THE EX­TRA MILE

It doesn’t get more iconic ’80s for many bus fans than an Aus­tralian-built and run ‘bendy bus’. Circa 2019, this old-school Vol­gren-bod­ied ar­tic­u­lated Volvo B58 city bus still turns heads to this day.

ABC (Australia) - - DRIVEN - WORDS / IM­AGES PAUL ALDRIDGE

They’re an oldie but a goodie now, but back then they were a newie and a goodie – for any­thing if not rep­re­sent­ing in­creased pas­sen­ger ca­pac­ity and strik­ingly dif­fer­ent looks when they first rolled past on the street.

This one, owned by Driving Ser­vices Aus­tralia (DSA)’s Mur­ray Kirk­man – an En­ga­dine, NSW, com­pany ser­vic­ing clients Aus­tralia-wide in lo­gis­tic so­lu­tions for the trans­port in­dus­try – is no ex­cep­tion to the rule.

When ABC mag­a­zine spoke with Kirk­man we soon got the idea that his com­pany is suc­cess­fully carv­ing out its own slice of the pie by of­fer­ing niche trans­port ser­vices to fill the gaps in a con­stantly chang­ing and in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing in­dus­try.

“I started Driving Ser­vices Aus­tralia about five years ago. Since then, I have brought in a part­ner, Matt Gers­bach,” ex­plained Kirk­man.

“We ini­tially started off as Driving Ser­vices Aus­tralia of­fer­ing re­lo­ca­tions to the bus and truck in­dus­tries, and we also sup­ply con­tract driv­ers – pre­dom­i­nantly back then for coaches – and then we moved into some truck stuff as well.

“Matt’s back­ground is sales, not trans­port. Matt came on board pretty much as a sales rep. He has a lot of sales ex­pe­ri­ence and we are both lo­cals and grew up in the Shire,

so both lo­cal boys. I live two blocks from work, so guess I could walk here,” he said.

The pair started with one ser­vice area then, as op­por­tu­ni­ties and needs arose, they have grown and ex­panded to fill the gaps they found.

“Ini­tially, we started with the re­lo­ca­tions and then it went on to con­tract driv­ers, back then mainly for the truck in­dus­try. And then we picked up a driver con­tract with a tele­vi­sion broad­cast com­pany. At one time we were sup­ply­ing up to 15 to 20 driv­ers a week for that com­pany and it just grew from there,” said Kirk­man.

You soon get the pic­ture that this en­tre­pre­neur­ial pair won’t stop while there are al­ways new op­por­tu­ni­ties pre­sent­ing them­selves.

“Where we want to head next, apart from ob­vi­ously grow­ing the bus com­pany, is into the driving ser­vices for new-ve­hi­cle de­liv­er­ies, deal­ing with the ma­jor man­u­fac­tur­ers, such as Volvo, Scania and Mercedes-Benz.”

PRE-DRIVE JITTERS

When we first talked to Gers­bach, he said: “We love driving this bus.”

I’ve never ac­tu­ally driven an old ar­tic­u­lated bus and I guessed, be­ing a 1980 model, it would be a pretty stan­dard drive.

The shear length of the bus is quiet daunt­ing and I was un­sure what fea­tures it would have for the age that might make driving such a big ve­hi­cle eas­ier, but both own­ers are pretty keen on this old girl.

It was the very first bus that Kirk­man and Gers­bach pur­chased, so we won­dered if nos­tal­gia played a big part in their ob­vi­ous ap­pre­ci­a­tion of ‘the Bendy’.

Kirk­man showed me a photo he has of the Bendy when she was brand new: “I think for both the body and de­sign in 1980 it was very much ahead of time. It has a lot of glass, big win­dows.

“The Hol­man fam­ily brought it from brand new and I think it was the first bendy bus at the time when Max Hol­man bought it. At the time

it was cream with a yel­low stripe.”

It’s hoped some­day it will be re­stored back to its orig­i­nal colours.

“The Bendy is al­ways fun to drive. Be­ing the age it is, it drives ex­cel­lently, it’s just like driving a brand new bus.

“It was built in 1980, it is a Vol­gren body num­ber 8, run­ning gear is all Volvo B58 and, at a guess, I would say it’s around 270 horse­power.

“The ca­pac­ity of the Bendy makes it very af­ford­able for schools. We gen­er­ally charge for a bus and a half. Makes more eco­nom­i­cal sense some­times when schools just go over the num­bers for one bus so this saves them hir­ing two buses, which of course needs two driv­ers,” ex­plained Kirk­man of the many rea­sons this old girl is a pop­u­lar lo­cal.

