Over 50 years of serving Mount Hawke

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Cornwall operator Hopley’s Coaches has been serving the people of Mount Hawke and the wider Truro area for over 50 years. Today it operates a modern front-line fleet on a variety of work. Richard Sharman visited the family-run business to find out how the latest generation is finding coach and bus operation

Mount Hawke
Rob Hopley, the fourth generation of the family to be involved with the company. RICHARD SHARMAN

Hopley’s Coaches is a well-known Cornish operator that many will be familiar with. The front-line tour fleet can be seen from anywhere in the South West to London and beyond. Local services are also operated and many school contracts undertaken in the region from its base in Mount Hawke, near Truro.

Having served the local area for over 50 years, the Hopley family has helped generations of people to get to work or school in that time – making them an integral part of the community.

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The depot is situated in a rural setting between the main A30, which links Devon to Cornwall, and the village of Porthtowan. The yard overlooks the countryside towards Truro. The St.Agnes Heritage Coast and the Godrevy Heritage Coast are both a short distance from the depot. So, whilst the weather is lovely and hot in the summer – as it was when I visited – it can also be brutally cold and icy in the depths of winter.

The next generation

Hopley’s Coaches
Optare Solos on the 304 and 315 service meet at the beautiful Porthtowan Beach, prior to using the turning area. RICHARD SHARMAN

I met with 33-year-old Rob Hopley, who is what would ordinarily be known as an Operations Manager. He was keen to point out, however, that: “There is no hierarchy at Hopley’s; we are a family company, our driving staff know how to do their jobs and they go out and do it – even my dad doesn’t like the title of Director!

“I came into the industry in 2008, when I was 25. Before that, I was a manager at Marks & Spencer in Stoke-on-Trent. When my wife and I moved back down to Cornwall I asked my dad if I could join the family business. I am now 33, and mainly office-based, but I do enjoy doing some driving when I get a chance.

“My brother and I represent the fourth generation of the Hopley family to be involved with this business. It started with my grandad Frank then passed to my grandparents Dianne and Brian and now my father, Nick, who runs the company. We both hold our operators certificates.”

The company’s heritage still lies in Mount Hawke, as Rob explained: “We have always been based in this village, although the current depot is an old Riviera Produce Cauliflower packaging plant – we moved here around 2007. The trouble with the old yard – which you can still see from the new one – was that you weren’t able to have any coaches fitted with gullwing mirrors, as they wouldn’t fit up the lane. It wasn’t until we moved from that yard that we were able to expand the fleet.

“We have recently extended the lower yard so that we have more parking space; before that it was a sheer drop. We built it up with soil, and can now easily park the 27 vehicles we have. We have an operator’s licence for 26, so we have one vehicle in reserve at the moment.

“Our long-standing livery changed from white with two red stripes to the current livery before the depot move, around 2003. We had decided that, with Optare Solos being delivered the same year, the new vehicles should bring in a new image.”

Service bus fleet
“In terms of service work, we operate three routes,” said Rob. “The 315, which operates in and out of Redruth, is one of the few fully-subsidised routes left in Cornwall; our 304 service only receives a partial subsidy. As a company, we have always operated the 304 service – it is part of our heritage.

“Both routes increase in use during the summer period, as the 304 takes holidaymakers from Truro to Porthtowan beaches and the 315 links Redruth with both St.Agnes and Porthtowan beaches. Walkers also use the services and are often found waiting in the deeply rural sections of the routes.

“We currently operate four Optare Solos on our tendered service work. We understand that there may be a requirement for those vehicles to be to Euro VI standard during the next tender rounds, and we have been invited to put proposals forward for that. We would go for three new Optare Solo SRs and then retain the newest of our current Solos as a spare vehicle, which would be the 2007-plate one.

Mount Hawke
The former Dublin Bus ALX400s have been reliable and continue to be well looked after. RICHARD SHARMAN

“We have also considered the Alexander Dennis Enviro200 MMC as a replacement vehicle. I do like the Enviro product, but we have been operating the current Optare fleet since 2003. They have been reliable and we have a good working relationship with Optare. We did have a Solo SR demonstrator at one point, and that was OK; the customer feedback was also good on it, although the main comment we had was that the seats were very hard compared to the current fleet. We also found that running costs were good whilst it was on loan.

“In my proposal for the new vehicles, I did specify one narrow-bodied Optare Solo SR for the 315 service, as that route is extremely rural and the roads are very narrow. The other two would be standard width for the 304 service. So we will have to wait and see what happens with those.

“We are expecting a decision on the new contracts in September, with the changeover being sometime in December this year. The reason for the delay is to allow operators to get their fleet in order. The current contracts should have been for four years, but are now in their sixth year due to extensions.

“We have a separate rota for our service work. There is no evening work, and no Sundays or Bank Holidays to cover, which is great for the drivers. Occasionally a coach driver will cover a service driver’s holiday, but other than that, we try to keep them separate.

“We also now have new Ticketer machines which allow our customers to pay by contactless. Cornwall Council is paying all the administration fees for the first year, but after that it is our responsibility. We have found the Ticketer system to be very good and all operators down here in Cornwall are now using it, which is great for the council as they can monitor it easily. Contactless payments are increasing week-on-week, although some customers will always want to pay cash.”

Coach and contract work

Jonckheere JHV BT14DLJ is seen in Torquay. RICHARD SHARMAN

“We operate a diverse range of coach work. One of the regular places we visit is London which can be every other week, mainly on school trips. Often they spend longer on the coach than they do in London. For example, we did a college trip a few months back that went to see an art exhibition; they were only there a few hours before coming back.

