Jewel in the crown 05 April 2016

Stumbling across really impressive workshops isn’t anyone’s everyday experience. Brian Tinham reports on something rather special in Springburn

There is a hidden gem in Springburn, Glasgow, which harks back to a locomotive manufacturing heritage that came to prominence in the mid-late 1800s. Fast forward 150 years and, while the rolling stock repair facility at St Rollox continues under Knorr-Bremse, just down the road is multi-modal logistics and bulk goods haulier Russell Group – operating as Russell Group Engineering and Carntyne Transport, the latter famous for whisky distribution.

It’s not just that this is a multifaceted organisation. No, what shines out for Russell Group is the scope of its trailer and tanker repair facilities, its bespoke production line, and its investment in skills and craftsmanship. In fact, group fleet engineer Stephen Madden confesses his first venture onto the firm’s football pitch-sized workshop left him astounded. And not only at its sheer scale, but also its staff culture, which he describes as the best of both worlds – ‘can-do’ married to engineering excellence.

Coming from a man whose latest roles included regional engineering controller for Morrisons and fleet engineer for City of Edinburgh Council, that’s praise indeed. So what’s special? Madden points to a turning point back in 2008, when Fruehauf closed in Dareham, and Russell Group acquired its Van Line semi-trailer production plant. Adding this plant and equipment to the firm’s already impressive in-house trailer and tanker repair and maintenance workshop extended its capabilities to include custom box van fabrication.

“The facility has since seen significant design and manufacturing investment, and now handles everything from vehicle refurbishments and upgrades to new body engineering and build,” he enthuses. “We also fit specialist equipment to tractor units. And we’ve now taken on the agency for SDC Trailers and BPW, so we’re approved to work on a range of chassis. I’ve seen some bodyshops in my time, but nothing at this level.”

Why has this come about? Madden explains that both operating businesses have always required high standards of vehicle service – to meet uptime targets on the one hand and customer expectations on the other. However, with its focus on bulk whisky distribution, Carntyne in particular brings additional complexity and confidentiality best served by a well resourced, highly capable in-house workshop. “When you’re talking about tankers, flammable liquids and excise duty, you need workshops with a robust safety culture, the right equipment and manned by highly skilled technicians,” he says. “That’s not just in terms of maintenance, but also vehicle repair and modification work – which is why, for instance, all our welders are coded.”

Madden points to stainless steel tanker bodies that may be old but are still going strong. “We need the skills, experience, processes and equipment to be able to remove bodies, upgrade them if necessary to the latest specification, and mount them on new or refurbished chassis with new axles.” This is not for the feint hearted, and Madden adds that it’s not just about tankers either. Walking floor trailers – designed and fabricated in-house to minimise manual handling when distilleries moved to palletise whisky barrels – also demand specialist attention.

He gives the example of a recent project aimed at moving Scottish whisky tankers from their current top-fill design to bottom filling, in order to reduce the risk of falls from height. Design work started back in 2009, following a meeting involving the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) and HSE (Health & Safety Executive), which agreed a 15-year timeframe for conversion of the entire fleet. Subsequently, the SWA transport working group confirmed Russell’s specification for a ‘hybrid tanker’ and the engineering processes that would enable hauliers to phase in their fleet transformations safely, economically and by the deadline.

Fleet Conversion work is ongoing. “We decided to make the process as simple and robust as possible. So when top-fill tankers come into our workshop, after degassing the tanks, we start by cutting off the old rear controls and interlock cabinet. Then we mark, cut and fit the new manway and sample point; fabricate and weld the replacement cabinet onto the tank; cut, fit and weld impress cleaning flanges; cut and fit the new vent flange and butterfly valve; fit the probe for our new overfill protection system; alter the discharge pipe to suit the new cabinet; fit the valve switch gear; run in the air lines; fit and wire up the overfill protection system; and extend the chassis to match the bigger cabinet.”

That may sound like a straightforward sequence – albeit involving multiple engineering disciplines and fabrication skills – but underpinning it is a significant body of work that ensures not only safe and effective working practices but also the integrity and operational efficiency of updated tankers. Madden describes everything from in-depth technical discussions with insurer RSA around maintaining tanker integrity, to arranging welding procedures, welder qualifications, and confined space entry training and certification – as well as safe procedures relating to tank entry and hot work. He also observes that material welded to each tank has to be traceable. Additionally, on completion, all welds are subject to formal non-destructive testing, with RSA inspectors also checking the welds and the tank itself before running a witnessed pressure test.

No mean feat. Tat’s why Russell Group engineering is the only facility able to perform the entire conversion in-house, including all fabrication, pneumatics, wiring, welding and mechanical work.

It’s a similar story with Carntyne’s walking floor units, nine of which have now been installed in tri-axle box semi-trailers by the Springburn workshop. Madden reiterates that this requirement arose when its customers started to palletise whisky barrels. “We had to find a way to load the pallets into a box trailer in a safe manner, and that meant the driver not entering the van, but instead controlling loading externally.”

This was a back-to-basics project, starting with designing a step frame suitable to take a pallet walker but also meeting Carntyne’s trailer specifications. As for the build process, you’re looking at everything from front, sides and back fabrication and chassis fitting, to mounting the centre walking floor drive, followed by fitting and securing floor bushings, dust guards and walking floor slats, and equipping the vehicle with its sensors for load indexing.

No surprise, then, that Russell Group comfortably undertakes bespoke trailer design, engineering and build work (excluding reefers) for third parties. And, with its recent SDC approval and the Freuhauf Van Line, this includes type approval – originally via IVA (individual vehicle approval) but now NSSTA (national small series type approval), with all that entails in terms of proving consistent manufacturing and quality standards.

No surprise also that operators from across the UK are increasingly turning to Springburn for repair and refurbishment work. It’s not just that Madden and his team guarantee engineering-led (not accountant controlled) projects, nor that pricing is evidently very competitive. What’s just as valuable is the knowledge that this workshop has the skills, equipment and capacity even to turn round rush jobs, but do them well. Now that is one diamond a workshop.

Brian Tinham

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