No rest for the engineers giving Blackpool Pleasure Beach the once over
When the last thrill-seekers have left the Pleasure Beach after the Illuminations end, then the real work begins for the small army of engineers and maintenance crew.
While many of Blackpool’s Promenade businesses are taking a mid-winter rest amid the silvery light of the shortest days, behind the scenes at the Pleasure Beach the days are simply not long enough for all the preparation that needs to be done for the coming year.
Robert Owen, director of marketing and sales at the Pleasure Beach, said many people assume that the attraction is all quiet.
He said: “People often ask what do we do all winter when the Pleasure Beach is closed.
“They must imagine we can all put our feet up apart for a lick of paint here and there, but in fact it is the busiest time of the year for our engineering and maintenance department.
“People do not realise the lengths we have to go to, the amount of work in stripping down the rides and carrying out all the tests and inspections.
“The teams will be working right the way through to the end of January, ready for the first opening in February.”
Alex Payne is the technical director, responsible for all aspects of the engineering side of the attraction.
He oversees the 75 staff in mechanical, electrical engineering, construction, utilities, the paint and model shop, animation and administration. He is also responsible for the construction projects such as when the Icon ride became the newest ride.
He said: “It is a bit like running a small town. We look after all the services coming in, every piece of infrastructure on the site and all the waste going out.”
For example, the site has several of its own substations where power is brought onto the site. Icon has to have one of its own and the team had to start negotiations to have it installed two years before the ride was built.
Alex said: “It is a two megawatt supply. The transformer details took an awful lot of working out and utilities companies are generally very busy and run to their own timetables.
“We were actually worried that we would have the ride built and ready to go before the power was in. It was nail biting stuff.
“We are very busy at this time of year. We have independent inspectors on site and we are carrying out the maintenance and inspection of the rides.
“We hit the ground running on November 4, the morning after the last opening night. The vehicles were already in the workshops from the night before, ready for the guys starting at 8am.”
He said that every year, two out of the three cars from the Big One are removed and stripped down to the individual components. All items are inspected and tested and the bearings, nuts and bolts are thrown away to be replaced by new ones whether they need it or not.
The parts have the paint blasted off to reveal the bare metal and then a team of independent NDT (non destructive testing) experts use a variety of techniques to check for fatigue or cracks.
There is also an independent third party inspection team that comes in to check all the rides.
Alex added: “We are currently replacing the vertical spindles on Infusion. These allow the axles to rotate on the ride. They cost £1,000 apiece and they reach the end of their service life after eight years.
“Last year there were 34,000 cycles on infusion so even though there is nothing physically wrong with the spindles, but because they have been through so many load cycles we replace them.
“Every device has to have a third party inspection annually. There are two inspection bodies. Every ride gets an annual certificate from one or the other.
“We have to sit down in September with the inspectors and agree a schedule.”
In any machine that undergoes a lot of movement and stress, such as a coaster like the Big One reaching speeds of 80mph and forces of 4G, there is always the potential for stress and fatigue – particularly at weak points, where pieces are fastened together or where holes have been drilled.
On Infusion alone there are 11,000 corners, holes and welds to check.
And working in Blackpool brings its own challenges due to its seafront location.
He explained: “We are working in one of the most testing environments in the world. The potential for corrosion here in Blackpool is massive.
“It is in fact much worse than anywhere in the country, even places like Brighton.”
He said the work is intense but he loves doing the weekend shifts now and again because it gives him a chance to get out of the office and back on the workshop floor and get hands on.
Alex has been at the Pleasure Beach for 25 years and is a highly qualified chartered engineer. Some may wonder why someone so well qualified would want to work on an amusement park, but Alex says it is the sheer variety of techniques and disciplines that keeps them all hooked.
“I don’t particularly like going on the rides, but I have always enjoyed the idea of them and the engineering behind them.
“Working here kind of gets you hooked. There are a lot of us who have been here for years, one man has been here 35 years.”
He said he enjoys the variety of working on vintage technology such as the Sir Hiram Maxim’s Captive Flying Machines, at 115 years old, as well as the latest computerised rides, like Icon.
And with 10 roller coasters alone there is plenty to go at. Where else are you going to get that variety?” he asked.
“That’s what grabs us. The industry is always changing. The technology of 25 years ago does not compare to the complexity of today’s technology.
“The staff on the team are amazingly experienced engineers. They could get a job anywhere, but that is not necessarily the same the other way round.
“Even highly qualified and experienced engineers may not be up to the job here.”
So for that reason, they need to make sure the engineers of the future have got the skills needed to keep the Pleasure Beach running.
Which is why they regularly take on college apprentices and train them up for the job, giving local youngsters the chance to work in one of the resort’s most famous attractions.