The Department for Transport (DfT) is facing a choice over how best to support resilience and applied research in winter service, while ensuring local authorities embrace the results and deliver best practice. The National Winter Service Research Group (NWSRG) is trying to make the choice an easy one.
New NWSRG chair Chris Cranston is offering the winter service sector an opportunity to shape new research and raise standards without the need for the potential ‘sledgehammer’ of central government intervention. However, he knows the NWSRG needs support to realise the ‘exciting opportunities’ ahead.
He told delegates at Transport Network's Cold Comfort event in May: ‘While the structure [of the NWSRG] worked well in the past, it is very much starting to creak and we need a new approach. We need to get guidance out quicker, we need to develop more capacity and we want to get back to delivering some research.’
There are also ongoing talks with government over taking on new guidance responsibilities in the area of extreme weather resilience. All this costs money and Highways understands the NWSRG is discussing funding options with the DfT. It has a strong case to make, having already been entrusted with developing national winter service guidance to replace Appendix H in the wake of Well-managed Highway Infrastructure.
The NWSRG plans to research the issue of residual salt detection, which appears to have taken over from freezing point forecasts as the Holy Grail of winter service.
NWSRG secretary Adrian Runacres told Cold Comfort that residual salt detection ‘is a tough nut to crack’, but progress in this area could have a global impact. He also pointed out that while it has good relations with the private sector, companies do not fund NSWRG research as per the terms of its constitution, which provides checks against bias. Independent scientists with
TRL or universities oversee the tests on behalf of the NWSRG and the research papers are then reviewed by both the NWSRG steering group and the UK Roads Board.
Mr Cranston also announced an imminent taskforce on road weather information systems and called for volunteers. The taskforce will look at how such systems can aid guidance and decision-making and how this relates to risk assessments.
To complement these plans, the NWSRG is working on a ‘two-way’ communication strategy to make it both more proactive and more responsive to the sector’s needs as well as developing a more easily accessible repository for knowledge.
The NWSRG has also been in discussions with the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE) about partnership working, including the potential to reduce training costs for members, and talks have begun with the Met Office over possible alliances.
Alan Sheen, director of Dome Overseas Ltd, who has been involved with the NWSRG since its earliest days, suggested that another key issue was the wide range of service delivery standards in winter. The Government spent millions on the Highways Maintenance Efficiency Programme (HMEP) to specifically address this issue in maintenance but winter service has had no such structured, funded improvement process.
‘There are still people who for whatever reason, funding or caution perhaps, are struggling to even pick up on some of the basics – training, storage or calibration,’ Mr Sheen said, adding it was crucial the NWSRG helped bring more consistency to the sector.
When asked whether winter service needed the kind of DfT interventions seen in highways maintenance, Mr Cranston said: ‘I personally believe we are in a better position than the DfT. I believe that a really good way to deliver improvements is through our regional groups. I chair the south west regional group and I really believe that is the way to penetrate and discuss issues and agree standards, which will help us legally as we benchmark each other.’
He added that strategic salt stock ‘is clearly an issue the DfT is still grappling with’ and perhaps NWSRG regional groups could have a role to play.
‘The DfT will sometimes use a bit of a sledgehammer. They can withhold funding or award it, that’s the way they operate, but we are embedded in the community.’
Cold Comfort 2018, the 27th Annual Winter Maintenance Conference and Exhibition takes place at the Ricoh Arena, Coventry on 16 and 17 May 2018.
Register your interest today at https://coldcomfort.tn-events.co.uk and we will keep you informed with the Early Bird Discount offers and programme updates.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Highways magazine.