“The kids love it, they all run to the back, espe­cially the pri­mary school kids!”

So what about fuel con­sump­tion given the age of the ve­hi­cle and the huge car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity – does it chew juice?

Kirk­man replied, “It’s pretty good on fuel, be­ing a Volvo helps, and it doesn’t use any more than the other buses, just two ex­tra tires on the road and it car­ries

I think for both the body and de­sign, in 1980 it was very much ahead of time.

more pas­sen­gers – but fuel con­sump­tion is sur­pris­ingly pretty stan­dard. It just needs stan­dard main­te­nance. I think pre­dom­i­nantly since day one it has been a char­ter bus, so it hasn’t had the wear and tear of be­ing a route bus.”

Driving an ar­tic­u­lated bus did have me a bit ner­vous; the shear length and dif­fer­ences in cor­ner­ing will make for a dif­fer­ent sort of drive. So what’s to be aware of?

“Yeah, driving for­ward be­cause even though it’s an ’80s bus it has a steer­able tag on it. That was a bit ahead of its time. The driving for­ward helps you go around cor­ners. It’s ac­tu­ally eas­ier to get around cor­ners than a rigid, but you have to be aware of the steer­able tag cause if you do a hard left or right it can swing out. It also makes it in­ter­est­ing to re­verse,” Kirk­man laughed, but I think I’ll leave re­vers­ing to some­one else to­day. He laughed a lot at this, but this was one laugh too many.

He did give back some con­fi­dence by say­ing, “Be­lieve it or not, you would be sur­prised where you can get it. I reg­u­larly take it to the shop­ping cen­tre. It looks long, it has only got a short wheel­base in the front half of it, but with the steer­able tag you’ll be sur­prised!”

THE TEST

The 1980 Vol­gren-built ar­tic­u­lated bus is used pre­dom­i­nantly by DSA for char­ter work, seat­ing a huge car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity of 122 pas­sen­gers – 74 seated and 48 stand­ing (that’s one big peo­ple-mover).

The dual doors make for easy pas­sen­ger load­ing, the flat floor all the way through makes it eas­ier for el­derly, dis­abled or

par­ents with prams.

Back in the day, as a kid in the ’80s, it was a treat just to get a ride on one. They were the first type of bus to put some­thing re­ally dif­fer­ent and ex­cit­ing onto the Syd­ney streets. Times haven’t changed in a lot of ways and kids still grav­i­tate to­wards these buses; they do put a whole new slant to sit­ting on the back seat.

Tak­ing off, we are sur­prised at the torque and we’re re­ally aware that you feel like you are fill­ing up the lane. Driving in the cen­tre lane on the high­way and you just have a feel­ing of need­ing to be a bit more mind­ful of your size than a stan­dard bus. The torque was good even up some of the in­clines we did, as we guess it would need to have pretty pow­er­ful grunt for when its full loaded; quite im­pres­sive from the old Volvo.

At a whop­ping 17 me­tres in length she cer­tainly is long. For an older model there is great vi­sion – as Kirk­man said ear­lier, it has im­pres­sive glass ar­eas for its age. There is a split screen with a bit of a curve on it, but the driver’s area has re­ally good vis­i­bil­ity. There are blind spot mir­rors – not sure if these are orig­i­nal from new or are post mar­ket, but they look the era and still work ef­fec­tively, no com­plaints.

Like with a lot of these older buses they are built tough. In three years it has had no ma­jor me­chan­i­cal is­sues, just reg­u­lar main­te­nance. How strong it still goes and what good me­chan­i­cal shape it is in is tes­ti­mony to the power of the trusty Volvo. Sit­ting on the high­way at about 75km an hour, it just wants to go. It is speed lim­ited to 80km/h for safety when fully loaded, but the power is there.

Cor­ner­ing was eas­ier than an­tic­i­pated. It didn’t get to do any sub­ur­ban sharp cor­ner­ing, but it wasn’t an is­sue. The steer­ing is nei­ther light nor heavy, just a great match to the chas­sis. I’ve driven a fair few retro buses in my time and steer­ing is usu­ally one area where you no­tice a big dif­fer­ence be­tween the old and new ve­hi­cles.

This bus could be driven all day and you’d not feel fa­tigued. Some­times the older buses – like older cars – are a lot more work to drive, but this one is pretty easy driving.

Hav­ing done a school bus run for many years my­self, for the age of this bus there is very lit­tle dif­fer­ence in the drive be­tween what are the mod­ern buses and this old retro girl.

