Friday, July 17, 2009

Tales of the Yellow Fleet: The Boom Truck Goes BOOM!

The Yellow Fleet was the name given to a group of fourteen ships trapped in the Suez Canal (in the Great Bitter Lake section) from 1967 to 1975 as a result of the Six-Day War. The name derived from their yellow appearance as they were increasingly covered in desert sand swept onboard. WAIT! Stop right there!! Not that yellow fleet...

The "Yellow Fleet" is the informal name given to the collection of support equipment, both rubber tired and not, that enables the Railroad Museum of New England to support the goals of preservation and interpretation along with the operation of the railroad. Included are rubber tired motor vehicles, "hi-rail" equipment (can operate on road or rail), construction machinery and track equipment. Most happen to be painted... guess what color?

The most senior member of this diverse group is an item known locally as the "boom truck." A 1973 Ford C-700 heavy duty truck chassis with a hydraulic crane mounted behind the cab and a length of stake body. This truck was donated by the local electric utility many, many moons ago. Those of us with enough whiskers can recall that this truck figured prominently in the RMNE’s first major track project, which was the construction of Saybrook Yard. To this day, the truck has a high degree of usefulness and can be quickly set up for many types of lifting projects. Back in the day, it was even known to leave home territory and travel over the road for various resource recovery efforts.

By the way, we don’t recall who christened it the "boom truck." However, a boom is a part of a crane, the part of that actually positions the hoist over the load to be picked. The passage of time, along with the continual expansion of the yellow fleet, has created some difficulties when comes to maintaining all this stuff. Not enough time, not enough money. On the upside, there happens to be a dedicated maintenance crew consisting of Gene Pfeiffer and Bob Harrington. Two men with two lifetimes’ worth of experience dealing with this type of stuff. Not only that, but they have commercial drivers licenses (CDL) and can legally drive the heavier items on public roads. Sounds like a match made in heaven, right?

It can be argued that a piece of machinery has a personality of its own. The boom truck, suffice to say, is sorta loud, but she tends to go about her business without too much fanfare. Never been much of a hangar queen. Well, a few Saturdays past, folks were working in about the shop, puttering away on various things and all of a sudden, a loud BOOM was heard. We were outside, rummaging inside a boxcar and quicky ran into the shop to investigate. Nothing seems to be amiss-so we circled around and went back to what we doing and then we saw it. There was Gene, cigartte butt dangling out of his mouth, pointing down at the ground at some pieces of black plastic.

I don’t recall exactly, but his words were something like, "The $#%! battery blew up." Moving closer for a look, there were the remains of the battery sitting under the cab. The rest of the battery was scattered about on the ground. The boom truck went BOOM! As no one was hurt, we turned to the hows and whys of the situation. In very detailed fashion, Gene detailed the events of the day. Long and the short of it was that she had been misbehavin’ all day, and choose to punctuate the end of her day with an explosion. A more technical explanation: the truck had been overcharging for quite a while, boiled all of the water out of the sealed battery and then the battery exploded.

The next Monday, Gene returned to the scene of the crime, with a fresh battery in tow. One twist of the key later, the truck returned to life with the usual roar. Easy enough, right? Not so fast. Now, it was time to get down to brass tacks and examine the defective battery charging system. Out comes the voltmeter, touch test probes here, touch probes there. Yes-No-YESSS! Appears to be the voltage regulator. Back to the "office" to locate the part.

The office (actually Gene’s kitchen) is where much of the hard stuff takes place. That is, locating the needed part at a price that the group is able to pay. Endless numbers of cell phone calls (many of them dead ends), note taking, looking through repair manuals and parts books. All done during business hours, during the day. Navigating the long trail, in search of the solution.

In this case, the trail is going to lead to Cheshire Ford because parts for heavy duty vehicles such as the boom truck aren’t carried at the local auto parts store. Gene made the 40 mile journey down to Chesire Ford. As Gene is apt to do, he chatted up the parts guy, who turned out to be well schooled in these vehicles. Gene learned that there were three variations of this truck chassis. One was equipped with an auger to drill holes for utility poles, one had a grapple to set the poles and the third (our old ‘gal) was used to lift and mount the transformers on the pole. Unknown to anybody but Clem, the boom truck was equipped with a high-output alternator used to power lights (removed before we obtained the truck) located on the boom. A knowlegable parts guy always helps things along, along with selecting the correct part the first time out.

After some money changed hands, a voltage regulator (stocked in Florida) and a priming switch (stocked in Pennsylvania) were ordered. Forty miles back to Genes’ place and on to other matters. A few days later, another forty miles to Chesire to pick the stuff up-and still another forty miles back.

The following Saturday, Gene and Bob got set up to make the old gal healthy again. The new voltage regulator was nothing but a simple swap. The priming switch turned out to be a bit of a challenge, but was eventually doped out and installed. After working the priming switch, the truck started easily, as it should have. Not only that, but the charging ammeter settled down to the middle position, instead of showing maximum charge. That problem was solved. For now, the boom truck is good to go. Not that she is perfect. There is a clutch slave cylinder to be changed, and leaks to be addressed in certain hydraulic cylinders. In due time, Gene will take care of those problems, too, no doubt about it!