Saturday, 28 May 2011

A Beautiful Bedford

For numerous reasons, we choose to outsource our maintenance to a local commercial vehicle workshop, Brenhaul Commercial Services. The business is owned and managed by two friends, Robert and Shaun, and they sprang into life just a few months before us in mid-2007, when they bought the company out from Rob’s father.

Our relationship with them has become very close as we have grown up together and they are as much friends as they are suppliers.

Their own background is in trucks, and most of the rest of their business involves providing maintenance services to truck and van operators. As an aside they do also have a MOT testing station for light vehicles and would be delighted to MOT your car!

As a result of our relationship with them we get to mix with plenty of colleagues in the road haulage industry and it is fascinating to get to know some of these guys, to talk to them and to understand their passion for the lorries – much of which has rubbed off on me!

In a separate development, over the last three years my friend and co-founder of Velvet, Taz and I have obtained our LGV driving licences for both rigid and articulated lorries. We mostly did this as a pastime to fill some time and give us another string to our bow when we were starting Velvet, and also to help fulfil our fascination for driving big vehicles.

I have never used my LGV licence for genuine commercial purposes, but it does mean that occasionally I get to play with other people’s lorries, shunting them round the estate or taking them for road tests (usually for my benefit rather than that of the truck!)

Generally these are run of the mill tractor units that are commonplace on today’s motorways, such as the Volvo FH or the odd DAF, but I had the opportunity today to sample something really quite amazing.

Another of Brenhaul’s clients is Ringwood Brewery and their vehicles are a common sight at the Eastleigh workshop. They have recently acquired this 1951 Bedford OLB previously associated with Wychwood Brewery in Oxfordshire.

Their intention is to maintain this vehicle in roadworthy condition for promotional purpose and occasionally the odd delivery, and accordingly it was at Brenhaul today for inspection. They were kind enough to offer me a drive and I wasn’t going to refuse!

The first and most striking impression is the cramped nature of the cab. I wasn’t expecting much in the way of creature comforts, but I was expecting to be able to get in! However it was quite some time before I managed to perform enough human origami on myself to fold myself into the tiny space between the back window and the steering wheel.

I set off for a short drive round Eastleigh, turning plenty of heads among the Friday night crowds as I took an impromptu drive through the bus station, and I have to say the vehicle was a delight to drive. Delight that is, in the sense of being challenging, interesting and very rewarding. Not in the sense of being easy, comfortable or relaxing!

The brake pedal was positioned fiendishly high up so that I had to contort my knee up through the steering wheel to be able to get my foot on to it, and every time I steered right I bashed my elbow on the window sill. The crash gearbox was surprisingly easy, although I only have a 1939 Bristol K and a few 1956 Lodekkas to compare it with.

Huge fun though, and I can’t wait to drive it again. If they need a delivery driver to take it back to Ringwood, they know where to find me!

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Triple Darts

Today was a very exciting day for us, even if the reality didn’t quite live up to the promise!

We have recently acquired three low-floor single deckers from Southdown PSV, these being two Dart SLFs - V392 SVV and W107 RNC – and a Super Pointer Dart, W554 JVV.

Although we did the deal early in April, and 392 and 107 entered service a couple of weeks ago, 554 was still running in Southdown’s own fleet when we agreed to buy it, so its arrival was delayed while they sourced a replacement.

554 emerged from repaint at Qualiti Conversions yesterday and today therefore marked the first day that we were able to allocate all three for service, with Velvet C having a 100% Dart allocation for the first time ever.

This photo shows all three lined up at Barton Park this morning waiting to take up service, accompanied by Solo 221 (YJ55 YGN) awaiting its duty on Velvet S2. The other Solo is having a few days’ holiday in the workshop and was therefore missing from the action.

The Darts have been acquired as a result of a commercial decision to double the frequency of Velvet A to half hourly from 6th June. Commercial service improvements are not entirely common in these doom-laden times, but there are sound reasons for making this move.

Our original intention had been to replace the Olympian/Spectra step-entrance double act currently seen on Velvet A with low-floor double deckers on a ‘one for one’ basis. We had looked at a number of examples of Dennis Tridents and Volvo B7TLs in various states of refurbishment, but it just didn’t feel right.

It is hard to find an engineer with too many good words to say about either product, and the poorer fuel consumption of both would have presented us with a hefty increase in running costs before we could even think about revenue growth, which would have been at best marginal in the absence of any actual service improvements.

Somewhere in the middle of our tour of low-floor ‘deckers I was toying with the thought that we must be able to do something more exciting. In particular I felt that if there was a way to achieve a 100% increase in headline frequency on the main Hedge End – Eastleigh section with only a 50% increase in resources overall, this would bring the revenue growth that we would need to achieve viability well within the bounds of possibility. The other significant attraction is that this enables the use of single deckers with much better fuel consumption, so the cost increase is nowhere near as great as people might imagine when one talks about doubling frequency.

Eventually I was able to come up with a draft timetable that provided for a half hourly service between Eastleigh and Hedge End, splitting into hourly loops serving Oaklands Estate and Botley respectively.

We have seen significant patronage growth across our network over the last year in particular, and soaring fuel prices have caused motorists to explore the alternatives. Our concern was that an hourly timetable would never offer enough flexibility to entice them from their vehicles, whereas with a half hourly timetable if you miss one, time passes fairly quickly until the next one.

All these factors converged to convince us that this was the right move to make and the right time to do it, and we are now up to our necks in publicity, scheduling and other tasks associated with the change, which has hurtled towards us at light speed and is now only two weeks away.

The three Darts – along with a second Optare Spectra that we recently acquired from North Somerset Coaches on a rather opportune basis – will allow us to cascade out three of the older double deckers, thus improving our age profile and image in the process. Obviously we still see the Darts as a stepping stone to a happy future time when we can buy state-of-the-art new vehicles, but realistically for a three year old start-up company we are going as fast as we dare, bearing in mind that we must live within our means and not risk the crazy expansion that has put paid to other ambitious young companies.

The next month will be especially busy for us however, with the increase in Velvet A coinciding with a number of special event commitments, so it is likely to be July before we can release the redundant double deckers.

From 6th June however, the normal plan will be for Velvet C to be a mixture of Darts and Solo, with the A being a mixture of DAFs and Darts, with one single decker spare. It is a relief to get the DAFs off the C. They are not ideal buses for that route, being quite sluggish and cumbersome, whereas the C really calls for nimbler, more manoeuvrable types to nip round the estate roads. The DAFs are far better suited to the A which was, after all, the route for which we originally bought them at the outset!

The remaining double deckers will normally be allocated for peak work only, but will obviously provide back-up for the main day services to cover maintenance requirements, as they do now.

This is therefore an incredibly exciting time for us and we really can’t wait to get stuck in to the improved A service. Today’s opportunity to allocate all three ‘new’ Darts for the first time was therefore an important milestone.

However, I did say at the start that the day did not quite live up to its promise, and just occasionally the facts spoil a good story! The last Dart out was 107 and this made it no further than Velmore on its first trip – less than ten minutes out of Eastleigh – before succumbing to an air leak.

So we will have to wait a little longer for the experience of all three Darts completing the day together, but it will take more than that little hiccup to curb our excitement!