This bus is 38 years old and, yes, buses and coaches have ad­vanced leaps and bounds in safety, fuel econ­omy and green fea­tures, but when you com­bine a Vol­gren with a Volvo ‘the Bendy’ cer­tainly has been a stayer.

Kir­man and Gers­bach said we’d love ‘the Bendy’ and it was cer­tainly a fun drive and a good bit of nos­tal­gia.

The NSW gov­ern­ment has be­gun to phase out bendy buses be­cause of their foot­print in busy ur­ban ar­eas, but we guess while old girls like this one are alive and go­ing strong, pri­mary school children will, for a bit longer, get to en­joy the thrill of a ride on a ‘Bendy’.

DE­LIV­ER­ING MORE

In terms of DSA, Kirk­man says he felt that when hand­ing some­times mil­lions of dol­lars’

worth of new ve­hi­cles, a com­pany should ex­pect more than “just a driver” or de­liv­ery per­son.

He ex­plained the process, say­ing it was a sim­ple one: “Busy com­pa­nies don’t al­ways have the man power or time to do the time-con­sum­ing task of ve­hi­cle trans­porta­tion and de­liv­ery, DSA makes it easy for our clients.

“We can do it com­pletely – and pay for fuel, re­turn flights, Ubers and taxis, all the ser­vices in­volved, so that the cus­tomer doesn’t have to worry; we take care of it all.

“Our big­gest trip has been from Syd­ney to Perth and that takes about four days. I’d al­ways wanted to drive across the Nullar­bor, but I’ve done it about 18 times now!” said Kirk­man, laugh­ing.

“I think what sets us apart from our com­peti­tors is that our guys are bus-back­ground peo­ple, so we don’t send a truck driver to re­lo­cate a brand new coach, which a lot of our com­peti­tors in the re­lo­ca­tion in­dus­try will do.

“We found that cus­tomers don’t want that; they want some­one that knows and drives coaches and is fa­mil­iar with the op­er­a­tions and en­vi­ron­ment, so we cater for that,” he ex­plained.

“I think we are di­verse; we are pretty pas­sion­ate about our work and our in­dus­try. Of­fer­ing the ser­vices we do, we cover lots of dif­fer­ent facets of our in­dus­try. It keeps the work var­ied and in­ter­est­ing,” he added.

“We are mem­bers of BIC and BusNSW. We know the in­dus­try. Con­stantly deal­ing with the pub­lic means bus and coach driv­ers nat­u­rally have to have a higher level of cus­tomer ser­vice; that same as­pect doesn’t ex­ist in the truck­ing in­dus­try – it’s just a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment. If you are de­liv­er­ing mil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of truck, a cer­tain level of ser­vice is needed, our driv­ers can de­liver that,” stated Kirk­man.

BACK­GROUND KNOWL­EDGE

“I come from a me­chan­i­cal back­ground and that knowl­edge

The Bendy is al­ways fun to drive. Be­ing the age it is it drives ex­cel­lently; it’s just like driving a brand new bus.

cer­tainly has helped me on the long hauls to trou­bleshoot or avoid is­sues. When hir­ing driv­ers, we like all our guys to have me­chan­i­cal knowl­edge. Phone cov­er­age can be lim­ited on some stretches where it can be SMS only, so hav­ing the abil­ity to un­der­stand me­chan­ics and what is hap­pen­ing is vi­tal on re­mote stretches,” he ex­plained.

Yet it’s all about de­liv­er­ing ex­actly what the cus­tomer wants…

“A lot of peo­ple were look­ing for driv­ers and we found that we had a re­ally good group of pro­fes­sional driv­ers around us. We have put a lot of ef­fort into their train­ing, mak­ing sure that their cus­tomer ser­vice, uni­forms and pre­sen­ta­tion was just right, just to make that point of dif­fer­ence,” Kirk­man said proudly.

“We have a team of con­tract driv­ers. We do quite a bit of con­tract­ing driv­ers for com­pa­nies, pre­dom­i­nantly at the mo­ment for ex­press. We sup­ply driv­ers to come into ex­press to Can­berra and Mel­bourne. We make sure the guys are ex­pe­ri­enced, have had a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence driving coaches and ob­vi­ously high-end cus­tomer ser­vice, pre­sen­ta­tion, and we put our driv­ers through the com­pany’s in­duc­tion process so they know ex­actly what the cus­tomer wants,” ex­plained Kirk­man about yet an­other ser­vice DSA of­fers.

