Presidential address 05 January 2010

SOE president Chris Grime talks to John Challen about industry and technology challenges and the importance of teamwork in achieving acceptable transport solutions

Prior to his appointment to the position of president of the SOE, Chris Grime spent his entire career in fleet engineering. Ever since his first workshop foreman's job, he, like many other transport engineers, aspired to have the IRTE letters after his name, and now, despite also having responsibility for IPlantE and BES, he retains a special bond with road transport engineers.

He believes that all three organisations will work together to tackle engineering issues, enabling the smoother running of operations across the industry. "Success is all about teamwork, and our trustee board, head office staff, and professional sector councils and committees will collectively meet the society's goals – including being recognised as one of the top engineering institutions in the country."

In his day-job, Grime is responsible for Lancashire County Council's fleet engineering division, a role that puts him in a great position to see the issues first hand. That being the case, one of the first topics up for discussion is VOSA's decision to close the testing stations in Manchester and Llandrindod Wells, as well as the plan to cease operations at the Steeton site in March 2010. VOSA's strategy has been met with withering criticism from many quarters, but Grime takes a more measured approach: "I am concerned about VOSA closing testing stations because of the impact on the distances travelled to the stations, and therefore the increased costs for operators," he says.

"There is also an issue with availability and non-availability of test slots: VOSA is closing the stations at a time when it is difficult to get a slot, which, to me, defies logic. But you have to look at costs and understand how many vehicles have been parked up, or given a SORN, and how many vehicles are actually being tested." In reality, by closing the Steeton site alone, VOSA will save £61,000 a year, and the facility has seen a drop in testing of 20% in the last five years, which, he concedes, goes some way to justify VOSA's actions.
VOSA is encouraging operators to become approved testing facilities (ATFs), where firms can conduct tests on their premises, and Grime admits that Lancashire County Council is now looking at this option itself. "The principle sounds good, and we've already got a similar setup with designated premises, where people can take the vehicles for test on certain days when the VOSA examiner is there. By encouraging operators to take up that role it could be more convenient for the operator and easier to get an appointment than it is with current VOSA test stations," reasons Grime.

Biofuels is Grime's next hot topic and, in his position as SOE president, he's keen to influence improvement and resolution here. "We need to know how to address the problems associated with even 5% biofuel and its effects on vehicle systems, fuel lines, injector systems and fuel filters. It has all gone quiet in the biofuels industry and the Government has backed off its original targets for biofuel use."

Instead of backing off himself, Grime issues an invitation to all parties to try and work towards a solution to the fuels debate. "We have never managed to get manufacturers, fuel suppliers and the IRTE in the same room at the same time on this subject. We all need this to happen – to have an open and proper debate on what is causing the problems and how operators should be preparing themselves. The fuel suppliers say you may need a separate tank, and that tolerances may be too tight. But I wonder, have we got the right standard of fuel coming through the pumps?

On a separate point, with the growing need for improved efficiency in workshops, Grime is keen to pass on the experience using his own county council's RAMP (Repair and Maintenance Program) workshop management computer system. "RAMP takes live data from everything we do in our six workshops, as they are all computerised," he explains. "It calculates labour hours and parts that are needed on all the jobs, costs each part separately, and charges the relevant amount of money for each job."

Grime says the software gives him a profit/loss record of every workshop on a daily basis, as well as displaying how efficient each mechanic has been. While he admits the system his council has could be improved, he is keen to see RAMP and similar systems used nationwide in commercial vehicle workshops. "I am sometimes surprised when I look around other organisations and I see the potential their workshops have with regards to efficiency, and health and safety improvements. When I compare what we have with others, I can see room for improvement, and I'd be quite willing to share what we've got, if others thought that would be beneficial."

Grime talks a lot about people, and the importance of working together, particularly on technical issues, to improve the transport industry overall. He is also keen to see development of individuals, as well as the technologies they use. "From a health and safety perspective in the workshop, we need to ensure we produce the right end result, which is having safe and efficient vehicles on the road, But securing the health and safety of our employees has also got to be paramount in any workshop manager's mind."

He also stresses the importance of diagnostic testing equipment being available to all, making the point that, while it might be an extra resource to the fleet manager, it is vital that adequate and state-of-the-art equipment is on-site for technicians to use. "[Lancashire County Council] has invested in up-to-date equipment from Texa, which gives us excellent coverage of the fleet. It lets us diagnose faults and fault codes on the vast majority of our wide range of vehicles."

Finally, Grime returns to the subject of people and the importance of IRTE membership, both to the society as a whole, and to individual transport engineers. "Last year, the SOE registered more engineering technicians than any other institution in the county, which increases the society's status in the Engineering Council," he explains. "Our ongoing liaison with manufacturers and their apprenticeship schemes – and approving those schemes for SOE IRTE membership and registration with the Engineering Council – is critical. It is also important that we support the IRTEC licensing scheme, which demonstrates the competence of those involved through independent assessment. That is the route to helping and encouraging the next generation of transport engineers to get their feet firmly on the engineering ladder, with a quality qualification recognised throughout the engineering environment."

Centre point
Chris Grime is putting his support behind IRTE Centres, which he believes provide an important opportunity for members to share ideas and contacts. "Many members may feel that you don't always need to go and see people to talk about technical issues. That's true, but I still believe that our centres will continue to thrive, because, in the end, you can't beat face-to-face discussion – and you should never underestimate the value of networking," he says. To find your local centre, go to

About Chris Grime
Since starting life as an apprentice mecahnic, Chris Grime experienced fleet engineering at private companies (Reed Transport, Crown Paints and Wastedrive Manchester) before arriving at Lancashire County Council in 1987. Today he is responsible for the operational and financial management of the County Council's group of workshops, which operate with a turnover of £5 million.
Despite a tough work schedule, and a staff of 60, Grime maintains his door is always open. "The biggest lesson I have learned is the importance of listening to people, especially when they have different views to my own. You learn things when you listen to other people that might surprise you and open your mind to different ideas and approaches."

John Challen

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