Release date: 17 September 2013
The tanker is a brute of a vehicle. Standing 3.4 metres (11 feet) tall and 15.5 metres (50 feet) in length, it looks large and powerful, but reveals its grace as it moves smoothly to its destination.
It’s a surprisingly even ride along the UK motorway, considering we’re driving a virtual tank – this vehicle weighs around 44 tonnes, while loaded with 37,000 litres of fluid. But the sleek ride is thanks not only to the design of the vehicle, with its air seats and suspension, but also to the experience and training of BP tanker driver Jeremy Gibbs.
I’ve joined him on one of his fuel deliveries as a passenger, or ‘crewman’, in the middle of a four-day shift. BP has its own fleet of 289 tanker drivers, with an extensive list of inhouse training courses, both to keep existing staff updated and to train those who are new to the fuel tanker driver profession.
“The public should be assured that our drivers are experienced, properly trained and know how to react in the event of an emergency situation,” says Jeff Tallis, BP driver trainer. “They are professional people.”
And as well as moving ‘liquid gold’, Gibbs also transported actual gold in September 2012, when he led the floats during the British Olympic Association’s Heroes Parade in London. Around 22 BP fuel tanker drivers carried up to 800 Team GB Olympic and Paralympic athletes. Gibbs had double Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah on his trailer.
But more of that later – there’s fuel to deliver. Before I could get in the cab with Gibbs, I had to pass security checks and attain the level of ‘crewman’ – a term specified by legislation. In fact, the typical fuel tanker driver is indeed male, average age 45 years, but Tallis, who conducts my training, assures me the company has had and welcomes female drivers.
Tallis is a self-confessed trucking enthusiast whose job is his passion. A driver is at the peak of his or her career when driving a fuel tanker, he says. “I don’t think the public generally appreciate the professionalism and the skills required to drive a heavy goods vehicle.”
A crewman requires sound knowledge of the UK laws governing fuel deliveries and the European agreement on the international carriage of dangerous goods (ADR). This means I need to understand the vehicle and its equipment, such as eye rinsing liquid, and know how to read a Hazchem plate. Used in Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and the UK for vehicles transporting hazardous substances, this plate quickly gives the fire brigade vital information of the load and, crucially, the right way to tackle any incident.
Essentially, crewman training underlines the hazards of driving a fuel tanker. One fact sticks out from the rest: the risk of fire and explosion does not disappear when the tanker is empty. Tanks are more volatile when empty because it’s the vapour, not the fuel, that burns.
The job of a tanker driver is well rewarded, but it carries key responsibilities and the rules must be adhered to. For example, the carrying of a mobile phone would be deemed an act of gross misconduct, as the equipment has the potential to cause a spark that can ignite vapour. And the entry bar is set high, with an intense training programme awaiting new recruits.
Once the crewman training is complete, I join Gibbs, who has driven fuel tankers for 10 years, in his laden truck and head to the Chicheley Park Simply Food Connect, Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire. Drivers are expected to drive as economically as possible and avoid any harsh braking or revving of the engine.
On the way to our delivery, he explains his measured driving style and the features of the vehicle: “I’ve found that a lot of the training the company provides can be applied to my driving outside work, so I can lessen the financial burden on myself by using less diesel and less impact on the brakes and gear box. I encourage my family and friends to apply it, too – although picking people up on their driving does not make me popular!”
The service station we’re travelling to is familiar to Gibbs. Each station has been risk assessed and drivers have access to written instructions that detail the area to cone off during the delivery and pictures to help them position the tanker correctly. We arrive at the site on a busy Thursday lunchtime, and we wait. Drivers may need to wait until the forecourt is clear before they can move the tanker into position for delivery.
Jeremy is alert to opportunities to cone off an area near the manholes where we need to make our delivery. He’s also mindful of how his actions could affect customers. He explains: “Coning off too much of the area can cause a hazard, because people will then park all over the place, causing congestion onsite.” Once the tanker is in position, Jeremy uses the hoses (which remind me of the arms of Spider-Man villain Otto Octavius) to carry the fuel to the underground tanks.
It’s a physically demanding job lifting the hoses from the tanker to the manholes, but it also requires concentration to make sure the right product goes to the right storage tank. Any fuel crossover – putting gasoline into a diesel tank – can result in damage to a motorist’s car, a compensation claim and harm the company’s reputation.
“You are constantly checking and must never get complacent,” Jeremy says. He has never had a crossover. “If you follow procedure, then you should never have any problem with a crossover – that’s what’s frowned upon by the company, because there are three or four checks you should do before letting the product go – even if it means talking to yourself, which I do!”
Once all the product is delivered, there is paperwork to sign and information to capture in the hand-held computer, which synchronizes with the BP computer system. Before moving off, Gibbs makes his final checks. “You have to visualise all four corners of the vehicle, you have to take in a lot of information on a busy forecourt. You have to be aware of how the large mirrors, which give you as much vision of the rear as possible, can help but can, themselves, act as blind spots.”
Today is a normal day for Gibbs, unlike the one in September 2012, when he led the parade. He carried a lot of fuel deliveries for the Olympics, helping BP meet its commitment as official oil and gas partner to fuelling the Games with 17 million litres (3.8 million gallons) of fuel over 60 days. “For me, it was a great day. The crowds were unbelievable. You just couldn’t believe the noise and the size. There was a sea of people in front of you.
“Along with the birth of my two children, that was in my top three moments of my life. I try to work the best I can and go the extra mile and, then, to get that recognition from BP was truly amazing.”
As well as gaining satisfaction in the job, drivers like Gibbs have plenty of options to progress in their careers. Transport manager Adrian Brooks and trainer Tallis are both driver veterans who have moved to senior office roles.
We’re back at the terminal and my time in the truck has come to an end. As I step down from the cab, I realise how much I’ve learned about the skills needed to do this job. It may not be for me, but I’ll never look at a tanker or its driver in quite the same way again.
BP has pioneered the use of technology to monitor the safe driving of each of its UK fleet of 140 fuel tankers. Each vehicle is fitted with a telematics system, which records and relays information on driving style back to the base.
The telematics feeds from the truck language, taking readings from engine management system, which records harsh braking, rapid acceleration and any indication that the truck wheels have left the ground even momentarily – a sign of a potential vehicle rollover.
The system also has an environmental focus, with each driver encouraged to drive economically – saving diesel while delivering it – by keeping the momentum of the vehicle going, whether moving forwards or left and right. Vehicles can be monitored in real time and the system can pinpoint on a map where any incident happened, so it can be fully investigated with the driver.
Transport manager Brooks says: “It will tell us a lot about what is happening out on the road and we will then have a conversation to find out what happened. We do a training needs analysis sheet every week to see if the driver needs further training. We want to keep our drivers at that top level.”
Wayne Park oversaw the implementation of the system, as BP’s fuels value chain UK secondary transport manager, and says: “It showed significant improvement in driving performance and road incidents decreased over the period of implementation.” The system also has a bearing on reward – as drivers are incentivised to drive efficiently and safely. Park says: “In my experience, this programme is unique in the way we are rewarding drivers, it strikes a balance between safe driving and driving the truck efficiently. Drivers are then rewarded with the benefits they create.”