Winter Maintenance: Compliance under COVID-19
The events of the past year have brought about major changes and challenges to the way we live and work. The winter maintenance community is no exception.
The team from A New Winter Approach – an advisory group made up of senior winter maintenance professionals from across the sector – recently hosted a round table event, attended by Local Authorities, winter service providers and industry bodies.
The event allowed professionals from across the industry to explore the challenges brought about by COVID, as well as how Local Authorities can optimise resources and boost efficiency during challenging times.
Winter Maintenance: An Essential Service?
The pandemic has brought about changes in the way we use the road network, with more focus on Active Travel, less use of public transport and reduced travel to and from workplaces.
A month into the Coronavirus lockdown, National Rail and London Underground use had fallen by 99 per cent and 96 per cent respectively compared to early-February, while bus passenger numbers plummeted by 88 per cent.
Meanwhile, the Government focussed on Active Travel, announcing a £250-million emergency fund to implement pop-up bike lanes, wider pavements, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and E-scooter trials.
Yet, despite this shift in the way we access and use different modes of travel, safe road transportation remains essential to the economy. Those in key worker roles rely on a robust and reliable road system, while supermarkets and their customers depend on regular deliveries of food and supplies.
Under the Highways Act 1980 (England and Wales), “a highway authority is under a duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that safe passage along a highway is not endangered by snow or ice.” While our use of the networks may have changed under COVID, the duty of care hasn’t, making it vital that Local Authorities carry out winter maintenance activities, despite the additional pressures posed by the pandemic.
Continuity planning, winter maintenance and the role of training
For all organisations, regardless of industry, continuity planning is absolutely vital to ensuring success in the post-pandemic world. Getting to grips with the impact on staffing and ensuring that people are trained to do the job effectively is key to operational efficiency. The need to ensure that activities are fulfilled in a COVID-safe way only serves to add to that pressure.
“Training is absolutely key to ensuring that winter maintenance teams can meet their obligations.”
Steve Spender, CEO of the Institute of Highway Engineers
Steve Spender, CEO of the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), explains “Training is absolutely key to ensuring that winter maintenance teams can meet their obligations. While much of our training focuses on upskilling and updating the knowledge of existing industry professionals, we’re also very aware that many councils are having to increase their crews in case existing team numbers are depleted by COVID.”
That’s certainly what the team is seeing in many areas, where Local Authorities are having to spend budget on bringing in new team members to ensure that obligations can be met throughout the winter season. For one of the Local Authority delegates in attendance at the event, driver numbers have been increased by 40 to a team of around 120, enabling the authority to backfill shifts and ensure adequate cover.
Steve continues, “My concern is that the focus during the pandemic has been on maintaining what we’ve done in the past. The new challenge of managing and training additional operational teams means that training for best practice in terms of spread rates, legalities and operational requirements is being pushed into second place. In my view, Winter Maintenance professionals are in danger of losing touch with the latest developments in the industry because of the other challenges posed by COVID.”
“In my view, Winter Maintenance professionals are in danger of losing touch with the latest developments in the industry because of the other challenges posed by COVID.”
Steve Spender, CEO of the Institute of Highway Engineers
Despite this concern, the move away from face to face training towards various types of e-learning and virtual tools arguably presents the industry with a unique opportunity. While training has traditionally been focussed on operational roles, from engineers to practitioners, the increased prevalence of e-learning allows the message to reach a wider audience.
Alan Sheen, Director at Eurodome Ltd, commented “Our discussions with Local Authorities certainly suggest that there is a need for the intricacies of winter maintenance to be understood by those in more senior roles, including elected officials. Budget allocation within Local Authorities is absolutely a political decision and there needs to be a level of understanding of the issues in order to get buy-in. Only by increasing knowledge can we ensure that obligations are fulfilled efficiently and effectively.”
Active travel and winter maintenance
Following the announcement of the emergency funding and the subsequent launch of the Gear Change paper in July, Active Travel is one area that does indeed have political backing. This focus on encouraging greener, more sustainable modes of travel is not a new thing, with towns and cities all over the world focused on reducing carbon emissions.
However, with the arrival of the pandemic, the focus has shifted towards the quick implementation of schemes designed to get people walking and cycling.
“When it comes to winter maintenance, we’re seeing some real issues with some of these temporary [active travel] routes.”
Richard Hayes, Highways Consultant
Richard Hayes, Highways Consultant, commented, “When it comes to winter maintenance, we’re seeing some real issues with some of these temporary routes. The success of these schemes will undoubtedly be based on perceived usage, yet in many instances, the design has been based upon immediate need, without taking into account the specifics and budgets required for a seasonal approach.”
In many instances, the routes are segregated from the main carriageway with bollards, barriers, higher curbs or planters. While the group’s collective experience – along with input from Local Authority attendees at the round table event – suggests that authorities may previously have relied on bounce-off from the main carriageways to treat adjacent cycle paths and pavements, the design of the schemes makes it important that treatment is managed separately.
Steve from the IHE continues, “Relying on bounce-off isn’t sufficient. The structures and surfaces are different, making them susceptible to different temperatures which require different treatments. The approach would also benefit from more joined up thinking between connected authorities. I read recently about a cycle way which went through three adjacent authorities, one opted not to treat, another did so with brine and the third with dry salt. The differing approaches introduce an element of danger for the cyclists and the potential of costly claims against the authorities.”
