Three employees from Stagecoach North East have proven to be the best in the region after receiving top scores in driving skills and achieving first, second and third in the regional Driver of the Year Awards.

With hundreds of drivers across six depots, the local bus operator is celebrating its staff success as top trio Brian Usher from South Shields, Bryan Wilson from Northumberland and Rob Heppell from Newcastle are recognised for their exceptional driving.

55-year-old Brian, a bus driver at the South Shields depot on Dean Road, has won the Regional Bus Driver of the Year accolade for the first time, having come second last year. He was joined by colleagues Bryan, 52, a bus driver at the Slatyford bus depot in Newcastle in second place, and 37-year old Rob in third place, a bus driver at the Walkergate depot, also in Newcastle.

All three drivers had to complete a series of vigorous tests to challenge their driving skills, including a theory test on all aspects of the Highway Code, road safety and hazard awareness, and a comprehensive driving test assessed by Driving Standards Manager Joe Carr, who organised the competition. The drivers had to achieve at least 85 percent score, and were given penalty points for any incorrect answers or marked down for wrong manoeuvres.

Each driver was also assessed on their individual record, with a low Ecodriver score from the company’s green driving programme, excellent attendance and an accident-free record until the day of the competition.

Brian, who has been a driver for 32 years, was delighted to beat his placing from last year to become Regional Bus Driver of the Year. He said: “I’m very happy to win this award and it’s a real recognition of the hard work and skills that go into driving a bus every day. Although I had thought briefly about taking part in the award scheme in the past, I didn’t really take much interest until last year, when I came second. Obviously I wanted to try and improve my place and come first and so I am over the moon.”

Brian’s top marks enabled him to represent Stagecoach North East as a finalist at the national Bus Driver of the Year Awards which took place in Blackpool.

91 bus and coach drivers took part in the 52nd UK competition, where drivers are given a bus that they are unfamiliar with and only a few minutes to prepare and get used to the way they run. Marking is very tight for each test and with few penalty points between competitors, it is a difficult challenge for everyone with little margin for error.

Featuring both single and double decker buses, exams included length tests to position the bus within a certain area and fast response theory tests. Competitors are also expected to drive a course around the streets of Blackpool and during this; customers can get on board as it is classed as a regular bus service.

Prior to the driving challenge, Brian was able to enjoy a gala dinner at Hilton Hotel with over 400 people from the industry and discuss strategy and tactics with the competition.

Brian was placed in the top ten for all Stagecoach drivers across the country, coming 53rd out of the 91 competitors. He added: “For the first time I have ever taken part in a driving challenge at a national level, I’m really pleased with the result. Meeting drivers from all over the country and at different levels of skills and knowledge was a great experience for me and I will be able to take the learning forward and possibly have another go next year.”

“It all adds to the role as bus driver. I really enjoy driving the bus, meeting a wide variety of people and particularly the challenge of keeping to a timetable and getting people to their destinations on time.”

Fellow driver Bryan, who was previously a taxi driver before joining the company in 1994, took part in the competition for the first time. He said: “To be honest I didn’t think I would get this far and was quite surprised to come second! I have never entered anything like this in my life so I am really proud. Driving is something we do every day and we set a high standard so it is always good to test the skills and see how you measure against other drivers. However, I do really like getting out on my bike after work and taking a break from driving!”

Colleague Rob has been a bus driver for 16 years and also enjoyed taking up the driving challenge for the first time. He said: “The Bus Driver of the Year competition is not something that has appealed before. My driving score has always been high on GreenRoad eco-driving programme and I’m usually first or second in the depot, but I never thought about it. Then I saw the notice in the depot and thought “I’m going to give it a try, why not?” I’m really pleased and looking forward to telling my regulars. Bus driving does have its challenges but I like to have a bit of a laugh with my customers.”

Colin Newbury, Operations Director, Stagecoach North East, said: “Congratulations to Brian, Bryan and Rob. These fantastic results are a testament to the skills of our drivers and the training they have received and further demonstrate that Stagecoach produces professional and skilful drivers across the country.”

Joe Carr, Driving Standards Manager for Stagecoach North East who prepares the drivers for the competition, said: “It is great to see so many of our staff put themselves forward for this challenge and represent the company. We receive a number of applications every year but it really is the best of the best for the regional and final competition, as drivers have to meet the strict criteria.

“For the finals, it is very much down to what happens on the day and the weather conditions, but I do as much as I can to help them get ready. Brian, Bryan and Rob have pushed themselves to set a very high standard for others to follow and they can feel justly proud of their achievements.”

Colin presented prizes to the top drivers, with Brian winning a cash boost of £250 for first place, Bryan receiving £150 for second and £100 for Rob in third place.