Friday, 17 August 2012

End of an era

Yesterday saw a certain 'coming of age' for Velvet as we retired the last of the Volvo B10M double deckers - the vehicles that brought us into the world in the first place right at the start of 2008.

For a long time we ran three - F302, 303 and 309 MYJ.  But 302 and 309 were retired last summer, leaving 303 to soldier on in isolation for another year.  We might not have bothered to keep it through the whole year, but it cost us £4000 to get through MOT last August and I was going to get every penny of value out of it!  Finally its MOT expired at midnight on the 16th and it will pass into history.

We won't dwell on 302.  It was a good bus but to be honest was always the odd one out.  Acquired a good six months after the others, it never had the same zest for life as 303 and 309 and plodded around at a sedate pace.  Apart from a starring moment appearing behind Michael Portillo in Great British Railway Journeys, it has few claims to fame.

303 and 309 are the ones that have a special place in my heart, for they were our first ever bus purchases back in late 2007.

Our plan when we started was to acquire four single deckers for a three PVR local service (which wasn't going to be the A, that was a last minute change of plan) and two double deckers as back-up and to take advantage of rail replacement opportunities etc.  The obvious candidates were Leyland Olympians, so Taz and I toddled off to Ensign one day armed with the details of two Northern Counties Olympians.

At that stage I was aware that Ensign had the Citybuses, but Taz didn't even know they existed.  I had however ruled them out of my thoughts as I was fixated on the idea of Olympians, knowing that they had such a good reputation.

However, when we looked at the Olympians we were underwhelmed.  Mechanically they seemed fine and went reasonably well - but not sparkling - on road test.  But the interiors were severely battle scarred, and would have needed a lot of TLC to make presentable for public service.  We had neither the time, money nor inclination to take on that kind of project at that stage.

Since we were there the ever-helpful Ross Newman showed us round the rest of their yard, including - I think - some Dublin Olympians that might have been candidates but for their very spartan interiors, and also the fact that they were rather more than we wanted to pay.

Then Taz spotted one of the B10Ms lurking in the shed and asked what it was.  The rest - as they say - is history.  It was 309, and one road test later we were both absolutely hooked.  And apart from having an old-fashioned moquette, they were ready to go to work.

So we agreed on the spot to buy 306 and 309.

Then, after we had driven out, I could see something was exercising Taz's mind, so I stopped the car and shone the interrogation lamp in his eyes.  It turned out that one of them had square headlights and one had round headlights - a detail I had completely missed - and Taz wanted them both the same.  So I rang Ross from just outside the gate, and the order was changed to 303 and 309 on the grounds of matching headlights!

It would be almost two months before we would get the benefit of our purchases.  We made the mistake of sending them to a recommended paint shop in Essex, who's name I still cannot bring myself to utter without adding copious swear words, and who proceeded to take absolutely ages to do two of the most awful paint jobs I have ever seen.

But eventually we did manage to collect both vehicles.  I had forgotten how good the B10M chassis really is, and it was a joy to drive 309 back, which of course was accomplished without missing a beat.  Then a few weeks later it was Taz's turn to bring 303 back, and we each had our own adopted bus!

Between us, we have had many adventures in these two vehicles.

The most distressing was one of the first.  On 8th March 2008 – the second Saturday of us operating route A – I made a last minute substitution to put 303 on to a mid-afternoon departure from Eastleigh because I realised the scheduled Dart was low on fuel.  Three minutes later, a car ploughed head on into 303 at the junction of Campbell Road and Southampton Road.  The car went straight under the front of the bus and I still have no idea how the car driver survived.  Our vehicle was off the road for about three months such were the extent of accident repairs.

In happier times, one memorable occasion for me was 303’s deployment on a Three Bridges – Brighton non-stop rail replacement diagram one Sunday.  Six round trips plus positioning mileage, 22 hours from depot to depot all at high speed running without missing a beat.

303’s real finest hour for me though was also on rail replacement, working for South West Trains on an overnight job between Eastleigh and Poole.  For reasons that are not relevant here, I’d given myself a seemingly impossible task to get back empty from Poole after my first trip, to do the 0243 Eastleigh – Southampton Central.  I drove 303 the 36 miles from Poole Station to Eastleigh Station in 43 minutes, and arrived back in Eastleigh with 2 minutes to spare!  303 was on a pedestal for me after that night, and although Taz would never agree, that was the night it became mine!

For comedy value though, you could not beat the visit of 303 and 309 to the Isle of Wight for the 2010 Isle of Wight Festival.  Southern Vectis were, as usual, superb hosts and looked after us well, but with most of their fleet being around 14 feet tall or less, when they made the ferry bookings they didn’t give a thought to the implications of us bringing buses 14ft 10ins in height!

We were booked on Wightlink’s Portsmouth – Fishbourne route, a route comprising four boats, only one of which – as it turned out – happens to have enough deck height to accommodate these buses.

Taz and I dutifully turned up for our booked sailing only to watch the one suitable boat just leaving the berth on the previous sailing.  We parked in the assigned lane, and were then greeted by a marshaller strolling up, peering skywards and declaring there was no way our buses would fit on the next boat.

So we watched our booked sailing come and go, then the marshaller reappeared with a senior colleague and a very long stick.  They held the stick against the front of 309, measured the height and declared that it would – just – fit on the next boat.