As well as the increased focus on Active Travel, there is a need to maintain existing routes as well as focussing on the areas around testing and vaccination centres. This extra pressure means that winter maintenance teams need to find a way to work smarter.
Better the devil you know? Assessing winter maintenance treatments
While providing an effective service and keeping people safe is a primary objective of any winter maintenance treatment, councils and contractors also have to consider the impact on the environment as well as budgetary constraints.
Gregorie Marshall of Peacock Salt explains, “There’s been an ongoing debate about the benefits of pre-wet salt and brine over dry salt. The pre-wet approach allows salt to adhere to the ground more quickly, enabling the thawing action to begin sooner, which can actually reduce salt usage. Moving to a full liquid solution, using pure brine, reduces salt use further. However, while the ongoing costs of materials may be reduced by as much as 20%, restrictive budgets mean that the initial capital investment required is beyond some councils.”
Research suggests that switching to brine can significantly reduce material costs, increase residual salt levels on the network, and deliver the material with greater efficiency. As well as these operational efficiencies, the impact on the environment is also reduced, with less salt getting into the watercourses.
“While the arrival of the Pandemic doesn’t directly impact the ongoing debate about different treatment methods, it introduces increased reticence and resistance to change.”
Gregorie Marshall, Peacock Salt
Gregorie continues, “While the arrival of the Pandemic doesn’t directly impact the ongoing debate about different treatment methods, it introduces increased reticence and resistance to change. While putting together cap-ex justifications and limited budgets account for some of this, much of the reluctance comes from how risk averse the authority is. If what they are doing has worked in the past, then justifying change can be an uphill battle, especially when resources are focussed on dealing with the fallout of a global pandemic.”
Oversalting and sustainability
Charles Robertson, Director at Winter Service Solutions, a consultant working with Local Authorities and Winter Contractors, commented, “The debate about different methods is a complex one which is often dominated by budgetary constraints. However, while many Local Authorities are opting to stick with what they’ve always done, we also see lots of instances where they are knowingly oversalting the roads to be on the safe side.”
The practice of oversalting, agrees Gregorie at Peacock Salt, generally happens when risk averse councils are concerned about the impact of not using enough salt. The result is a tendency to err on the side of caution rather than risk undersalting. During the COVID lockdown, with teams and budgets more stretched than in pre-pandemic times, this cautionary approach may appear to be the safer option.
“By oversalting, [local authorities are] adding to the costs of the treatment as well as potentially adding unnecessary levels of salt to the roads – which can be corrosive and harmful to the environment.”
Adrian Runacres, Investigation and Risk Management Consultant
Adrian Runacres, Investigation and Risk Management Consultant, agrees: “The issue that many Local Authorities are encountering is that councils can’t always access the data they need to make these decisions – especially in the case of active travel routes. But by oversalting, they’re adding to the costs of the treatment as well as potentially adding unnecessary levels of salt to the roads – which can be corrosive and harmful to the environment.”
As a multidisciplinary team focussed on a common goal, the team has a collective view on how best to limit the impact on the environment. First and foremost, they agree, accessing road weather information systems (RWIS) can provide accurate information on weather and pavement conditions. These systems use sensors connected to the IoT to collect real-time data on air and pavement temperatures, precipitation, and residual salt levels, helping winter maintenance teams to make data-based decisions about spread rates.
Winter Maintenance and the role of collaboration
In September 2019, the first A New Winter Approach event – run by industry experts from Econ, Eurodome, Exactrak, MetDesk, Peacock Salt and Winter Service Solutions – brought together over 50 Local Authorities and winter maintenance experts to share best practice.
“There is a huge opportunity out there for Local Authorities to share information and work more collaboratively.”
Mark Wilcox from Exactrak
Mark Wilcox from Exactrak, specialists in Local Authority vehicle tracking, who chairs the A New Winter Approach team, commented. “Taking place pre-COVID, the event was a great opportunity to talk about best practice, innovations and approaches to winter maintenance. However, one of the key takeaways for me was that there is a huge opportunity out there for Local Authorities to share information and work more collaboratively. During COVID, with teams furloughed, deployed to other roles or working remotely, I suspect that is even less likely to happen.”
While Local Authorities undoubtedly adopt different approaches that are determined by budgets, level of risk and the influence of the elected officials in their area, what is clear is that neighbouring authorities stand to benefit from sharing knowledge and expertise. As a group, the A New Winter Approach team is keen to help facilitate that.
Steve from the IHE explains, “We’ve been working with some Local Authorities who are doing some great work to assess residual salt levels on roads and pavements. When authorities are trialling new and innovative methods, carrying out their own research, collating data and drawing insights, it is vital that there is a forum where this information is shared. As well as ensuring best practice across the board, this kind of collaboration can undoubtedly help to educate both those who work operationally with the industry as well as those in decision-making positions.”
Mark from Exactrak agrees, “There are lots of savings, business cases and return on investment calculations being put forward by Local Authorities all over the country. Sharing amongst adjoining authorities would be a simple way to make budgets work harder and ensure that sustainability is at the forefront of the approach.”
Winter Maintenance and the ongoing impact of COVID
With a winter lockdown imposed shortly after Christmas 2020, the final financial repercussions of the crisis are yet to be seen. However, as Local Authorities all over the country come to terms with the impact of the crisis, budgets and services will continue to find themselves operating under pressure.
The implementation of Active Travel routes, while maintaining existing routes, reducing carbon emissions and getting the world moving again once lockdown lifts, means that Local Authorities and suppliers will need to collaborate to fulfil their obligations.
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