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.
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)
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.
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!
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!
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 www.swtransportnews.blogspot.com, with many thanks from me.