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28 October 2014
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Steam bus

Steaming ahead - Whitby's steam bus.

The last steam bus

The spectacular coastal town of Whitby draws in more than one million visitors every year, most of them climbing the 99 steps up to the ancient abbey or browsing its cobbled streets. But these days a historic steam bus is wooing the crowds.

Wander over to Whitby's bandstand and you'll meet Elizabeth. At 77-years-old she's one of the last surviving Sentinel steam buses in the country.

She's also the only one still in regular service in the whole of Europe.

Labour of love

Elizabeth has been a labour of love for Vernon Smith and his family since they bought her in 2003 as a flatbed wagon.

"We used to give people rides on the back on these little garden benches - only in a field, but the benches weren't bolted down and everyone used to get covered in soot."

Steam bus

Steam buses like Elizabeth were used in England in the 1830s, but heavy road tolls and harsh legislation meant they never really took off... at least not for another 86 years.

By 1914 though there were several hundred steam buses operating across the country. But the petrol engine came along and by 1923 the age of the steam bus was already over.

The only remaining steam bus was in Whitby! On the 13th of December, 2005 an amendment to the Road Traffic Act was approved by UK Parliament - meaning Elizabeth had finally been recognised as proper passenger bus.

"It wasn't very safe," his wife Viv admits. "But it did give us an idea!"

Elizabeth's transformation from lorry to bus was completed in 2005, and after convincing the Government to change the Road Traffic Act, she was ready to become a proper passenger-carrying vehicle… and since then she's caused quite a stir in Whitby.

Steam bus

King of the road - the steam bus!

"When people see her thundering down the street - this fire-breathing monster - they can't help but stop and stare… she is incredible and we absolutely adore her."

But changing UK legislation isn't Vernon's only claim to fame - in fact he's become a bit of a celebrity:

"It's a bit embarrassing really, but I was the driver of a steam train that you might have heard of… Harry Potter's Hogwart's Express… and people seem to like that so they ask me to sign postcards for them."

Driving Miss Elizabeth

Driving Elizabeth then is nothing new to Vernon. But for his 18-year-old son Vernon (Junior) there was a bit more to learn before he could become Elizabeth's fireman.

"It's been hard work but I'm fully qualified now and I absolutely love it - I have to make sure there's enough coal in the boiler, and I also have to help dad navigate Elizabeth," he says.

Steam bus driver

All aboard - off on another road trip.

And Vernon's wife Viv doesn't mind getting her hands dirty - she works onboard Elizabeth as the conductor and does her fair share of lugging coal around, but she says it's worth it:

"We just love our job - there's nothing else we'd rather be doing, and Elizabeth is part of the family - she's like a daughter to us."

By the end of this year Elizabeth will have made more than 5,000 journeys through Whitby… and for a 77-year-old bus that's not bad going.

And according to Viv there's life in the old girl yet… "Oh she'll out live us all… and that's what we hope for because this is not just some quirky hobby… we're prolonging a dying art."

last updated: 25/04/2008 at 18:34
created: 22/04/2008

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