The next boat appeared and I set off down the ramp in 309 with Taz in 303 behind me.  Once on deck, I crept as gingerly as I could into the covered section below the passenger accommodation, with a very nervous looking marshaller in front of me watching me.  I reckon I got just over halfway through when his anguished looks turned to blind panic and much shouting and waving and gesticulating.  I was now wedged against the roof!  I was all for carrying on and popping out the other end, but this wasn’t deemed an acceptable solution, and there was nothing for it, but for Taz and I to reverse in convoy off the Isle of Wight Ferry and back up the ramp onto dry land.

Eventually we made it to the Island almost two hours later than planned, having had to wait for the one decently sized boat – the St Clare – to come back round.

After that, we barely saw 303 or 309 for the rest of the weekend.  Or to be accurate, we saw plenty of them, but being driven by a variety of Southern Vectis staff.  Such was the appeal of these vehicles that they were seemingly passed from one driver to another in a continuous relay, without us getting a look in.  Which was absolutely fine by me, because it meant we got to drive all their buses instead!

The trip home was also entertaining.  We were not the only operators working on hire to Southern Vectis that year – Reading Buses were also present with four Spectras and Emsworth and District had one Olympian on parade.  Originally we were all booked home Fishbourne around 1400 hrs on the Monday, after the rush of homebound Festival-goers had abated.  However, due to some kind of administrative error, those bookings were found not to exist and we were all rebooked onto the 0100 hrs sailing on the Tuesday.

An eleven hour delay in the homeward journey was not a huge issue for us or for the Emsworth driver.  We simply went home, on foot, having done a deal with Vectis for their staff to put the buses on the boat at their end at the appointed time, so all we had to was turn up at Portsmouth to meet them off the boat.

For the Reading drivers who, it must be said, had not really entered into the spirit of the weekend right from the start, this was a nightmare.  They couldn’t go home, they simply had to wait with their buses on the Island and eventually set off eleven hours later than planned.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise, when the boat docked at Portsmouth at 0145 hrs, as we stood on the quayside waiting for 303 and 309 to be brought off, that the four Reading buses roared past us with scarcely a smile, let alone a wave as they set off for the long journey home.

303 and 309 appeared moments later, as did the Emsworth bus, but there was no-one waiting to collect it!  The Vectis driver was panicking as he had to go back as foot passenger on the same boat, so Taz and I took responsibility for the Emsworth bus, parked it, isolated it and secured it as best we could.

Subsequently – and I only have it as hearsay that this is true – we learned that the Emsworth driver had been in Portsmouth, in plenty of time, but became so bored waiting that he decided to go over to the Island as a foot passenger to retrieve his bus himself.  Whether he didn’t realise that there was more than one boat on the route, or whether he simply misunderstood the timetable is not clear, but evidently as he sailed across the Solent, he passed his bus going the other way about half way across!

This delayed Taz and I by about five minutes, but it was with huge satisfaction that we caught up with the Reading Spectras on the M27 at Bursledon and romped past them with theatrical waves galore!

303 and 309 went back to the Island the following year, with much less excitement on very capacious Red Funnel ferries, but in doing so gave me the opportunity to capture this shot of 309 on Shanklin seafront.

By this time next week the likelihood is that these vehicles will be no more, but they will always be fondly remembered as the vehicles that gave us our first start in the world of bus operation!


  1. Great blog Phil. Felt like I was there with you guys on the trips. Thanks.

  2. I suspect these were very much a “drivers and engineers” bus rather than a “passengers” bus. The very high floor made access for elderly passengers difficult. On one occasion on Route C I saw an elderly man with a walking stick miss his footing whilst getting off resulting in a fall down the steps. Luckily he was not hurt and your driver was very helpful . These buses were probably OK for your school services and rail replacements, but I never understood why they seemed to be used a lot on normal service where most fellow passengers had adverse comments about them. I will not be sorry to see the back of them but understand your attachment.

  3. Mark 'Selfy' Self27 August 2012 at 12:01

    Ahh the mighty Volvos! After being conditioned by Sea View Coaches that the Volvo B10M was 'Curse of the Hex' I was most keen to sample the citybus example of this well proven model during my most happy times at Velvet. Being a staunch Leyland fan, I was dubious of these well-loved war-horses in the Velvet fleet and it was indeed 302 that was to be my first allocated vehicle on my first service operated on my own. WELL! lol. From a PSV driver's (with 99.99% of coaching mileage under his belt) point of view, these short, narrow and tall old girls pulled well, rode smoothly and were never as noisey as I thought they would be! Ok, so boarding was tricky for the elderly and the short legged of us (and that was just the Drivers!) but for high speed motorway work they were a true delight.

    Oxford, Bath, Brighton were a breeze for these coaches in bus clothing and the MIGHTY 309 would regularly pull 70+ passengers and still able to pass coaches 22years her junior up the inclines of the UK motorway network. My colleagues (and some former employees) used to joke with me in the coach park at Oxford and say "You better have a head start with that old girl Boss". I used to say "Don't worry about me, I'll get the Big Macs in for when you arrive in Bournemouth!" I used to love to see the same drivers' reactions when they could see me fast approaching in their offside mirror and me 'rocking' them with my jetstream!! (And 309 did look fabulous with her Irizar wheeltrims).

    RIP Velvet Volvos!

  4. Sad to see the old girls go and leave the area and indeed the road altogether. I remember speaking with you at the Winchester Bus Running Day a few years ago and you couldn't say a thing wrong about them, I'm pleased your happiness with them lasted until the very end!

  5. Nice post.

    I had the unfortunate experience of using same said paintshop recently. Never again!

    As with most things in life, you get what you pay for.