Electricity North West: ‘Real buzz’ from having achievements recognised

Innovation and collaboration help to make utility company’s fleet safer, greener and more efficient

Electricity North West is recognised as a fleet operator of excellence and at the core of its focus is safety, the environment and efficiency.

The electricity distribution network operator can claim an impressive list of achievements. For example, it has a fleet collision ratio of just 5% across its 628 commercial vehicles. It has also seen an 11% reduction in diesel used over the past five years despite a 6% increase in fleet size. 

And it can add emission savings due to factors including vehicle downsizing where appropriate, driver education, the fitment of vehicles with rev and speed limiters and improved journey planning. The company has also achieved increased efficiencies in numerous areas including procurement cost-savings. 

What’s more Electricity North West is taking its sub-contractors, which currently collectively operate some 800 commercial vehicles, on the safety journey.

Electricity North West is the first utility company in the UK to achieve the Freight Transport Association’s (FTA) Van Excellence best practice accreditation. 

Fleet manager Graham Davis has been in post for almost nine years and says: “Safety is key, but we treat the company’s money as if it was our own. We normally secure funding for the initiatives we want to pursue having proven the business case. Compliance is essential as we don’t want to appear in front of the Traffic Commissioners.”

Electricity North West buys all its vehicles and benefits from a procurement club that comprises other utility companies. It then spends thousands of pounds – £12,000 in the case of panel vans for jointers responsible for repairing underground cables – making them fit-for-purpose with racking, welfare facilities, auxiliary batteries and other features as well as a raft of safety features.

Those features include reversing cameras, forward-facing cameras, telematics and the aforementioned rev and speed limiters.

The company requires a wide range of vehicles for use across a raft of skill sets – surveyors, first responder fault technicians, fitters, overhead line engineers as well as jointers and others. These, plus the relatively low mileage (18,000-20,000 miles on average per year per vehicle), are among the reasons why vehicle replacement cycles extend to eight years for vans and 10 years or more for trucks and specialist vehicles such as the Unimogs. The Unimogs have 4x4 chassis and are operated across some of the harshest terrain in the North West. 

“Equipping a base vehicle and making it fit for purpose is a significant cost so we need to operate across replacement cycles that may not be the fleet norm,” says Davies, who adds that vehicles are typically defleeted through Burnley Auctioneers.

Such replacement cycles make a strict vehicle maintenance regime essential and that starts with drivers undertaking daily vehicle inspections. An in-house mobile app is used by drivers to undertake checks with reports and any remedial action required fed through to the fleet department.

Electricity North West is one of the UK’s regulated electricity distribution networks centred on Cumbria and Lancashire. It connects 2.4 million properties and more than five million people in the region to the national grid. 

Last year it produced a driver’s ‘daily check’ video, which is viewed by all employees and is part of the company’s induction process. This year, the company is to produce a ‘safe loading’ video, which will be shown to all drivers.

Vehicle maintenance is carried out through a combination of four of its own workshops and a network of independent garages across its region.

Vans from five manufacturers are currently on the company’s fleet with car-derived vehicles undergoing an annual service and panel vans having an annual service plus a six-monthly inspection. Trucks go through the statutory eight-week checks and undergo an annual service.

Driver engagement is vital for Davies, which is why working groups have been established to manage a range of fleet matters, most recently the design of new vehicle fit-outs and new vehicle livery.

Payload management is a critical issue for Electricity North West. Manufacturers are adding weight to new vehicles – notably additional safety features, heavier windscreens and AdBlue tanks and related equipment on Euro6-compliant models. So the company faces the challenge of reducing weight for vehicle fit-out and the amount of tools and equipment carried, while continuing to deliver a safe and reliable service to customers.

“It’s a constant balancing act in introducing vehicles that are fit for purpose – and with the right payload – so we can equip to meet our requirements. We tackled this challenge by establishing user-groups to develop and implement solutions,” says Davies. They include: using 30% lighter internal racking and reducing the number of seats in vehicle cabins from three to two, while weighbridges have been introduced at the company’s 11 depots to monitor weight.

Further efficiencies are being achieved by challenging drivers and depot managers on vehicle choice to ensure the most efficient vehicles are used by each skill set across the company. For example, where possible small vans equipped with ‘grip control’ for better handling have been introduced at the expense of 4x4s, delivering significantly improved mpg and improved wholelife costs while being 50% cheaper to buy.

The introduction of a raft of safety measures helped drive down collisions to the extent that just 33 incidents were recorded in 2015/16, netting a “significant” insurance premium saving. This is viewed as a big achievement.

Explaining an average 2% reduction in fuel volume year-on-year since 2011 – diesel volume per annum is now around 1.2 million litres – Davies says many initiatives had contributed to cutting fuel bills. Among them was a joint tender with another utility company for fuel cards to improve terms. But he singled out rev limiters as the most important additional feature.

Davies, who has more than 40 years’ motor industry experience behind him – much of it in fleet roles, says: “Fitting rev limiters to the fleet cost £98,000, but within six months we had saved £100,000 on fuel. They have had the biggest impact in terms of cutting fuel use, but also reducing the strain on drivers.