“College work is something we would like to do more of in the future. We currently outstation one coach and that is in Bodmin. It operates a college contract, so we park it in the Kelly’s Ice Cream factory yard near the start of the route. That service starts in Bodmin, then serves St. Austell before making its way down to Cornwall College in Camborne. We have a driver who lives in that area so it works very well. That college run also allows the driver to operate an afternoon school service before the PM college run, which gives us good flexibility.

“As Cornwall is a tourist destination, we do benefit from that. We get a lot of foreign walkers doing garden tours, which is quite a big source of work. We cover the Isle of Scilly sky bus, so if the flights are not running from the Isle of Scilly due to weather conditions then we get a last-minute call to help them. We send three coaches down to collect the passengers from Penzance, then take them to Lands Ends Airport, Newquay Airport and then to Exeter Airport so that they can pick their cars up. We are lucky to have several drivers that are semi-retired that are more than happy to operate these shuttle services at short notice. Without those flexible drivers, it would be hard to run these last-minute operations.”

Vehicle CCTV
“All vehicles have a dashcam in use, with the frontline fleet also having Navman systems fitted,” continued Rob. “The dashcams are forward-facing but also show the saloon. They have proven to be a good investment, and their sole purpose is to protect driving staff should an accident or an onboard incident occur. They are hard-wired to the ignition and also record sound.

“The former Dublin Bus Alexander ALX400s had full CCTV systems in them but were stripped out when they were withdrawn. We retraced the wires and fitted our own full CCTV system. This has proved invaluable to us on the school runs; we have had kids trying to set fire to seats, crutches being thrown out of the windows, fights and so on.”

Fleet changes on the horizon

Hopley’s Coaches
Optare Solo B5PCV is seen operating the long-standing 304 service towards Porthtowan Beach. RICHARD SHARMAN

“A proposal that I believe is going to be tried is that all school contract vehicles must meet either Euro III or Euro IV standards. We haven’t had the paperwork through yet, but I believe that Euro III would be more realistic. I also think the plan is to up the contract length so that operators can invest in vehicles; knowing that you may have eight years to run that vehicle on that contract allows you to plan for investment.

“I understand there will be a delay on bringing in the new standard of exhaust emission vehicles to allow operators time to update their fleets. I think that period may be three or four years, so we have options going forward. We can downgrade some of the frontline fleet and buy new to replace them, and so on.

“The former Dublin Bus Volvo B7TL/Alexander ALX400s that we operate meet Euro III standards, so if the council standard is Euro III we will be OK, but if it is Euro IV then we have to look at other options. We will run them as long as we can. It would be a shame to lose them, as they are great vehicles and they are fit for purpose.

“All school contracts were extended by a year last year, so we already have vehicles that we had earmarked for disposal such as the Bova Futuras, a Van Hool T8 and a Jonckheere Mistral. So had it not been for the extension, these would have already been replaced by newer vehicles. We would be looking for replacements from 2007 and upwards. That is the sort of age profile we are ideally looking at.”

The current fleet
“We operate five former Dublin Bus Alexander ALX400s. It did take us a while to get used to the B7TL engines, as they are really city buses, but we do not work them hard. They just do an AM/PM school contract with some private hire work in between. One modification we had to make to them was to add a heavy-duty tree guard.

“The Bova Futuras in the fleet were purely bought in as 70-seater vehicles – two had already been converted and the other two we did ourselves. The reason we choose the Bova Futura is that they are really easy to convert. Looking ahead, we wouldn’t go for them again though. We have had to replace a lot of steel work in them; the tubing in them just rots out over time. On the plus side, the running gear on them is great, they drive well and still look fairly modern. They will probably be replaced with a Volvo product.

Mount Hawke
Hopley’s Plaxton Cheetah XL WK16UGC forms part of the front line Euro VI fleet. RICHARD SHARMAN

“We run a predominantly Volvo-based fleet. We have tried the Irizar i6, as we wanted something more eye-catching than a Plaxton Panther. We had been disappointed that the most recent Panther had only undergone minor tweaks to the styling – the dash and interior remained the same. For us, that wasn’t enough. We looked around the market, and Irizar gave us a good deal on an ex-demonstrator 2015 i6. We then went on and bought another new from stock at a good price. They are nice and smooth coaches, but slightly underpowered compared to the Panthers and Yutong we have.

“In terms of tri-axle coaches, we have never really needed them for the work we do here. We did look at a former Hamilton Grey tri-axle Mercedes-Benz Tourismo a while back, but decided to go for the Yutong TC12 instead. A tri-axle is not something that we would ever rule out, but we cannot justify it as there is no demand for it. It is the same as double-decker coaches – there just isn’t the demand for them in this region.

“We currently operate four Euro VI emission standard vehicles: a Plaxton Cheetah XL, two Irizar i6 and the recently-acquired Yutong TC10. We did purchase a Jonckheere HV-bodied Volvo B11R which was Euro V. Having four coaches able to go to London is enough for us, as we have covered different vehicle sizes and specifications.

“In terms of the costs involved in upgrading to Euro VI, we are not too worried as we have been gradually upgrading the fleet. We are well set to carry on as we are; we may gain two more Euro VI vehicles when we upgrade the 2007 and 2009 Plaxton Panthers in the future.
“We haven’t looked at new coaches for a while as there is not the requirement for them down here. Although, we have dabbled with used coaches recently, with the purchase of the Yutong TC12.”