Back on the wagons

I’ve just done two more days of driving trucks around - yesterday it was in a sort of anticlockwise circular tour of Surrey county, from Croydon to Weybridge, Egham, Woking, Guildford, then down to East Grinstead and on to Hildenborough (near Sevenoaks in Kent) to drop off a hire truck and pick up the company’s own wagon. Then I had to drive it back to Croydon. Today, it was around South London.

All the driving was done in Iveco trucks. Iveco trucks used to say Ford on them, in the UK at least, but that’s been dropped recently, and Iveco are an offshoot of Fiat anyway (Ford has a stake in the UK branch, I think). What I read is that it’s a joint Italian-German company with its base in the Netherlands. They are meant to be cheap and cheerful wagons, particularly at 7.5 tonne level (there’s no point in making a cheapo truck for journeys across Europe). The cheerful bit refers to the company, not the driver, who has to cope with these wagons’ excessively stiff gearsticks and (sometimes) clutches. For you Americans out there, most vehicles here have a manual gearbox, both trucks and cars. Iveco trucks (in my experience) have a huge problem with second gear. You can’t find it when you want it, and you sometimes lose an opportunity to get ahead because of problems getting the truck from third into second gear. It’s also the toughest on your shoulder. Yesterday I was driving a “Eurocargo” which is Iveco’s funky looking new small truck. But the gearstick is still a pig.

That’s not to say it’s all brilliant with other trucks. With most trucks, you turn the engine off with the ignition key. Not the old Mercedes trucks, though. I once had to drive one of these things to Birmingham in the early hours of the morning, and pulled in at a service station on the M1 motorway. I tried turning the key, and eventually had to ask another driver to show me how to turn it off! The new Mercs (a model called Atego) have a wierd gearstick which requires a definite knack to get the switches right. I always say that a gearbox which requires a “man’s strength” or a “woman’s touch” to do something as simple as putting it in reverse or second gear is a dud gearbox. (And by the way, Mercedes trucks are said to be the “Rolls Royce” of the truck world. They are supposedly ultra-reliable.)

I’ve had a few disasters with trucks I’ve had to drive - I worked for the same company from around October 2002 to April 2003 (when I was unceremoniously let go when I went to Ireland for a week for my cousin’s wedding). This truck had a problem with the steering, which kept seizing up without warning. Alhamdu lillah, it never did this when I was going along fast, or it could have been a real disaster. But it did so three times, often when I was miles from home, and I had to wait hours for a truck recovery vehicle to come and tow my truck home. Then there was the day I was driving to Birmingham for an event-hire company (they do marquees and tables and stuff) in a quite powerful MAN truck, and I was heading out onto the M40 motorway (one of two motorways from London to Birmingham) when it started losing power. I was having difficulty overtaking another truck, and started wondering if it had a device to restrict speed (these are required by law on big trucks in Europe, but they are also sometimes used on small trucks to lower insurance rates). The problem got worse until I could only do about 40mph, and I called up the boss and asked him if he knew why the truck was not going as fast as it should be. He didn’t. Eventually I had to turn off the motorway (go at that speed on a motorway, and you will get stopped by the police), and made my way by minor roads to a service station north of Oxford, and by the time the truck limped into the service station, I had told the boss that the truck probably wouldn’t make it to Birmingham, and the repair man would have to be called out.

So the repair man arrived when I was drinking my coffee in the travellers’ restaurant, and the boss called up with the reason for the truck’s poor performance: some guy who was dissatisfied with the work he’d had to do the previous day had poured salt into the engine. The repair man replaced some component whose name I’ve forgotten, and I followed him to Banbury, doing 70mph back on the M40 (which, by the way, is often almost empty), and signed some papers by the roadside just outside Banbury. But as soon as I got back on, the truck started losing it again, just about making it (about 30mph) on the motorway approach to Birmingham, although it went OK on the last section because it was mostly downhill. I had to wait hours at the base in Birmingham for a replacement. But when it came, it was the most powerful wagon I’ve ever driven - 220 horse-power (the norm for a truck this size is 150 hp), and I was in the unusual situation of having to try to avoid speeding on the way home (in these things, it’s often a struggle to reach the speed limit, never mind exceed it).

The biggest gripe I’ve got about driving for a living is getting stuck in traffic, and the usual cause is the afternoon school run and, of course, the two rush hours. I get intensely annoyed by this because most of these people don’t need to be on the road at all. We do have a reasonable public transport system, in the cities at least. Of course you may have heard about our mayor Ken Livingstone’s attempt to cut congestion by imposing a 5 pound charge to drive into central London (a more effective way might have been to remove all the commuter parking spaces in central London, which would stimulate demand for the buses, but that wouldn’t raise any extra money for the mayor’s office). The roads in most of London are just not up to having all that traffic pouring through them. In between towns, it’s a different story. In 1990, there was a vast network of bus services in the area immediately round London which was run by the National Bus Company. We all knew that the red buses ran within London, and the green buses went out to the country. Over the last 20 years most of the green buses from the outer suburban towns (Croydon, Sutton, Kingston) to the countryside have been cut right back, so anyone living in Kingston and working in, say, Redhill, has to drive to work, because the bus has been killed off. When I last tried to use the one remaining bus from Croydon to Redhill, I was quoted a fare which was more than the train fare.

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