“Drivers were initially suspicious of the new technology – rev limiters, speed limiters and trackers – but it is for their own safety and welfare. Rev limiters deliver a more relaxed style of driving and reduce speed. If drivers are more relaxed there is less strain on them and less strain on the vehicle,” he adds.

It was a combination of such initiatives that saw Electricity North West being named Commercial Fleet of the Year - Utilities in the 2016 Commercial Fleet Awards and Davies being highly commended in the Commercial Fleet Manager of the Year category.

The judges said: “Significant innovations from cameras, telematics, videos and apps for driver checks make     Electricity North West stand out. Its consideration for drivers is demonst-rated by their inclusion on vehicle design and modification discussions; the team takes a collaborative approach to fleet management. A worthy winner.”

Meanwhile, 2016 saw Electricity North West introduce a new fleet livery starting with a pilot scheme involving 25 vans.

Livery design started in January last year with a steering group involving representatives of the company’s fleet, communications and accommodation teams as well as delivery managers, trade union representatives and supply partner AST.

The aims of the livery redesign included raising awareness of Electricity North West across the region and reinforcing the importance of the fleet with Davies saying: “It is vital customers across the region know who we are and what we do, so they know who to contact in a power cut, and our vital services can be accessed easily and quickly.”

Furthermore, the final livery had to be adaptable across all vehicle types from small- and medium-sized vans to mobile elevated work platform vehicles. After the design was agreed pilot vans were on the road within eight weeks.

Davies says: “We were conscious that, while we needed something bold and striking, a design covering the whole vehicle would present too many cost challenges and may increase the vulnerability of wear and tear.”

The result, including the straplines ‘powering the North West’ and ‘bringing energy to your door’ as well as icons representing homes, businesses, pylons and contact details is now being rolled out across the fleet as new vehicles are introduced.

The company made it double top in the 2016 Commercial Fleet Awards as it also won the Best Commercial Fleet Livery of the Year title with the judges saying: “Striking a uniformed livery showing thoughtful use of symbols and colours, plus good use of contact information including various social media platforms. The company set a clear objective which was perfectly met by the livery.”

Davies says: “We have received positive comments on the new design both internally and externally and as the livery is rolled out it will provide many benefits to the company.”

With approximately 70 vehicles being replaced each year – as well as additional vehicles introduced as Electricity North West brings some outsourced contracts back in-house – it will take perhaps a further five or six years to transform the whole fleet.

Electricity North West was accredited to Van Excellence in 2010 and Davies is a member of its governance group.

“We believed our fleet was well managed with good fleet policies and procedures, but no one outside of the business knew that. Therefore, with the majority of the Electricity North West fleet being vans, which do not come under Operator Licence regulations, we thought it was important to abide by a code of practice,” says Davies explaining why the company joined the campaign, which is designed to raise fleet operating standards nationally.

What’s more, Electricity North West subsequently told all its sub-contractors they had to join Van Excellence or would not receive work.

“We measure complaint levels and we noticed they were twice as high for our sub-contractor fleets as for our own. The only difference was we had Van Excellence and they didn’t. We then made it compulsory for them to become accredited and the problem disappeared,” says Davies, who adds that sub-contractors’ vehicles were also equipped with speed limiters to meet the code of practice.

Further underlining Electricity North West’s focus on compliance is that everyone in the business who has any degree of vehicle responsibility – from depot managers to the chief executive and fellow directors – attends an FTA Operator Licence appreciation course and a two-year mandatory refresher course.

Davies says: “Fleet may be a small part of the Electricity North West business, but it is important people in the company understand road transport legislation and that it is critical the rules are followed and best practice is applied so we are compliant.”

Looking forward, Davies says ensuring maximum vehicle and driver safety and compliance remain his biggest challenge, but he is also keen to pilot plug-in vehicles.

The company car fleet is more than 300 vehicles and a pool car fleet includes three all-electric Nissan Leafs. But electric van viability is hampered by battery range and payload issues.

However, says Davies: “Plug-in vehicle technology is advancing rapidly and I believe we will have electric vans on the fleet in the near future.”

A further initiative being worked on will see an updated telematics system that will identify drivers’ skill sets via a swipe card system. That will improve vehicle and driver utilisation enabling the correct staff to be dispatched to specific locations, boosting the likelihood of first-time fixes.

Davies leads a Salford-based fleet department that also includes fleet controller Steve Peers and fleet administrators Julie Eaton and Rebecca Smalley. He also managing Electricity North West’s four garages. He says winning the awards gave the department and the company “a real buzz”.

He adds: “We always felt we were doing a good job, but being recognised for doing so is a great achievement. Electricity North West is part of the electricity network industry and is not a transport company so to win awards for our fleet is fantastic.”

Furthermore, Davies, who sits on the FTA’s utilities group, believes it is essential that fleet chiefs share best practice. 

He concluded: “Whether a fleet manager in a utility company or any other business it is important to share knowledge, experience and problems. We can all learn from each other.”

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