Tuesday 30 April 2024

Renewing Joyce's Superheater (3)

Some good old news: 

The new tubing for the superheater arrived with Atlas Tube Bending Ltd at the start of March 2023 (14 months ago).

The old superheater (possibly disassembled) had been supplied to Atlas by RBS along with an assembly drawing. This was presumably expected to be sufficient information to make the new coils.
Sentinel Assembly Drawing of similar superheater
Atlas began the work but stopped part way as there was not enough tubing to complete the job. In April, I was informed that more tubing would have to be sourced from Germany by RBS. 

I was disappointed as this would delay everything by six weeks and eat even further into the 2023 running season at Midsomer Norton. I was even less pleased because not only would there be the delay but an additional carriage charge to be paid by someone.

Lea Mottley let me know that the extra tubing had arrived 'in the country' on the 9th May. Communication with Lea then ceased completely and I did not know where 'in the country' the tubing was or whether it was on its way to Atlas.

At this point, I was sent an invoice for the material (£681.20, Invoice 7109/SH/002-1 dated 3/5/2023). I wasn't too happy that the figure was £81.20 more than I had been quoted but it wasn't too serious. What did puzzle me was the number on the invoice .../002-1 whereas the previous invoice had been .../003. 

A similar issue sequencing mistake had been made on an earlier invoice but Lea was happy to be informed and had willingly put it right straight away. 

So I asked about the .../002-1. After a few interchanges of emails, despite my protestations, I was told emphatically that .../002-1 was the correct invoice number. Hmm.
It's not earth shattering and may seem picky but it does give the impression that something isn't right. 

I enquired of RBS about the progress of the new tubing but no answer came.

I'd heard nothing since 9th May so eventually, out of complete frustration, I rang Atlas directly on 1st June. (This is not something I would normally do as Atlas are RBS's subcontractor, not mine). Atlas told me that not only had they received the tubing but had completed the work ready for collection.

I passed this information on to Allan although I realised he probably wouldn't be pleased that I had gone over his head. It can be tough if you don't communicate but you reap what you sow.

Allan sent me a photo on 10th June proclaiming 'The Octopus has landed'!
The landed Octopus
(Photo: A Schofield for this contract)
Things seemed to be taking shape and I was looking forward to my visit to the new RBS premises on 21st June 2023.

Like my visit to the Moston premises in October 2022, access to the new premises neither seemed obvious nor welcoming; the shutter doors were closed and there was nobody about. Eventually I rang Allan but no reply so I texted saying I was outside unit 11. Promptly, as arranged for 11am, the shutter doors began to rise slowly and I was allowed in.

I had no agenda for my visit, only to 'touch base', have a look at progress and assist in any way I could. Whilst I was at last able to see the new tube coils, I was rather perturbed at Allan complaining that Atlas had left him more welds than he'd wanted, more small tube parts to be welded and having also not made the tube piece ends easily accessible for welding.

To me this begged the question: What had Atlas been actually specified to do? Had Allan considered how the coils would be made from the sections of tubing supplied or had he just left it to chance that Atlas might do the right thing?

Atlas are tube benders, one of the best there is. Allan is the one providing the expertise to build the superheater. So if Allan did not get what he wanted, then there is only Allan to be held responsible.

I also started to feel uncomfortable and anticipating bills for the extra welding. No reassurance that this might not be the case was given.

I had some time left over so I popped in to see Atlas themselves. Although I arrived unannounced, Neil Meah and Martin Wood made me very welcome and we discussed how things had been going. They showed me the final coil that had been made from the second order of tubing that morning. Regrettably, I didn't think to take a photo of it. 

I let Allan know the coil was ready for collection and went on my way feeling reasonably happy.
About this time, I had a call from Martin Staniforth, owner of the other double-engined Sentinel steam loco 9622. He told me that one of the coils he'd had made for his loco's superheater had been wound the wrong way (analogous to using a left hand threaded screw instead of a right hand one). I asked Allan to check.

