed onto other local routes around various locations within Essex, loved and cherished by the Essex depots she worked at, before then heading for 'retirement' in Cornwall in 2005. She's put in some sterling years of service, with passengers always genuinely impressed by the comfort of her DP seating, even in her latter years. The Gardner 6LXB and ECW bodywork have also of course played a big part in her longevity, and no doubt she has proved to be a very suitable vehicle for the long distance conveying of dancers to competitions across the country. Unfortunately, the bell has been rung for the last time. 

This of course now leaves C412 HJN as the final Leyland left to have worked at Torpoint, so naturally I reached for the DVLA (surely it should be DVSA by now!?) Vehicle Enquiry tool to see if I could gather anything about her current state. Unfortunately it's not looking too good for her either, with 412 currently declared as SORN. I hope to bring you more news on her as I acquire it, but I'd really like to see her saved for the future. 412 again as I'm sure you know was always my favorite during her time at Torpoint, and now that she is the only survivor, she has become even more important. We shall see what her current owners plans our, and then react from there! 

Photo of C413 HJN in Parton's Barnsley Scrapyard comes courtesy of Mark Kirk, with many thanks from me for allowing the sharing of it on PTOTPA. 

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

A - return to the road!

Some very pleasing news to report tonight that A-Line Coaches only coach, classic Van Hool bodied Volvo B10M A182 MNE is to return to the road later this year! The Ex-Smiths Happiways vehicle has been off the road for around 2 years now, since Volvo Olympian M698 HPF took over her duty as the dedicated school bus for the Torpoint School Contract, with the capacity having been increased in the contract. A182 was hence laid up and SORNed, and has been sitting in a rather sorry state in the corner of the depot since her withdrawal. It has now been announced though that she is going to be prepped for a new MOT come May, with a new air compressor on order, and a general tidy up to ensue. This will mean that she will be back in service for her 30th year since she was first registered in March of 1984, although of course, not quite early enough to be able to celebrate her 30th birthday. Will certainly be great to have her back on the road though, as is evident from the photograph above, she really doesn't look her age, and neither does she act it. Very strong and dependable; sounds great to! 

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Snap on Sunday

Snap on Sunday this week comes to you from glorious Penzance with a couple of increasingly rare types in this day in age. First up are two of First Kernow's surviving Varios (are these the only two now?), S526 RWP and S554 RWP. The Mercedes minibus continues to decline ever further in a majority of the UK, but Cornwall is most definitely the exception, with numbers in use still very high. It's hard to argue that anything is more suitable for the narrow twisting lanes of the county, and with the price of the smallest of Optare Solos still being relatively high it's understandable that many operators are keeping their Mercs going for as long as possible. Come the end of the year though, buses under 7.5tonnes will be required to meet DDA unless they have a suitable wheelchair lift, or are COIFed at 22 seats or under. It is quite possible therefore that some operators may choose to decrease the capacity of their Mercedes on their lightly used routes, so that these can continue to operate. It almost seems the wrong way round when you consider the smallest of buses are having to be withdrawn first under DDA, with the deckers going last (excluding coaches). Although of course the double deckers have a higher initial value, the deckers are far more likely to pay their way, with them most often being used on routes which have high ridership. I know this is somewhat of a generalisation, but the principle stands. The mini/midi buses however are there for the routes of generally low patronage, and therefore profit margins are lower; again, this stands to reason. So the number of years it takes for them to pay for themselves in general is likely to be higher than that of a decker. It therefore seems pretty unfair on these small operators in such places as Cornwall who struggle to turn a profit as it is, to then have to be the first to get rid of what could be seen as perfectly useable and reliable vehicles, before that of the larger companies running deckers, reaping in the cash. Food for thought maybe! 

Anyway, talking of deckers, amazingly, the K-LAE duo are STILL at work in Cornwall. A stop gap they appear to no longer be, and K615 and K629 LAE continue to ply their trade throughout the county. Unfortunately I really wasn't expecting to see K615 thrash out of Penzance Bus Station, and hence the shot is fairly poor - but better than nothing I thought! 

