Sowing for the future

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Two of the former Spratts Van Hool Scanias with a Caetano Enigma Javelin from Tittleshall-based Peelings Coaches and one of the former Turner & Butcher Plaxton-bodied Bedford YNTs. ANDY IZATT

Simon and Catherine Moore started Jubilee Coaches to supplement the income they generated from their farm, but as they explained to Andy Izatt, their operation has developed far beyond what they originally envisaged

Simon and Catherine Moore run Jubilee Farm at Rollesby in Norfolk. For Simon, being a farmer fulfils a lifelong ambition, but establishing Jubilee Coaches three years ago means he’s been able to develop his long standing passion for coaching as well.

“My father Roger did a multitude of things over the years,” recalled Simon. “When I was born he was a publican. That was followed by running a village shop and then my parents bought somewhere big enough to keep some livestock. I think that’s why I always wanted to be a farmer. One thing led to another and Catherine and I started renting Jubilee Farm from Norfolk County Council in August 2012.

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“Our crops are sugar beet, wheat and barley, but a farm has to be sustainable. We knew that when we decided to take it on. We have 220 acres now, but when we first started it was only 155. It depends on the lifestyle you want, but really we would need more than 300 acres if we were to rely for our living on our produce alone. What is more, there’s no fixed price for crops. One year corn prices could be exceptional because yields are down. Then another, like in 2019 when there was plenty, it’s virtually worthless.

“Catherine had a full-time job as a parish clerk, but I knew I needed to do something else as well. I’d a very long association with Richard Spratt and Christine Bilham (brother and sister) at Spratts Coaches of Wreningham both driving and helping in the workshop. What they did was secure a school run from September 2013 that I could drive using one of their vehicles based at Jubilee Farm.

“I’d started driving coaches when I was in Wymondham Young Farmers. We had members who were too young to drive themselves so we would give them lifts in our cars, but it got to a point where I decided to buy a 16-seat LDV Convoy. As numbers grew it was followed by a 29-seat Bedford PJK and that’s when I obtained my PCV licence and started driving for Spratts. I trained with Albert Middleton who was Compass Training based at North Tuddenham. Albert has trained many people in East Anglia over the years including, much more recently, Catherine in July 2017.

“As I said, ever since I was young I wanted to be a farmer. It was a way of life that appealed and I think that comes from living in the country. Having gone to school with Spratts I felt the same way about wanting to drive coaches. However, the world of driving has changed immensely even in the time I’ve been doing it. Coaches can be slow, but get there eventually. The ultimate slow beast is a tractor. As a farmer, you might be putting food on people’s plates, but there are times on the road when you’re made to feel you’re the enemy.”

Going it alone

Simon and Catherine Moore who founded Jubilee Coaches in December 2016. ANDY IZATT

“By the time the Spratts contract based at Jubilee Farm came up for renewal, Catherine and I knew in which direction we wanted to go,” said Simon.

“We talked to Richard and Christine. Catherine had secured her Transport Manager’s CPC several months before hand and we were granted an O-Licence to run five vehicles in December 2016.”

“The whole process took around 18 months from the time we decided to set up our own operation to having the first vehicle on the road,” explained Catherine. “It wasn’t just about getting my CPC and the O-Licence. There was the financial standing to put in place and we set up a limited company in September 2016.”

“We have separate companies for the farm and the coaches because if there’s a problem with one, I wouldn’t want it to affect the other,” said Simon.

“They needed to be independent. While the farm is what I always wanted, I don’t feel the same sentiment for operating coaches. They’re not essential and could go if need be.”

Said Catherine: “In our situation we have to plan long-term. We’re tenants so have to think about where we’ll be in 30 years’ time. Eventually we will retire from here so having different businesses should give us something we can pass on when that time is right.”

“Before we started operating in our own right we decided to undertake a trial to see if we could make it work,” said Simon. “I’ve always liked Bedfords so I bought a Plaxton Paramount-bodied YNT from an exceptionally good home, Besthorpe, Attleborough-based Norfolk Coachways. It had been new to Spratts many years ago and I hired it back to the Wreningham firm to cover that school contract for almost a year. Spratts also maintained it for me.”

