Keeping the roads clear is no easy feat

Published date: 11 February 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


SOMETIMES, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

A few jobs fall into this category – and among them are those in charge of gritting our roads.

No matter if the major routes and trunk roads are kept open, the Leader receives a steady stream of complaints every time it snows – and yesterday’s flurries were no exception.

I joined the Flintshire Council Streetscene department staff at their depot in Alltami to find out more.

Streetscene’s Alex Williams, who has worked for Flintshire Council for 19 years, had his eyes glued to his computer monitor when I entered the headquarters.

He said: “We need to get out there.”

He flicked past several graphs to show me the information that was fed through from Roadcast, a weather prediction system set up by the MeteoGroup.

He said: “This is tailored for Flintshire. Wrexham and the other counties will have their own version and they will all give slightly different readings.

“It’s amazing the variation you can get from county to county.”

The system is aided by a series of small weather stations and corroborated by sensors in the road which register temperature drops, measure how much salt is on the asphalt and send out an alert if the road is likely to get icy.

Alex said: “We put all the data together and come to a decision about the timing of the gritting and how much we will drop.

“There are 12 routes around the county, and we have a fleet of 12 gritters.

“Each route takes between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half hours. We grit the roads in order of priority.”

The idea of strict priority causes much consternation among residents, some of whom may never see a gritter in their street.

Alex admitted: “Everyone wants their road gritted. But we have 12 wagons and in blanket snow we have to work from the most vital roads to the least, from B roads to C roads and so on. In heavy snow we concentrate on keeping the trunk roads open.

“We have 47 per cent coverage of the road network, including adopted roads. That’s the third biggest coverage in Wales.”  

Alex handed me a high-visibility jacket and gave me a quick tour of the facilities.

Anyone who has driven past the depot will have noticed the building that houses the salt, which comes from a mine at Winsford in Cheshire. Staff refer to it as ‘the dome’, which sounds very science-fiction.

The dome is easily big enough to accommodate a digger and contains thousands of tonnes of salt, including an extra 5,000-tonne excess that the county keeps in reserve.

I was introduced to Lyndon Butler of Bagillt, who’s driven a gritting wagon for nine years – as well as performing various other duties for the council throughout the year.

I approached his wagon with caution. The last time I got up close and personal with one of these I was riding a bicycle and I got a face-full of grit.

“Need a hand?” asked Lyndon as I climbed up into the cab.

He reminded me of a cheerful taxi-driver, chatting about the job as he rolled at a leisurely pace around the byways of Flintshire – but a taxi driver controlling 26 tonnes of salt and metal.

“This isn’t a bad job,” he said.

“Last March – during the heavy prolonged snowfall – it went a bit mad. We had teams out 24-hours-a-day.

“What I’m doing now is pre-gritting. The grit has a lifespan of about nine hours once it's laid down. I’m spreading 10 grammes per square metre."

The wagon seemed to crawl along at a glacial rate.

“We have to keep the speed down,” Lyndon said.

“I tend to stay under 30mph but you’re allowed to go faster on dual carriageways.

Thing is, if you go fast, the grit sprays faster, and that’s when you get complaints from motorists.”

I asked him if he’d ever had any adverse reactions to his job, such as angry motorists.

He said: “I do get given the finger sometimes. One time, a man got his kids to throw snowballs at the truck, which was stupid. I get a lot of friends saying ‘When are you going to do my drive, then?’.

“But mostly people are just happy that we’re out there doing the job.”

I agreed with them. It might be inconvenient to be stuck in your street while the major roads are kept clear. But the alternative of having the county and emergency services stranded or snowed into a standstill is a far worse scenario to contemplate.

The trucks are constantly monitored by a remote system, checking their speed and scatter-rate.

The route was long and looped back on itself to allow more coverage on danger-spots, like sharp bends, slipways, roundabouts and hills.

From the wing-mirror, I could sometimes see spurts of red powder land on the road.

The purpose of the wagon was most obvious whenever we passed a car, then the grit rattled like a handful of soil thrown against a window.

I couldn’t see a sat-nav among the controls around Lyndon.

“We memorise the routes,” he said.

“When we’re training we go out with another driver and watch and learn.

“We know them off by heart. I’ve memorised the other routes too, in case I need to stand in for someone else.”

It took about two-and-a-half hours to complete the route and then we returned to the depot.

Lyndon said: “I should have about two tonnes left. We put extra in, just in case. At the end of the shift, I dump it back in the dome in case it freezes in the wagon.”

I climbed out, he reversed the gritter through the mouth of the giant dome and waved a goodbye.

Lyndon even worked on Christmas Day and, along with the rest of the team will be working as and when required.

I’m not inclined to complain about that...

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