The two largest coils had been wound the wrong way. 
These photos show the old and the new for comparison.
Outer Coil (Opposite spirals)
(Photo: A Schofield for this contract)
Next to Outer Coil (Opposite Spirals)
(Photo: A Schofield for this contract)
The two Inner Coils (Same Spirals)
Now what? I hear you say.

My thoughts at the time are unprintable but this would clearly require rework or more material from Germany. Being a high temperature, high pressure application, I feared the latter. Whichever way, somebody would have to pick up the cost.

Since I had already paid £8,115 out of the contract total of £9,745, this was not a situation I wanted to be in. I had also not been given any target date for delivery and this would put things back a long time.

On 15th July, Allan sent me an email with some options:
1. Return unfit coils for a second time to Atlas, your chosen contractor for the job, to be made good, again.

2. We Re-work the garbage coils supplied by Atlas, with no guarantee on the work, material or other and is not without its risks and more expense.

3. Have the unfit coils remade new by a different contractor of your choice.

Obviously which ever solution you choose will have a different compromise either with cost, time or both.

I’ll leave this with you and await your instruction on how to proceed."

I made four observations from this:
The first is that the tube material is being referred to as 'Unfit' and 'Garbage'. Later Allan also described one of the coils as 'Piece of Junk'. Does that mean they are irretrievable or what? How on earth was I supposed to interpret the implication of these terms?

The second, where I have underlined, is an obvious attempt to hold me responsible for the choice of Atlas to do the tube bending. Allan had told me in early discussions that Atlas was the only company that could do certain parts of this work.

The third, also where I have underlined, is who would be supplying the 'more expense' in the second option?

The fourth is the question: why is the expert contractor asking me, his customer, how to proceed? That is why I employed him in the first place.

In reality, the first option was the only sensible one so why waste time asking in the first place?

I was furious. I decided that I would first have to lay down the facts of what I had been quoted, what I had paid against that quote and what was still outstanding. I also made it clear that the tubing had been damaged while under RBS auspices and that RBS were thus responsible for the corrective work.

Allan responded with, amongst other things, insistence that only email should be used for further communication. This I knew would cause complications and it effectively ended any form of amicable customer/contractor relationship.

After a few more emails, to my surprise, Allan actually rang me. In flowery, unprintable terms (after being unable to phone him for months), I expressed my shock that he was able to use a telephone after all!

Amongst other remarks was one that Allan "had never known a customer like me". 
Let's think about this: 
1. Have none of his other customers ever wanted their order delivered urgently? 
2. (With the benefit of hindsight) have any of the other customers had to wait 18 or more months for a job that should have taken about 6? 
3. Have there actually been any other customers? I may be able to throw some light on this one later on.

However, although under duress, it did still feel like RBS would get me a working superheater more quickly than by any other means, partly influenced by the thought of having to retrieve my property from such a long distance away and then begin again. 

I have abridged the contents of the various emails exchanged in July 2023. The photo below shows the thickness of the file of communications I submitted to my solicitor in December 2023 so 'abridged' is probably welcome in this context! When I set out to get a new superheater from RBS, this is not what I had in mind to be stuck with in the process.
RBS Communications.
Before all this started, in March 2020, I had a heart attack. I now check my blood pressure every morning to monitor for any unwelcome trends. During these email interchanges, I found my blood pressure rising frighteningly day after day until I realised that this had to stop. My health is far more important than Joyce's superheater and I really don't need this kind of stress in my life.

I regret having chosen to continue with RBS because of the risk to my health. In April 2024, I have had a number of offers of assistance so I don't feel so exposed in having to deal with RBS as my only choice.

I hope that by exposing these events I can help others avoid similar experiences.

After publishing my first in this series of blogposts, I was contacted by another heritage railway also having similar experiences with RBS. I am not alone.

Next time, I start to hear some unwelcome rumours.

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