Experience pays for two mechanical masterminds

Most operators will be familiar with the value of having a member of engineering staff who can turn to almost anything. The team at Blackburn-based Frontline PCV know it too, as it’s what their business has been built on. Tim Deakin reports.

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To an operator, there’s undoubtedly something quite reassuring about having the kind of old-school engineer who is at home fixing just about any part of a coach or bus.

It’s a skill which can’t be taught; instead, it’s picked up through decades of dirty-handed experience in the field.

Be it diagnosing a gearbox fault, replacing a reversing sensor or rebuilding an engine, they’re the kind of people that even today are worth their weight in gold. But nowadays, they need to be equally happy using a laptop, too.

All of this happens every day at Frontline PCV. Established by Ian Ingham and Steve McCann [pictured above right and left respectively] as mobile technicians over a decade ago, it soon moved to premises in Leyland and today it has its own three-bay building in Blackburn. It handles all manner of mechanical work on coaches and buses.

Frontline PCV’s client list extends from preservationists and small, family-owned operators right through to Stagecoach, and it is as happy to work on a hybrid bus as it is one from the 1970s or earlier.

Copious experience

Ian and Steve can trace their engineering careers way back to the days of Leyland Trucks, followed by a period working for a Volvo agent in Lancashire. Steve’s time working on Volvos included supporting First’s introduction of B10LA artics into Manchester at the end of the ’90s, but both men have copious experience with many other manufacturers’ products.

“I was 42 and Steve was 41, and we wanted to set up on our own,” says Ian. “It’s something you dream about, and by that point it had become ‘now or never’. If we had carried on working for someone else, we’d eventually have become too old to go it alone.”

The pair had built up many good relationships in their time in the industry, and were assured that work would come their way if they went into business together. It did.

Steve continues: “We bit the bullet and ordered two new vans. We worked out of those in the beginning, and things started slowly, as we expected. We weren’t fussy; we’d do anything.” Ian recalls changing a forklift’s engine with no manual handling aids in an unlit and soaking wet steam cleaning bay as one memorable job from the early days.

Work quickly built up, to the extent that Ian spent time almost as a freelance engineer with a major bus operator in the North West doing, he says, “jobs its own engineers didn’t want to do.”

Although that practice has ended, the same operator still regularly sends buses to Frontline PCV despite having a well-equipped garage of its own: an Optare Solo arrived during routeone’s visit.

End to end

Frontline PCV remains just as unfussy now as it was a decade ago. It will, Ian and Steve agree, “do anything,” and routinely finds itself working on coaches and buses from both ends of the age scale.

“We’ve one customer who has a pair of preserved Leyland Atlantean double-deckers. He brings them to us two or three times a year for work; we rebuilt the engine and gearbox on one,” says Steve. Equally, an ongoing contract is for upgrade work on a portion of Stagecoach Manchester’s Alexander Dennis Enviro400 hybrid fleet.

Depending on the scale of the job, it is either done on site at one of Stagecoach’s garages or the vehicle is brought to Frontline PCV. As appointed agents for Alexander Dennis, its vans travel the North West and across to the North East and Yorkshire carrying out work on the manufacturer’s behalf.

“When an operator calls Alexander Dennis’ helpline, they have a look at where their own men are first.

“If they can’t attend, they just call us. We might have to drop what we’re doing, particularly if it’s a hybrid requiring attention,” says Steve.

In an identical arrangement to that with ADL, Frontline has been approved as a King Long agent for the North West, and will attend to issues with the Chinese-built coaches as and when needed.

Where Frontline PCV has considerable expertise is in engine rebuilds. Ian strips the complete unit and replaces “everything” as a matter of course, although where the customer requires, a simpler repair can be made. A 12-month warranty is offered and all manufacturers’ engines can be dealt with. Typically, four are in the process of overhaul.

“One customer wanted a three-year warranty. We were happy to do that, but if we were going to give three years then we would also need to replace the radiator pack and make sure all the bus’ electrical warning systems were in full working order,” says Steve.

“We would have given a three-year warranty; it would have been no problem. On the engines in question we would have changed everything, as that was what the customer wanted.” Their experience of fixing coaches and buses is neatly demonstrated by an anecdote concerning a Volvo Olympian owned by a Cheshire operator.

“I went down there to have a look at one which was cutting out,” he continues.

“It had even been into the local Volvo dealers and they couldn’t find the problem. But there are a couple of diodes on Olympians which aren’t on the diagram, and if they don’t work properly the engine either stops or is down on power.

“I had a diode in my van, changed the one in question and the bus has been as right as rain ever since.”

The obvious pride they take in tackling any job which presents itself is helped by the third member of Frontline PCV’s team, John Seddon. John has worked with Ian and Steve on and off for 20 years and has also put in some time at a major North West coach operator. “John does just about anything,” says Steve.

Diagnosing problems

Another weapon in Frontline PCV’s armoury is its extensive collection of manufacturer-specific diagnostic software. “You need that for modern vehicles,” Steve explains, adding that the licence fees for their use are substantial.

“My van’s kitted out for that kind of work. We’ll happily go out to operators and run diagnostics.” Its gearbox diagnostics software was being put to good use at the time of routeone’s visit by the retarder in a Scania double-decker, which was stuck on.

Another specialty is electrical work. Frontline PCV has dealt with several buses that have suffered electrical fires, which included undertaking a complete rewire in one case. It has also repaired the damage caused by engine fires; a body builder works at the Blackburn premises as required, but heavier body repairs, and painting, is contracted out. It can also work on AdBlue systems.

And finally, there is one more offering which could help your business. Although repair work forms the backbone of Frontline PCV’s duties, it can also act as maintenance provider, and would be happy to enter into routine maintenance contracts with operators who desire it.

It’s just like the engineer who can do anything, really. Except at Frontline, there are three of them.