I’m surprised at how few people in the world of motor vehicles admit to their mistakes, especially when it comes down to dangerous errors. But often the only way to learn from these things is to share the story of the incident. Doing so can bring answers, solutions and, of course, awareness to others so that they may avoid making the same mistakes.
As I approached the end of my apprenticeship with the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, at its Stourbridge bus garage, I made one such dangerous error, which has stayed with me as a strong reminder that working on vehicles can occasionally have serious consequences.
It occurred on Friday 27th July 1984. As a final year apprentice, I was permitted to work alone on the buses in the fleet, which at the time contained a large number of Daimler Fleetline, rear-engined double decker buses. On that day I entered the foremen’s office to take a look at the day’s tasks to find that I had had been tasked with performing a number of brake relines on the type. During the morning I knocked off a couple of rear relines without incident, leaving me with both side fronts to do on bus number 6419 (NOC419R), a Metro-Cammell-Weymann bodied, 1976 example.
Fleetlines have rather fiddly and complex automatic brake adjusters which must be correctly set for each brake shoe on a given hub, the shoe set-up being a leading and trailing arrangement. The rears are more forgiving, being on a non-steering axle, but the fronts are sensitive and rather tricky. each brake shoe has its own adjuster. The top, trailing shoe being set five thousandths of an inch closer to the drum than the bottom trailing shoe. Failure to do this results in the leading shoe ‘grabbing’ at the brake drum, causing the steering to pull.
It had been quite some time since I had undertaken front relines on a Fleetline, as the garage I’d previously worked at, Sutton Coldfield, had lost its entire allocation of the type in favour of newer designs, all of them fitted with more modern ‘S’ cam types, with simple ratcheting slack adjusters, making short work of setting an even braking effort at either end of an axle.
Thus it was that I engaged the old grey matter and set to work. My first attempt saw the steering pull to the nearside and so the bus was put back onto the pit, wheels and drums again removed and the adjusters reset. Again, the steering pulled to the nearside and so the whole process had to be repeated, this time with a better outcome, but still I had doubts. As I was at the time too young to be allowed the company’s buses on the open road, I asked a colleague to road test the bus for me and his verdict was that it felt fine to him, however I was sure that I’d noticed him compensating a little when braking. However, having gained this second opinion, the bus was parked ready for service and I thought no more about it. On the following Monday morning, the last day of my teens, as I clocked in, one of the foremen, the late Ronnie Wilkes, beckoned me into his office.
“Did you get 6419’s brakes road tested?” he said.
“Yes, and they were apparently okay” I replied.
“Well the bus was put out onto the number 9 route to Birmingham during Friday rush hour and as it descended a hill, fully laden, the driver applied the brakes to pull up at the next bus stop and the steering wheel was whipped out of his grip and the bus mounted the pavement, stopping inches from the bus shelter full of intending passengers. Someone could have been killed!” said Ron.
Well, my legs buckled and the blood drained from my face.
“Its just as well that you’re still an apprentice” he continued, “as that makes it my responsibility and I should have tested the bus myself. Now get out there and sort it out and when you think you’re done, come and get me and I’ll test drive the bloody thing.”
Needless to say, the task now scared me witless and took me a good few hours to complete to my satisfaction. I completely stripped the adjusters on each end of the axle, rebuilt and reset them, checking them at every step to ensure that they would adjust up correctly and allow the bus a smooth, steady retardation without any dangerous wandering.
Happily, I set them correctly and there were no further problems with the bus, but the incident had left me shaken in a way I’ve thankfully only experienced a handful of times. I went on to complete many similar relines, including to this day on now-preserved examples of the type, but still I am wary and make absolutely certain that the bus pulls up smartly and in a straight line.
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