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The fight to keep the lifelines open

25th November 1966
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Page 56, 25th November 1966 — The fight to keep the lifelines open
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

BY IAIN SHERRIFF, MITA HAVE you ever driven over Shap Fell or Carter Bar, across Brough or up Al or A6, through the Pennines, the Derbyshire Peaks, or Yorkshire Moors? No doubt you have—in the comfort of your car; in springtime, summer or autumn these can be beautiful roads. But have you ever pushed an eight-wheeler or an artic over the same road in mid-winter, travelling at a snail's pace into the teeth of a howling blizzard and on top of hardpacked snow, or through drifts blowing in off the hills? These are the conditions the long-distance men—the trunkers—face year after year.

There's a certain glamour in long-distance haulage. The "distance men" are looked upon as the he-men of the industry. They talk about going up and down the road in much the same way as sailors talk about crossing the line. Tales of them are legion. But even these tough as teak drivers, who cover 1,000-plus miles a week, visibly wince at the thought of snow along their stretch of highway. Years of experience have taught them that even the greatest care will not guarantee a troublefree run. Experiences are handed down from generation to generation in the hope that something will be learned and an accident averted.

Just as the snow melts, however, so also will the fears of the "distance men" if Ministry of Transport plans go ahead as envisaged.

It is always easy to be wise in hindsight but, despite many examples, how seldom is history used to plan for the future. One of the few examples of using historical fact to aid planning is the way in which the Ministry of Transport and the Highway Authorities are preparing for the 1966/7 winter. In 1947 the transport of this country was ravaged by snow and ice, in 1962/3 we again suffered loss of production, a drop in exports and a disruption of communications from these same winter hazards.

The responsible authorities learned the lesson and this winter the country will be better equipped than ever before to deal with adverse weather conditions. Since October 1963, plans have been formulated and put into effect which show that the Ministry and the agent authorities are alive to this annual threat to our economy.

Excluding motorways there are 6,400 miles of trunk roads in this country. The Ministry consider that 4,000 miles of these are important enough to require top-class winter maintenance. What is top-class winter maintenance? This was what I set out to discover.

On trunk roads such as Al and the Shap route, A66, Beattock Summit, winter maintenance means attacking first and mopping up afterwards.

The Ministry consider that a salting and gritting vehicle is essential for every 10 miles of highway. Towards this end they have on order 240 Bedford 4 x 4 chassis/cabs fitted with Atkinson 54-ton gritting bodies and 160 Atkinson 6 x 6's with 11-Fton gritting bodies. These vehicles are to be allocated to agent authorities along the entire stretch of the 4,000 miles of priority trunk roads. In addition there is a ready supply of ploughing equipment.

The period of normal standby recommended by the Ministry is from October to March. This will of course be extended beyond March if conditions indicate a necessity for doing so. Highway engineers at county level are given full power to take any measures necessary to ensure that highways are kept open. The expense of the exercise is borne entirely by the Ministry of Transport, thus ensuring that the county has not to bear the cost in its annual accounts.

The equipment which has been, and is to be, purchased is maintained at Ministry expense. Six relief depots have been set up and the mechanical engineers department is ensuring that an adequate supply of spares is available to meet emergencies.The entire planning of the exercise is in the hands of a Winter Maintenance Equipment Development Committee. The actual operation is in the hands of local authorities.

In an endeavour to ensure uniformity and a concerted effort the Ministry issue to all agent authorities recommendations for their consideration. These include the use of an angle-blade snowplough in preference to the V-blade. They recommend the use of salt as a melting agent. I know that many authorities abhor the use of neat salt, claiming that it is injurious to road surfaces. The Ministry have carried out tests and there is no proof at all that salt, if used as recommended, will damage road surfaces.

Pre-salting of roads is considered to be the wisest step—prevention is always better than cure. If ploughing has to take place, a pre-salted road is cleared quicker and more effectively than one which has not been treated.

The Ministry also recommend the training of equipment operators and in fact they hold courses each year to train these employees. There is no doubt that the grand plan of the Ministry is designed to cover almost any set of circumstances. The equipment is not yet all available but with each succeeding year the situation is improving. This winter there will be 280 of the 400 planned vehicles on the job.

So much for the Ministry's plan, but will it work ? I wrote to a number of highway authorities who cover what is generally accepted as the "worst" section of road, that between Yorkshire and the Forth-Clyde Valley in Scotland. Not all replied and, of those who did, not all indicated very much enthusiasm.

In the East Riding of Yorkshire, drivers using A63 can expect a reasonable road surface. On this road one of the Bedford 4 x 4s is in operation. This county is operating a total of 87 vehicles with gritters and/or snow ploughs. In addition, two snow blowers are standing by. This Riding pre-salts during adverse conditions in late afternoons and early evening. Normally emergency squads are called out by the police. Stockpiles of abrasives are laid out at hazards for use of drivers in difficulties.