Said Catherine: “By May/June 2017 we were doing the occasional other bit of coaching work so decided to buy a pair of 57-seat Plaxton Premiere Dennis Javelins that came from a Suffolk operator. We started operating in earnest in September 2017.

“We’d applied to run several Norfolk County Council school contracts and ended up with three starting that autumn,” said Simon. “The Javelins were not expensive to buy and were straightforward to maintain, but by the time I bought them my Plaxton-bodied Bedford YNT fleet, all from Norfolk Coachways, had grown to three. All had been operated by Turner & Butcher of Kenninghall and I was able to acquire the fourth that Turner & Butcher had run from Norfolk Coachways at the beginning of September.

“There’s a little bit of heritage with that quartet of Bedfords. I think Turner & Butcher was the last all-Bedford fleet, certainly in East Anglia and there can’t be many operators that have as many as we have now. One of the two we currently have licensed was only really bought for spares, but it was completely solid underneath when I gave it a thorough examination and we were able to get it tested without any problem.

“On another of the Bedfords the body panels are in the process of being renewed. Stretched replacements are in the shed ready to go on, but it’s finding the time to it. I’m planning to clean up the framework and remount the windows as well. The Bedfords do turn heads when they’re out on the road and that one will be made available for wedding hires when it’s done. The first of the quartet I bought now needs an engine, but I’ve acquired a new replacement. They’re so easy to work on and the two that are currently licensed make ideal fleet standbys.

“We operated our three contracts for a year, but then the following summer Reynolds of Caister closed after Charles Reynolds became ill. The firm’s work was put out to tender and we secured another two contracts taking us up to five from September 2018. Charles finishing was a big loss to this area. He was the true master of people moving.

Two of the four former Turner & Butcher Plaxton-bodied Bedford YNTs owned are currently licensed by Jubilee Coaches. ANDY IZATT

“We bought a 70-seat Dennis Javelin Caetano Algarve at the Reynolds auction in August 2018 because we needed a coach of that capacity for one of the new contracts and were able to acquire a lot of Dennis and Bedford spares at the same time. That summer we also acquired a MAN 18.350 Neoplan Transliner that had originally been with Jans Coaches of Soham and a Caetano Enigma Javelin from Tittleshall-based Peelings Coaches. The Neoplan came because we had a job to London and needed a compliant vehicle. I’d already sold one of the Plaxton-bodied Javelins by then.”

“That’s when I gave up my full-time job and came here to provide admin support and to drive,” said Catherine. “It was not an easy decision, but I don’t think the business would have developed to where it has today if I’d not been here to answer the phone and take bookings for the excursions we started running.

“As well as a mystery tour, we went to Springfields near Spalding and to Lincoln Christmas market in the first year. They were well booked and we’ve steadily built up the programme from there with a growing regular clientele, meeting some lovely people and having some fun days out along the way.

“I’m not sure anyone wants to go on an excursion this time of year, but in 2020 we’ll be running one a month from May through to December. Hopefully that’s striking the right balance. We sent out a nice Happy New Year card with a copy of our excursion brochure – a folded A4 sheet – to those people we have on our database and bookings have started coming in already.

“The demographic of our customers is they tend to be older people who prefer something printed although we do get some interest through Facebook. Our website I created myself. I’m lucky I can do that sort of thing because it keeps costs down doing it all in house.

“We were starting to get private hire anyway, but there’s more coming through now. Schools remain the biggest part of our business and what I did was write to all the local ones letting them know we were here. Sometimes an old fashioned letter landing on a desk is a good way of getting the message across and people have got to know us better since. Our higher capacity coaches are the ones that tend to be in most demand.”

Setting standards

The coach that Simon Moore regularly drives is this former Spratts Van Hool-bodied Scania K114. ANDY IZATT

Said Simon: “When we first started operating the intention was to just to do the three school contracts as that fitted well with running the farm. There was no necessity to find other work and we didn’t really have the quality of vehicles to do anything else anyway. The fleet is different now. We have five former Spratts vehicles. I’ve already mentioned the Bedford, but we also bought three Van Hool Scanias when Richard and Christine decided to retire at the end of 2018 and there is a Caetano Enigma MAN 14.280 midi that’s wheelchair accessible.