“When we do driver re­cruit­ment … I think the main ben­e­fits for a com­pany is that it can save in both costs and time. Hav­ing some­one do the in­ter­view process, we do all that for them, we get them through to our fi­nal level stage be­fore we pass them on for the fi­nal in­ter­view with the cus­tomer. We have done a lot of re­cruit­ing for the min­ing in­dus­try, for the coach in­dus­try, where they have to be in­ducted and have med­i­cals done, we do all the ground­work.

“So, we get all the re­quire­ments done be­fore we pass them on to the client and they hit the ground run­ning.”

AN­OTHER VOID FILLED

Kirk­man said, “We saw a void in the bus char­ter in­dus­try in the Suther­land Shire, so that’s why we started with Shire Bus Ser­vices. There was lack of char­ter buses in our lo­cal area. We started off with only one bus, but now we have six ve­hi­cles in a space of about three years.

“The bendy bus is part of this fleet. We mainly do school char­ter work and also train re­place­ment on the week­ends.

“Shire Bus Ser­vices is a very im­por­tant part of our busi­ness, it just keeps grow­ing. It’s mainly char­ter ser­vices and we are keen to keep ex­pand­ing the fleet to meet our cus­tomers’ needs.

“We do all sorts of char­ter work, in schools, school’s sports, ex­cur­sions and that sort of stuff, a lot of route work, train re­place­ment work on week­ends, and a lot of times dur­ing the week.”

So what of the other buses in the fleet?

“We’ve got the one minibus, which is a Volvo. I’ve got two 405 Mercedes, one be­ing a low floor, and I’ve got three B10M Volvos.”

To keep up with all these dif­fer­ent parts of the busi­ness, how many staff do they have on their books?

“There are 10 full-timers and then we’ve got two or three con­trac­tors; the rest of the staff are ca­su­als. A lot of them are semi-re­tired, so that type of work re­ally suits their life­style.

…it is a Vol­gren body num­ber 8, run­ning gear is all Volvo B58 and, at a guess, it’s around 270 horse­power.

All up about 45 at the mo­ment,” Kirk­man said.

STAND­ING OUT

“We al­ways try to go that ex­tra step in every part of the busi­ness, so whether it be with Shire Bus Ser­vices we do have a bit of an older fleet. We al­ways make sure our ve­hi­cles are spot­less and very well main­tained. We make sure the driv­ers are al­ways a step ahead with cus­tomer ser­vice, and ac­tu­ally their pre­sen­ta­tion is ex­cel­lent, and they sup­ply 100 per cent great ser­vice all of the time.

“We be­lieve in go­ing that next step, same with our con­tract driv­ers. We can turn up in uni­forms, or our cus­tomer’s uni­form. We are very flex­i­ble to meet the cus­tomer’s needs.

“We have good staff and we look af­ter them by try­ing to make that ‘fam­ily busi­ness feel’. We go out with all the bus driv­ers, take them for a beer on Fri­day af­ter­noon when the week’s work is fin­ished. I think that is im­por­tant. We put a lot of ef­fort into our staff and so we’ve got good staff, we def­i­nitely don’t want to lose them. It’s worth go­ing that ex­tra mile.

“We find we at­tract good staff be­cause there is va­ri­ety of work in our com­pany. One day they could be driving Shire buses and the next day they could be do­ing the ve­hi­cle de­liv­ery, it’s al­ways chang­ing,” said Kirk­man.

Af­ter spend­ing a day with him we can only guess that things at DSA will keep chang­ing to meet what bus peo­ple need. It seems if there’s an op­por­tu­nity then DSA will take it.

Above: DSA al­ways tries to go that ex­tra step in every part of the busi­ness, says Kirk­man.Main: It’s hoped some­day that ‘the Bendy’ will be re­stored to its orig­i­nal colours.Be­low: A bendy bus puts a whole new slant on ‘sit­ting on the back seat’.

Right:There is a split screen with a bit of a curve on it, but the driver’s area has re­ally good vis­i­bil­ity

Be­low right: DSA saw a void in the bus char­ter in­dus­try so started Shire Bus Ser­vices.

Be­low:Built in 1980, the bus is a Vol­gren body num­ber 8.

Above:The shear length of the bus is quiet daunt­ing.

Left:Like with a lot of these older buses they are built tough. Be­low:It’s 38 years old, but still a fun drive.

Left:A huge car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity of 122 pas­sen­gers – 74 seated and 48 stand­ing. Be­low:Driving Ser­vices Aus­tralia prides it­self on go­ing that ex­tra step.

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