Friday, 3 January 2014

A passenger's perspective on (most) of the new Plymouth services

With an afternoon spare earlier this week I decided to pop into Plymouth to sample some of the new offerings within the city, taking advantage of the new 'Skipper' ticket. For those of you that haven't heard about this, there has (at last!) been a new multi-operator ticket introduced for Plymouth, covering all operators including First, PCB, Western Greyhound, Target Travel and Jackett's Coaches; I just wish it had been introduced earlier, could have saved me untold amounts of money over the years! At a reasonable £4 it's a fair amount cheaper than buying the two main operators day tickets, and of course has the added advantage of including the 'deeper' urban routes which may encourage some extra patronage on these. 

Anyway on with my short review! I must point out that these are purely observational and are by no means an accurate representation of how the routes are doing as a whole. This is exacerbated by the fact that this was during a period many people were still off work, with possibly slightly more people than normal journeying into the city centre off peak for the January sales, so take these with a pinch of salt! The first route I had a go on was First's 83, with the '12 reg Enviros now the norm on this route in response to Plymouth Citybus' Blue Flash. The service had pretty reasonable loadings considering this was a morning outbound trip, but there was certainly several that decided to hang on for the Blue Flash, and even a few passengers that tried to get on the First service before being told they had a Plymouth Citybus ticket! Undoubtedly these were the people that just got on whatever came along first. First offer double the number of journeys during the day, as well as operating slightly earlier, and substantially later than Plymouth Citybus' Blue Flash, with First's services running either 5 minutes in front or 5 minutes behind (or 10 minutes in front) of PCB's. Heading back I journeyed with PCB and again, loadings were fairly good, they certainly appear to be steadily picking up, and talking to the driver, things are looking encouraging. A couple of my relatives recently traveled on the Blue Flash initially unaware of this new service, but were certainly very impressed with the quality of vehicle, with him describing it to me as "The Pullman buses"! 

I then headed for Torpoint; a corridor I've grown to know very well over the years. Right from the off I was surprised that Plymouth Citybus were risking this route, as there are most definitely extra operational challenges with operating across to Torpoint, along with the very loyal passengers that First have been carrying for many years. PCB was met with quite a frosty reception from Torpoint from the off, as the introduction of the 32 timed in with one of the three ferries being away for refit - reducing capacity substantially during this period. This meant that often, two First services would end up on the same ferry because the ferry can't sustain the normal timetable with 2 ferries, and with a 3rd bus chucked in as well in bright red, people were quick to criticise them, particularly seeing as all three would still be receiving priority boarding. Quite obviously, there isn't the demand to fill 3 double deckers, with some 265 seats on offer, and hence the public seeing 3 deckers with low load factors travelling together was understandably frustrating. On the few trips I have now done, several months into the 32's operation, loadings are still very poor. On a number I have been the only person aboard the vehicle for most of the journey, although inbound morning journeys do collect a number of passengers whilst going through Stoke; an area no longer served by First. As afore mentioned, Torpoint's residents are a loyal bunch, with them having built up strong relationships with the drivers at Torpoint over many years. Having their own local depot, with only around 20 drivers allocated to service has meant the drivers have got to know their passengers well, with many of them having worked out of the depot for a substantial amount of time. This has meant that they haven't wanted to let them down when it matters, and indeed, very few appear to have made the switch. I'd presume Plymouth Citybus are now holding out until the tender for the Torpoint stage carriage and school work comes up for renewal in the very near future, where they may be able to get a decent foothold from which to build on, but for now, First certainly appear to be ruling the roost. 

Purple 6 was the next route I sampled, aboard one of the shoddily branded Ex-Tavylinx Volvo B6BLEs. Loadings seemed fairly good, but as has been commented, they need to be good to even have a chance of breaking even. Running at £1 per person means the load factor has to be high for them to even start to make a profit, and although there were around 15 other people joining me on both the inbound and outbound journeys, these loadings would need to be consistent on every trip. It's a brave effort, and it certainly hasn't been a total flop, but neither has it completely decimated the competition like First were quite possibly hoping. 

