O pposite the Isle of Skye on the Scottish mainland is
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the small community of Applecross which is most easily accessible using a road running between the mountains. Each year the road is the site of a battle between men, machines and the elements.
Before the direct road was improved, heavy loads got to Applecross by sea, via a 96km (60 mile) detour or over something not much better than a cart track that passes between peaks reaching more than 800m. Once the road had been upgraded there was no going back for the seaside village. Ten years after the improvements the BBC made a documentary on how the community had come to depend on the the road.
It is a lifeline rather than a highway. Each end is about 7m above sea level but it rises to over 600m in the middle of its 18.4km length. Only 3.5m wide in places, the road clings to the rock face round hairpin bends over steep inclines with only a low wall separating vehicles from the wilderness—often far below For the Highlands Regional Council, it represents one of the more difficult problems. "When it snows, that road will block first," says the council's principal plant engineer, William MacPherson.
He is not short on experience when it comes to keeping roads open during winter. When the weather closes in MacPherson can muster 200 snowploughs in an attempt to keep the traffic moving—but even then nature can still win. Main highways get priority but they are an easy engineering task; wide, straight and with moderate inclines. Big bonneted 6x6 air-cooled Ivecos power their way through in all but the most severe conditions
The road to Applecross represents the other extreme and MacPherson found his options severely limited. As a snowplough clears the road it drops salt at a rate of between 10 and 40 grammes/m2 and salt weighs about 1.2 tonnes/m3. Even with one of the lowest population densities in the EC, last year the council spread 139,750 tonnes of salt to keep its 210,000 inhabitants mobile in an area larger than Wales.
On the 18.4km road to Applecross a 7.5tonner wouldn't have the payload for the amount of salt needed but 17-tonners have too long a wheelbase to get round the hairpins without shunting. Also MacPherson is not a conversions enthusiast, having found parts supply can be problematic "You can give the model and chassis number and still the wrong part comes through," he says The problem is usually that the chassis has an unusual driveline: "we can't afford the wait," he says.
The answer to MacPherson's problems came in the form of Iveco Ford's latest Cargo with permanent four-wheel drive. The council has taken the first two right-hand drive vehicles off the line (the other is to be used in Achiltibuie). Both are plated at 9.5 tonnes.
"Before we buy a vehicle we have to think of what it will be doing all year round," says MacPherson. As the vehicle would be used on road repairs during the summer the longer 3.69m wheelbase was selected. Aberdeen bodybuilder Kingswells, fitted a dropside tipper with front-end ram taking trouble to keep the floor as low as possible. Highland Regional use gritter bodies with donkey engines which sit in the tipper body and clamp to the floor. Attaching the snowplough blade to the front and the gritter on the back takes about an hour. MacPherson says that he has found full de-mount systems to be too heavy and they raise the bodies too high.
With its 140hp engine, selecting low range
and the first of five speeds in the gearbox gives a gradeability of 450 at GVW. The transfer box diverts 330/0 of the torque to the front axle, the rest passing to the rear. A switch in the cab selects one of three positions for the transfer box on-road (ratio 1:0.95), off-road (1:1.62) and PTO.
Fitted with twin wheels at the rear, MacPherson's vehicles have ground clearance beneath the double reduction axles put at 300mm by Iveco Ford, and an attack angle of around 30°. With a turning circle between kerbs put at 7.43m, hairpin bends should be no problem. For steep snow covered inclines front, rear and inter-axle diff locks are standard while an effective exhaust brake will inspire confidence on the return journey. When the plough blade is mounted on the front it obscures the headlights, hence the roof-mounted spotlights. Throwing a switch puts one set on and the others off.
However, that is not the end of the specification for Highland Region's snowploughs, they are only part of a complicated operation. Every vehicle is fitted with a two-way radio using an extensive network of 63 relay stations to minimise dead spots. The other emergency services are also users of the network.
When snow falls conditions can deteriorate quickly so a lot of effort is put into predicting its arrival. One example is the 54 ice detection stations which measure ground and air temperatures, wind speed and direction, the amount of salt on the road and the dew point. The information (along with weather radar) is used to decide the need to pre-grit roads before the snow arrives.
When it is snowing hard the snowploughs can operate around the clock. A complete "white out" forces the drivers to stop. In exposed areas (like the Applecross road) the vehicles are double manned and carry emergency rations. If a driver has to move from the cab they tie themselves to the vehicle so they can find their way back.
Front line service
By the time the vehicles are fully kitted out they are expensive pieces of equipment and will stay in front line service for seven years. After that they will have summer breaks and become dedicated snowplough/gritters for another five seasons. Laying all that salt causes problems with corrosion, but there are still 16-year-old vehicles on the fleet. During that time MacPherson believes that the extra spent on a factory-built vehicle over a conversion is more than recouped.
The council carries out most service and repair work in-house in 10 workshops around its eight regions. Forty seven technicians and five mobile plant engineers look after 750 vehicles and 1,200 items of plant Since 1989 the council has endorsed Iveco Ford as its first choice supplier of commercial vehicles.
looking for specialist vehicles he has to look at other manufacturers.
In the end, the battle against the elements is one that can't be won—the best that can be achieved is to keep them at bay. Wherever possible MacPherson and his team will keep roads open.
Surely Bonny Prince Charlie would approve. Bad weather didn't stop Flora McDonald, why should snow confine the good burghers of Applecross?
1-1 by Colin Sowman