Firing on all cylinders

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Liam said he prefers workshop lifts to pits, as they work better with low-floor buses and offer improved health and safety. JAMES DAY

Nottingham City Transport’s Chief Engineer, Liam O’Brien, has been involved in a plethora of important projects since taking up his role last March. He speaks to James Day about the new developments he has overseen

Liam O’Brien is a relatively new face at Nottingham City Transport (NCT), having initially joined the company in mid-2018. Within his role as Chief Engineer, he is working to update and increase the efficiency of NCT’s engineering department, without losing amiable working practices in place at the company.

Liam originally joined the industry as an apprentice at Volvo Truck and Bus upon leaving school in 1995, later moving to Optare as an engineer. He was promoted to Regional Service Manager in charge of bus customers in the North of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and continued in this role for a few years, before meeting his wife and starting a family.
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“The regional service manager job involved a lot of travelling and didn’t lend itself well to bringing kids up,” he said. “I had to take a step back into the workshop, and left the industry after a while to fit around family life.

“I ended up at Doncaster Council and decided I’d like to return to buses. I joined First Bus in South Yorkshire, where I handled technical support and training. Through the training side of the role I became interested in management and went to Arriva at Derby as Assistant Engineering Manager.

“I then joined NCT as Chief Engineer at Trent Bridge and Gotham in August 2018. In March 2019, I took over all the depots when Graham Smith retired.”

Communication
One of Liam’s first actions in his role was to clear out an old storage room and convert it into a meeting room. He has also elected not to have his own office, choosing instead to share an office with the assistant engineering managers so they can more easily communicate.

“The way I like to manage, having done teaching, is to bring everyone into discussions,” Liam said.

“I’m quite an open-minded manager. Everybody is equal in my opinion and everyone’s opinion and voice is important. The best ideas come from all, not from managers.

“I’ve brought in assistant supervisors as training roles in the workshop. Traditionally when a supervisor is off a manager would step down to cover, but I always think someone should step up instead.

“When I looked around the engineering department, the environment didn’t lend itself to teamwork. I decided to create the meeting room, and brought in an instant messaging programme called Flock across engineering computers. It features group messaging and video conferencing, to improve communication. I’m expanding on that with our new workshop management system to better connect engineering.

“Flock has been a big help. The instant messaging system has been quite good for us, because we can send photos to each other easily and I can get it on my phone, computer or even smartwatch. I’m always contactable, which can be a good or bad thing!

“We are a team and should all work together and communicate.”

Liam was very positive about working environment at NCT: “You’re allowed to manage here – you tend to have freedom but you’re still supported by the managers above. It’s very much a family atmosphere. If you need help people will help you, and you’re not left on your own.

“If you have ideas, you’re allowed to bring them to fruition to constantly improve the operation.”

Hitting the ground running
Liam has already been involved in several major projects at NCT, despite having the Chief Engineer role for less than a year.

“When I took up this role in March 2019, we were at the start of a 77 vehicle cascade,” he explained. “Because we’re route branded, the cascading vehicles all had to be repainted, along with all the new buses. We’ve also just got rid of the last two of a fleet of older Optare Solos, which were the same model I used to work on in 2001.

“On top of the cascade, we had a contactless payment project with Init. We’ve now upgraded all our ticket machines ready for the switch-on later this year. We were tasked with upgrading the fleet in preparation, which involved a complete change of the ticketing system. That took about six months.

“We’ve had Baumot carrying out exhaust retrofits to the remaining non-Euro VI vehicles in the fleet at the same time.”

Making maintenance digital

NCT is creating a new training fleet, which involves removing the staircase from five Scania OmniDekkas and replacing it with a window. JAMES DAY

Liam has worked to reduce unnecessary administration to improve the efficiency of the team: “You tend to find in bus companies people don’t throw anything away and it piles up. I wanted a review of what we do and why we do it, including equipment, paperwork and personnel. I asked why things are done in a certain way and whether that could be changed.

“We reduced paperwork at Trent Bridge by around 70%. We’re now waiting for a digital system to arrive to make a similar improvement elsewhere.”
The ongoing project of digitising NCT’s maintenance documentation is yet another major project to add to the list Liam is managing.

“Making the workshop digital is a massive project,” Liam said. “We’re still paper-based, so everything is planned manually or on an Excel spreadsheet. It will be a big change, with all engineers working from tablets instead. There will not be anyone in the engineering department who won’t be affected.

“The wider company will be greatly affected too. We’re bringing in a Tranzaura system for driver defect reporting, with Freeway for back office and workshop management. I went down to Go-Ahead in London to look at the system in operation, and of all the systems we’ve looked at it’s the one most tailored to the bus industry. We’ve gone for companies willing to work with us, whereas others were a bit inflexible.

“The new setup will enable us to forward plan better and enable drivers to take pictures of defects, allowing us to react quicker to minor faults. At the moment, using old driver defect booklets, we don’t hear back until the driver returns the vehicle at the end of the shift. They may see a minor fault, like a damaged panel which the bus can run with, but we won’t know about it. With the new system, we’ll know as soon as the driver presses a button.

Gas vehicles
Liam’s previous experience has prepared him well for NCT’s gas fleet: “Working on gas buses is actually quite straight-forward for me, because they are effectively big petrol engines which I’ve worked on before. The gas fuel supply system is also pretty straight-forward without too many components to it.

“The reliability of the buses is very good. There has been the odd teething problem as you would expect from any vehicle, but the Scania product across our fleet is very good. All our double-deckers are on Scania chassis.”

Training vehicles
NCT is currently in the process of updating its driving school fleet. Five Scania OmniDekkas are each having their staircases removed and windows but in place of them to help the driving examiner to see. They are positioned in what would be the wheelchair bay, instead of beside the driver.

“These five buses wIll replace the existing training fleet and are currently in different stages of the build,” Liam said. “I can’t imagine there are many operators who will have Euro VI training vehicles.

“As far as I know they are unique. We wanted to take it a step further.”

The work is being carried out in what used to be a storeroom at Trent Bridge. It has been repurposed as a bodyshop and will become an accident and repair centre in the future – a specialist area for repairing accident damage.

“We tended to do that in workshop before, but we wanted somewhere isolated where we could put specialist equipment and strip vehicles down,” Liam added. “It’s better health and safety-wise.

“It’s not just a case of repairing vehicles which have been in big accidents, but tidying buses up. The fleet should look clean and tidy with no damaged panels.

“I wanted a facility where I could send an untidy bus to have it put right. We manufacture all our panels in-house in Trent Bridge, so it makes sense to put the facility next door.”

In fact, building work at Trent Bridge is yet another ongoing project at NCT. “We’re adding new doors and filling some shallow pits in,” Liam explained. “We tend to work with lifts when we can, because low-floor vehicles don’t lend themselves to pits. It will improve health and safety throughout the business.

“We use Totalkare four column lifts, and we just ordered a new set. We have one wireless set, though most are wired.

“We’ve also started a programme of replacing air tools with battery powered tools. We chose Milwaukee tools after they proved most robust in some trials. Reducing compressed air use means less trailing lines, less vibrations and less noise. It was a no-brainer for me.”
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