“The Scanias really are good coaches and I think they have running gear that is second to none. Making an investment like that is a gamble, but with my association with Spratts, I knew their history, parts aren’t too expensive and fuel consumption isn’t bad either. Having them has brought us better work and it means we can go greater distances as well as into London as they’re Euro IV brought up to Euro VI using Eminox emissions abatement systems.

“We’re lucky in that they don’t have complicated electrics. There are onboard diagnostics that tell us what’s happening so we’re not yet at the stage where we’ve got to go to a main dealer. I know a very good auto electrician if I need one and there are others I can rely on to deal with aspects such as ABS. Nothing has beaten us yet. All three are certificated to seat 55. One is a 49 with a toilet, another 51 with the same while the third seats 55 with the toilet covered over. The one I regularly drive is very low mileage.

“The nature of our business means doing all our maintenance in house is essential and nothing leaves this yard unless it’s in the right condition. Since September I’ve had help three days a week from Richard Spratt. Like buying his vehicles, having his support in the workshop was an opportunity that doesn’t come every day, and it’s working well.

“Other than the Scanias, I’ve changed clutches in all the coaches and I did all of that on my own. When you run a farm, you have to get on with it and I already have experience maintaining lorries. PSVs may be a little bit more involved, but the running gear is essentially the same.

“I was always taught that oil is cheaper than metal and preventative maintenance is often what it’s all about. We check every vehicle on a four weekly basis. Because of that we don’t get problems that are beyond what we can control and having spare vehicles means there isn’t the same pressure to resolve an issue immediately. Every day brings different challenges, but what is essential is being thorough in everything we do.

“While we need five vehicles to cover our contracts, I actually own 12 now. However, discounting the Bedfords, which are here because of my affection for the type, and the MAN midi which is a niche vehicle, the spare coverage is more in line with what you might expect.

“All the coaches have seatbelts which is a Norfolk County Council requirement. I can be a little bit protective of my vehicles if the kids start acting the fool, but we run to some very good schools. I’ve never had any major hassle although we did have to put Parksafe CCTV on one vehicle. It cost what we would probably have got out of the contract for a year, but it showed what was happening and the school then did something about it. It’s something we shouldn’t have had to do sadly.”

Challenging times

This Van Hool Scania L94 had been bought new by Spratts Coaches of Wreningham in 2000. ANDY IZATT

“In many ways I would prefer that Reynolds and Spratts Coaches were still here and I just ran those original contracts,” observed Simon. “However, the problem with work like that is, when it’s up for renewal, it’s all up for grabs. By its very nature school work is a hard life for a coach. At the end of the day, it’s all about what the council is prepared to pay and at some point the vehicles I operate will need replacing. I’m under no illusion that those contracts will earn enough to majorly make that investment because they won’t.

“Since we started we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to buy vehicles from some of the best operators in Norfolk and the investment we’ve made is for the long-term. I’ll probably check a coach three times before I present it for test just in case I’ve missed something and the MOT testers I deal with have been brilliant. I remember how impressed one DVSA inspector was when he went under one of the Bedfords by the roadside.

“We’ve also been very lucky with the drivers we have because they’re a nice bunch of people. Five term time full-timers include Catherine and myself, but Richard drives as well and we have nearly that many again who are casuals.

“Once you’ve been a coach driver it does become a way of life, but the transition from driver to operator and employer is quite a journey. It means combining everything you’ve ever learnt and about setting standards. There are people here with mortgages and rents to pay. If I get it wrong, they haven’t got a job and that can make what we do stressful sometimes.

“It has been an incredible journey. I never thought when we started we would end up with what we have parked in the yard, but ultimately I still have a farm to run. I don’t drive every day and don’t need to. While we’re fit and able to deliver the standard I want, we’ll continue in coaching. We’ve made a long term commitment and yes, I’m optimistic about the future.”