MT the sharp end: My turn with the tanker

A day of delivering fuel, and Rhymer Rigby rides shotgun as driver's cabmate.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

My day as a tanker-driver's mate kicked off at a fuel depot somewhere near Leeds. Or Wakefield. Well, it wasn't really that near anywhere. But as the (entirely unrelated) Buncefield fire of 2005 demonstrated, when a fuel depot goes wrong, you don't want it to be close to anywhere. Anyhow, it sits on the banks of a canal (all the fuel arrives by barge) in that part of West Yorks that can't decide whether it's countryside, post-industrial sprawl or American-style retail park.

We began with a health-and-safety briefing, and when you're about to ride around with 20,000 litres of highly explosive fuel behind you, you pay attention. The scariest substance, I learned, is petrol, because of its volatility. But that's OK, said Vicky from Health and Safety, 'you won't be delivering any petrol'. Then my driver arrived and announced that our first two loads were petrol. I turned my mobile off and checked my clothes for static.

Alan and I climbed into the tanker (the cab is about five feet off the ground) and trucked off to a police station near Sheffield - the police have their own fuel supply back at base. On the way, Alan told me that the boys and girls in blue are notoriously undisciplined parkers. He was right. Delivering 5,000 litres of unleaded should have taken 15 minutes, but after rearranging police cars, riot vans and other vehicles scattered around the copshop's back door, it took closer to 45. We reversed in, and I could only marvel at Alan's sang-froid and uncanny command of his door mirrors as he manoeuvred our hazardous articulated vehicle into a space where I'd have struggled to park a Mini.

Delivering petrol is complicated and calls for both a fuel delivery hose and a vapour recovery hose to capture the vapour driven out of the storage tanks by the incoming fuel. If you don't collect the vapour it could burst the tank or even explode.

Unlike the tank in your car, most petrol storage tanks don't have gauges - instead, levels are ascertained by means of metal dipsticks taller than a man. Such utilitarian charm cannot be long for this world: it's only a matter of time before these simple, effective anachronisms are replaced by a computerised 'solution' that costs 100 times as much and doesn't work.

Next up, another police station, even trickier than the first. The only person with a key to the padlocked tank was off sick. A call was made to a nearby station and their handyman arrived, tooled up for a spot of officially sanctioned breaking and entering. First, we tried to cut the padlock off. The handyman's bolt-cutters broke and his mood darkened. Eventually, we knocked the pin out of the hasp and eased the cap off that way.

Grabbing sandwiches for lunch, we returned to refuel at the depot's Brobdingnagian pumps. If you begrudge spending £60 or £70 filling up your car, be thankful you don't drive one of these; filling our tanker would cost close to £20,000. Afternoon drops were to a fire station, a local council, a landscaping business, a private home and a travellers' site. The load was less hazardous: diesel, fuel oil and kerosene. Separate compartments in a tanker's tank allow it to carry several kinds of fuel at once.

Our domestic delivery was to a house with Beckenham Palace-style gates and a heated outdoor swimming pool - hence the need for fuel oil. At a cost of £800 a month, its owner clearly had money to burn. As for the travellers, they paid cash on delivery. Alan counted the heap of crumpled notes very carefully.

On the way back, I asked him about his most memorable drop. He laughed and said he used to deliver to a firm in a large building with blacked-out windows and a small generator shed to one side; he was paid cash there, too. When he asked what the business was he was told it made Chinese meals for the take-away market. But there was no smell of food. The truth came out when the police busted the place. It was a cannabis farm.

But for the most part, his difficulties arise from having to drive, year-round, to the more isolated and rugged parts of Yorkshire. Still, he clearly enjoys it; Alan has been at Bayford Oil for 33 years. The best bit, he said, was the relationship he'd built up with customers. It's true that he was on extraordinarily friendly terms with everyone we had delivered to.

On the side of Bayford's tankers it says 'Fuelling people'. I'm not one for corporate slogans but, after my day with Alan, I realised that this one was more honest than most. Like those giant metal dipsticks, I hope they don't update it.

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