Chris Cranston, operations and communications manager at Devon County Council, became the new chair of the National Winter Service Research Group (NWSRG) in March.
In the run up to Cold Comfort he talked to Highways magazine about his modernisation plans, new research and of course how the NWSRG’s Practical Guide for Winter Service will take on the role of national guidance.
The NWSRG has seen a rise in prominence in recent years and Mr Cranston kindly and without prompting celebrates the work of David Davies, the previous NWSRG chair.
‘He led the group through one of its most significant periods, including the incorporation of NWSRG good practice into national guidance and the NWSRG steering group becoming a subgroup of the UK Roads Board.’
The group shows no signs of slowing down and Mr Cranston has some big plans himself. One member described the NWSRG as one of the country’s ‘best kept secrets’ and Mr Cranston naturally wants to address this.
A new communications strategy and social media presence to boost the group’s reputation at home and internationally is on the cards, as are reforms to the constitution to bolster the leadership and strengthen integration with different parts of the group.
The new communications strategy would primarily be focused on the sector itself and would help realise Mr Cranston’s ambition of establishing the NWSRG ‘as the key national coordinating group for winter research’.
He tells Highways he wants to look beyond the immediate membership for funding and see what other opportunities there are from other research groups.
He also wants to develop the regional NWSRG bodies and address the fact that while they exist across a large part of the country, ‘there are some notable gaps such as in the South East’.
‘I think they’re crucial. They are a key way of sharing best practice and of authorities supporting each other at a local level. They can develop minimum standards that will give them a better legal defence through strength in numbers.’
Producing national guidance
Firstly however, there is the tricky matter of producing national guidance.
The NWSRG was the key architect of Appendix H, the winter service guidance under the previous code of practice, which ‘has been very instrumental in raising standards’.
Now Well-managed Highway Infrastructure no longer provides detailed guidance to practitioners regarding the delivery of winter service, the NWSRG has been asked to take over responsibility for national winter service guidance through its Practical Guide.
Mr Cranston concedes that the process of writing the new guidance has taken longer than expected ‘because of the various healthy discussions we have had’.
Much of the updated guidance is expected to be published by the end of the year and members of the NWSRG attending Cold Comfort could be given an exclusive look at an ‘early review’ stage.
One of the criticisms in the past is that Appendix H was not practitioner friendly and was too complex.
‘We are trying to present information so that it is easy to understand and useful for practitioners. There is a lot of valuable information that we want to retain so it may be we have some of the current guidance in an easy to read “off the shelf” section with supporting information perhaps in an appendix.’
Mr Cranston suggests this is a difficult balancing act. One example would the banding of temperatures and spread rates. For pragmatic reasons temperatures are grouped into bands such as -2 to -5C or -5 to -10C. Mr Cranston suggests a danger of this is that the legal profession can ask questions about marginal temperatures. For instance, if the temperature is -2.1C rather than -1.9C, do you need to double the spread rate?
‘The science says there is a nearly linear relationship [between temperatures and spread rates] and you only need a bit more salt. The NWSRG wants to present supporting information that says although we have created these different bands if you find something more appropriate to the temperatures in your part of the country then we can give you some tables with supporting information that enables you to develop your own banding.’
The NWSRG is hoping to produce tables on how much salt you need on the ground to deal with certain weather conditions ‘so if you know the temperature is going to be -2C and damp this table will show you the amount to suit the theoretical situation’.
The new approach would help establish ‘the actual level of salt you require to mitigate the effects of the weather’ with additional information about ‘accounting for losses in the calibration of vehicles, wind and traffic and all the other things’. This way an authority ‘can reliably ensure it has that level of salt present to mitigate the particular circumstances’.
Mr Cranston describes this as ‘one of the golden snippets’ of the new guidance that was missing in the previous document.
‘That should also help local authorities in their legal defence because it means there is a lot more information there and people understand the process. If we did that in the main part of the document it would make it horrendously complicated; if you make it too simplistic you can end up making people use too much salt because you go by the lowest common denominator.’
There is much left to be finalised in the new guidance and winter service in general needs more research in key areas, Mr Cranston says.
For instance, on the subject of potential future research projects Mr Cranston states:
‘I think there is a pressing need for research and advice about the use of residual salt to determine what is present and its longevity. Weather stations are very good at determining the level of salt if you have a salt solution on the surface. The challenge has always been if you have a drying-out scenario. Because it is a conductivity measurement, the sensor can struggle to quantify the level of salt in a dry situation.
‘There are two elements; one is to determine what salt is actually there and the other is how long you should reasonably rely on it.’
Applying risk-based decision making
Another area for development is how ‘risk-based decision-making can be applied to winter operations’. The NWSRG is looking at opportunities to provide guidance on this that will clearly link to information presented by weather forecasters.
Other issues to be considered include the development of brine-only treatments and chemical solutions, how best to get information to the travelling public and of course connected and autonomous vehicles.
Reforms to the structure of the NWSRG itself could also be coming down the line.
‘I’m very keen that we should review the constitution to make sure it meets the current needs of the group. That’s been on the cards. One thing we did when I was selected is to appoint a deputy chair as we need to strengthen up the leadership and it was great to see Carol Valentine [of Kent CC] appointed to the position. That gives us a very good leadership.’
The NWSRG is a membership body governed by a constitution. Its steering group votes on strategy and includes representatives from local authorities, national government, Highways England and also the devolved nations. There is also the technical advisory group, which comprises representatives from the industry.
Mr Cranston is considering plans for a member of the technical advisory group to sit on the steering group and be rotated every year or two.
‘They would not have voting rights but they would help bring the two groups closer together.’
Last month, Transport Network revealed that the Department for Transport had asked NWSRG to consider widening its remit to cover extreme weather situations particularly flooding. This could be one of the most important changes of all.
Although Mr Cranston reiterates that the focus for now is very much on the national guidance, by way of an update he says: ‘We are certainly taking it seriously and considering how that can be delivered. There is an expectation we would need more resources from the Government. Funding is always going to be an issue with this. There is no doubt we can’t deliver it without appropriate resources.’
Cold Comfort 2017, the 26th Annual Winter Maintenance Conference and Exhibition, takes place at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry on 17 and 18 May. For more details and to register, click here.