The North Riding of Yorkshire contains two potentially very hazardous roads, Al and A66. On Al the authority pre-salts constantly from December to February inclusive. This may amount to three times during the day if snow or ice are present. Equipment and salt is stored at Richmond and Leeming Bar highway depots. Telephones are located at Hope Town, Leeming By-pass, Catterick By-pass and Scotch Corner. There are no stocks of salt or grit at the roadside as the authority finds it can cope adequately.

On A66, Brough, which runs from Scotch Corner to Penrith, heavier snowfalls occur than on Al. Here again the county engineer arranges for pre-salting. However, due to the road's altitude and exposed position severe drifting does take place. The sections to watch here are Scotch Corner to Smallways, and over Bowes Moor. Again, there are snowploughs standing by at Richmond and Bowes highway depots and the police are on constant patrol.

On this section public telephones are available at Greta Bridge, Cross Lanes, and Bowes Village. Grit is stockpiled at Gallows Hill.

The counties of Westmorland and Cumberland are complementary one to the other in so far as A6 is concerned. If your route lies up M6 then the approach to Carlisle will be via A6. In Westmorland there are 12 miles of this trunk road, the infamous Shap Fell. Another stretch is the eight miles of A66 over Stainm ore. A6 is pre-salted but, once again, due to the exposed nature of the terrain snow lies in drifts. Should the road become completely blocked, A591 to Keswick is a reasonably safe alternative.

In the event that you have followed Al or A66 the Westmorland section of A66 should prove as clear as was the North Riding section. Police are used for early warning, together with county highway officers. It has been found that neat salt is the only answer to combat the severe conditions experienced here. At hazards, grit and salt are stockpiled for drivers who are in difficulties. Highway depots are manned 24 hours each day of winter and a snow control room is operated at head office.

Like a military operation

Cumberland, in an effort to defeat A6 and A591, recruits the services of the army at Hadrian's Camp and the RAF at Blaesbury. In fact, this county has tackled the problem like a military operation, spreading the volume of work over nine divisions. Provided drivers follow police instructions they should experience very little inconvenience here.

After it enters Lanarkshire, A74 is the province of the highway engineer based at Hamilton. This road is akin to Al standards, being dual carriageway. It is serviced by Macks, Bedfords and Atkinson gritters. Salt is stored at Elvanfoot, Abington, Lesmahagow and Larkhall. Emergency stockpiles are placed on the central strip on steep inclines. Telephones are available at Beattock Summit, Crawford, Abington, Lesmahagow and Larkhall.

In Ayrshire, A76, A77 and A78 are the principal trunk roads on the north/south route. This authority operates 40 5/7-ton lorries which are each fitted with a snowplough and the overall requirement is still being examined.

From all my inquiries, I consider that the Ministry of Transport and those authorities who co-operated in the survey are doing all they reasonably can to remove the hazards of snow and ice. How do the vehicle operator and driver fit into the picture? Many operators stick to the same time schedule and route in winter as in summer, but surely this is unreasonable. Drivers cannot be expected to maintain summer averages in winter. Schedules and routes should be rearranged and some latitude allowed.

Drivers, for their part, should take certain precautions. Highway authorities suggest they carry a shovel and a bag of mixed grit and salt. One engineer has suggested that they should also have a will to assist themselves!

Possibly the most important advice to drivers is that they should look out for police warnings, especially north and south of Shap. If asked to wait, they should do so. A great deal of the trouble in the past has been caused by drivers "having a go". The old hands know better—but if this is your first winter at the wheel of a commercial, don't just chase on. Exercise care: that way you'll live and learn.

Acceptable alternatives

Trunk all-purpose roads are still very much the lifelines of this country but with each passing year new sections of motorway are supplying an acceptable alternative for long-distance operators. The winter maintenance of these has been planned at the same time as the actual highway, and at service areas there are works maintenance units in which are contained salt and snow-clearing equipment. I visited the unit at Leicester Forest East and formed the impression that motorway traffic should experience very little real trouble this winter.

The motorway vehicle allocation for winter maintenance is two for every 12 miles and there is ample ploughing equipment. To back up this equipment there is a system—and it is a system which works. At selected units there is a meteorological station which is checked every hour of the day. When the station records 36 degrees the emergency crews go into action. What is perhaps more important is that the units pre-salt the motorway. There can be no doubt that the Ministry of Transport is correct: pre-salting is the answer. The opposition which still exists regarding this—and the chief trouble is the effect on vehicles—will require to go if the Ministry's grand plan is to achieve the success it undoubtedly deserves.

While the Ministry have hastened to point out to me that the millennium hasn't arrived, I consider that most of the hazards of 1963 have been overcome. The Ministry are supplying modern equipment as soon as it becomes available and they still have one trick hidden away—the "block-buster". This is based at Hendon, but at the beginning of the winter it is moved into the forward area. When a serious blockage occurs the block-buster moves in. This machine, a Sicard 380 h.p. Snowmaster, moves 1,000 tons of snow an hour.

If it should be required you may depend on it that conditions will be serious. I have a personal interest in hoping that it will not be required—in a moment of mad bravado I volunteered to go and watch it in action.

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