The surprise of the day was actually service 3A though, the new extension of the 3 through West Park, Honicknowle and Peverell. I boarded on a mid afternoon trip at around 1530-1600 expecting loadings to be very light at that time of the day, on a route I presumed would have been quiet anyway, but I was pleasantly surprised by the numbers using the service. Few boarded through West Park, but once into Honicknowle fairly substantial numbers boarded the service, many of which were paying cash fares, with actually very very few being OAPs. By the time we'd gone through Peverell the Dart was carrying a good load of around 25 passengers which I certainly thought was very good for the time of day and direction of travel. This may have been an anomaly as I have only done one trip on the 3A, but if other journeys are carrying in the same vein as this one, then First appear to have made a really good decision pulling out of Barne Barton; an area which had really dried up for them. 

Some photos come, courtesy of Kameron Allan at, with many thanks from me. 

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Snap on Sunday

A couple of Snap on Sunday's this week, depicting something interesting but unfortunately of fairly poor quality, and another, quite mundane, but pleasing to the eye! 

Firstly, the interesting, with the rare occasion of a Volvo Olympian nonetheless operating on the PR2 on Friday afternoon. As Plymothian Transit reported recently, there has been widespread displeasure with First after moving the '12 plate Enviro 400s off the Park and Ride services, and onto the Tavistock routes, leading to a variety of older Dennis Tridents replacing them on the Park and Rides. It was interesting to hear of the Council's reaction to this, but later did seem very ironic that they themselves appeared to be making the 'commercial' decision of introducing parking charges to the Park and Ride sites. A gesture of spite towards FDC? Who knows; but since this story was published I've heard no more of it, so perhaps they came to their sense before it was too late! Anyway back to the bus, and P568 EFL had the honour of appearing likely due to the severe congestion experienced on Exeter Street on Friday afternoon, with her coming in to try and restore a frequent service. That, or perhaps an Ex-London Trident failed; also a likely explanation! Unfortunately a poor point and grab shot with no time to set the camera up properly for the photo; it certainly took me by surprise, but thought I better at least get a record shot! 

Now onto the better quality shot, and to a subject I actually very rarely include in the blog. The photo here depicts Plym II as she plods her way across the Tamar on the 1300 departure from Devonport to Torpoint in the low winter sun; the dockyard buildings providing a satisfying backdrop. 

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Multiple Mercs!

Hello and welcome back once again to PTOTPA whilst I'm back in the South West for the Christmas period. Unfortunately (and unusually for us students!) the Christmas break has started very late, with myself only managing to get back to the region just in time for the festivities; late on December 21st. Thank god I did manage to get all the travelling done on the Saturday though, as no doubt I would have come across far more problems if I'd left it any later! 

A quick update then; University continues apace, with this year already being far, far more intense that my first year. Weekends seem to nearly purely now be filled with endless hours spent in the library with my head buried in books, or my fingers blurring away on a keyboard to keep up with the pressures of University life. Even in my final week before Christmas I'd handed in a 6'000 word report for the Managerial and Enterprise Skills module, along with another 17 pages of Logistics Planning Techniques and Applications (in essence, using many complicated algorithms and computer software to come up with logistics solutions). Other activities have included coming up with a 50 page tender response to a 'fake' manufacturer of personal care products, with us having to come up with a total logistics solution. This included everything from working out every single route for every single delivery the company needed to make, working out fuel, tax, depreciation, maintenance costs, right through to coming up with health and safety policies, KPIs, and even lorry liveries (any resemblance to a well known bus operator's livery is purely a coincidence; along with the company name ;-) ). It's certainly very interesting, but my days is it all time consuming and hence bus spotting is unfortunately being cut to a minimum. Thankfully we're having a small reprieve over the Christmas holidays from work, so the camera is ready and primed to get out and capture all the exciting stuff I've missed in the area over the past few months! 

So to kick us off, a photo of a sight which is becoming increasingly rare as DDA looms ever closer. In just over a year's time, a scene like this will be just a memory; a trio of A-Line Coaches Mercedes minibuses lined up for battle! Reliable and dependable workhorses soon to be lost from the bus industry. Somewhat oddly, two of these are Ex-First vehicles, and the other, Ex-Plymouth Citybus; an unlikely group of stablemates!