Cold Comfort: Heated debate from the coolest event of the year

23/05/2019
Emma Greedy

This year’s Cold Comfort was opened by a familiar face in a new role – Roger Williams, now Gatwick Airport’s head of surface access strategy.

Mr Williams began by stating that after this year’s mild winter the industry could take stock and should be prepared for anything.

The way that we maintain our roads during the winter season is now, more than ever, aided by technology and influenced by data analysis from previous events. This was a prominent theme that many of the speakers explored.

Matthew Morreim, division manager of street maintenance in the City of St. Paul Public Works, Minnesota, provided delegates with first-hand knowledge of how to tackle a ‘big freeze’. With frequent sub-zero temperatures in Minnesota, winter maintenance is put to the test.

‘People don’t stay at home just because it has snowed. They expect their roads to be useable,’ Mr Morreim explained. vAfter approximately three inches of snow Minnesota declares a snow emergency, which leads to parking restrictions. A ban on residential parking is put in place so that gritters and plows are able to clear the streets; the ban is usually announced before noon on the day that the emergency is announced.

When questioned by delegates on how the authority informs car owners when the ban would be put in place, Mr Morreim responded: ‘We send out alerts to news and weather channels, and Facebook and Twitter are also a great help when it comes to informing the public of what we are doing.’

Winter 2018/19 review panel

The discussion included David Batchelor, project manager for severe weather planning, research and development at Highways England, and Carol Valentine, highway manager for Kent CC. The panel, chaired by Mr Williams, discussed the main challenges that winter service faces.

Ms Valentine began by stating that one of the biggest challenges had been the recent mild weather as well as budget reductions. She said a large amount of Kent’s winter maintenance budget had been cut and that it was impossible to carry out the same quality of service with less money, to which both the chair and Mr Batchelor nodded in agreement. vZero-hour drivers’ contracts and public expectations were also mentioned by Ms Valentine as being problems that the council had to handle.

New technologies that will be able to assist in winter maintenance were highlighted as important by Mr Batchelor: ‘I think that we are entering a new era of tech, both fixed and mobile.’

Ms Valentine agreed and described the future Smart Winter Project that would see Kent have 120 sensors installed to monitor road temperatures.

New tech and new kit

Toni Korjus, head of infrastructural services, Publics Works Department, City of Espoo in Finland, spoke about the city’s desire for better road network information.

Mr Korjus also described Espoo’s thermal mapping pilot in 2018 as an operational benefit and said that he hopes the mapping can be used in the future to put Espoo in a position where it is able to carry out selective treatments in order to plan for future road conditions.

Highways England is planning to implement a new winter fleet. Jane Wilkins, winter fleet, national depot project sponsor at Highways England, told delegates that the three critical factors that determine the level of priority for a winter service treatment fleet were availability, running costs and time lost per vehicle off road due to defects. The new fleet will be phased into action, Ms Wilkins stated, adding that in phase one of the transition 198 vehicles will be replaced.

Hayes takes a risky approach

Richard Hayes, chief executive of the Institute of Highway Engineers, stated that he shouldn’t really have to speak to delegates about the risk-based approach because they are all doing it. He added that he knows this is the case because 90% of local authorities in England have achieved Band 3 and are getting their full allowances from the Incentive Fund.

‘You must be applying a risk-based approach, am I right?’ Mr Hayes jokingly asked delegates.

Mr Hayes reminded delegates that, having been released in October 2016 and coming into force last year, the risk-based code of practice allows local authorities to design winter maintenance based on individual local needs.

‘The code is of course there to provide guidance; it is not a set of strict rules. However, we do know it’s the best guidance isn’t it,’ he asked rhetorically.

From Code of Practice to Practical Guide

On day two of the conference, National Winter Service Research Group (NWSRG) chair Chris Cranston introduced its new Practical Guide, explaining that key changes include: using less repetition, adding more colourful text, more qualitative data rather than quantitative, and simplifying guidelines.

Mr Cranston spoke about salt management and containment, warning delegates that ‘if you do not manage salt moisture it cannot be used in its most advantageous form’.

He ended his speech by saying: ‘The guidelines are not telling you that there is one correct solution to winter management, but to use the methods that are best suited for your authority.’

This was echoed by Rini Donker, senior advisor winter maintenance, Rijkswaterstaat, The Netherlands. As he told delegates: ‘You should do everything in your power as an authority to make sure that your roads are safe to drive on.’

Chris Riley, area highway manager for Gloucestershire CC, spoke about salt storage, which he said was a critical factor in successful winter maintenance.

‘In Gloucestershire we are invested in improving our salt storage and have been able to design a brand new depot,’ said Mr Riley.

After 2009’s salt shortage, Mr Riley explained that the county council was able to invest a lot more in storage due to political support. ‘Having politicians support our need for more salt storage worked because they realised just how vulnerable we were and would continue to be if a salt shortage continued,’ he said.

Peter Turland, senior engineer highway assest maintenance for Doncaster Council, told delegates: ‘While it might sound like common sense, you really must ensure that your equipment is ready for the winter season. That is rule number one in winter maintenance.’

That’s actually rule number two. Rule number one of course is: never miss Cold Comfort.

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