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Highway maintenance: Night time is the right time

New rules for maintaining the UK’s road network has turned day into night for many of the teams involved. Jon Masters reports.

Teams delivering the Highways Agency’s managing agents contracts (MACs) are facing levels of uncertainty similar to other capital spending programmes under review.

But it is virtually guaranteed that whatever funding remains for the maintenance and improvement of England’s trunk road and motorway network will be spent at night.
Work on the Agency’s network is carried out in hours of darkness as a matter of default these days.

There now has to be a very strong case for the Agency to allow any traffic management or lane closures during daylight. This is because traffic levels at night are lower, so work can be carried out with less risk of serious disruption.

Consequently, a lot of work is carried out largely unseen by the travelling public and is aligned to an “intelligence-led” approach to managing road works, referred to by the Agency as “network occupancy management”.

The number of people involved in designing and delivering the Agency’s night work programmes is around 6,500, if the size of the Area 7 MAC team in the East Midlands − one of 13 under the Agency’s latest arrangement of boundaries − is typical.

A-One Plus, the Colas, Costain and Halcrow MAC supplier, employs 500 staff and operatives in Area 7. About 220 management and design staff are based in its head office at junction 27 of the M1, with a further 35 to 40 at a smaller office near Kettering.

The remainder, including around 200 operatives, make up the maintenance teams working from 10 general works depots across the East Midlands.

Management and maintenance

Their work covers routine maintenance − such as barrier repairs, maintenance and improvement schemes − worth up to £500,000. It also includes management of discrete projects worth up to £8M designed by the joint venture but awarded to one of four framework contractors: Tarmac; Lafarge/Costain; Balfour Beatty/ Birse; and Aggregate Industries/ Geoffrey Osborne.

The picture of how much of this A-One Plus and other suppliers are delivering is built up from capital and resource allocations. Small schemes, typically worth less than £100,000, and routine service provided by the MAC in Area 7 were worth £56M in 2009/10. Capital spending − for road and bridge renewals and local network management schemes − was distorted over the past financial year by the Labour government’s fiscal stimulus.

This added about £400M to the Agency’s £1.5bn capital budget. Area 7 received a £19M slice on top of its original £30M capital allocation for 2009/10, most of which was spent in the second half of the financial year. In comparison, Area 7 has an indicative 2010/11 budget of £28M for capital works and a £52M budget for resource allocation, of which £23M is for routine service.

“Last year was a challenge because we re-let the MAC contract in July and changed the geographical boundaries, doubling the size of Area 7,” says the Agency’s Area 7 performance manager Paul Cockell.

“This pushed the programme back. But then we did a lot of work, about 80 schemes in the last quarter alone, of all sorts of shapes and sizes. At least 90% of that was done at night,” he says.

“The motivation is for reasons of reducing traffic disruption. Any work between 6am and 8pm requires exceptional permission. We always challenge why work is needed during the day.”

Night work causes less traffic disruption than work done during the day

Night work causes less traffic disruption than day work

The Agency’s policy of switching to night work has been formalised by its “network occupancy management” approach to roadworks, which has been introduced in steps since 2007. This aims to reduce delays by better management of lane occupancy and by getting reliable real-time information out to “stakeholders” and the general public.

“The Highways Agency has initially driven this to minimise impact on road users, but it has been the MAC teams that have picked up the challenge and looked at how it can be done most effectively,” says Cockell. A road space booking system is now being managed by the Area 7 MAC team. While major projects are planned years ahead, lane occupancy for road resurfacing is booked 12 months in advance − three months ahead for minor works.

“It is now normally only those road users from midnight onwards that see maintenance teams at work within traffic management or lane closures,” says A-One Plus Area 7 general manager Doug Coutts.

“We plan around a window of 10pm to 6am, including setting up and closure of temporary traffic management, so we are often working only from midnight till 4am,” he says.

“We now combine scheme and routine work as much as possible to minimise interventions on the network. Barrier repairs number 30 to 40 each week in Area 7 and so for efficiency we have created joint barrier repair and traffic management crews.”

“Normally only those road users from midnight onwards see maintenance teams at work within lane closures”

Doug Coutts

Where possible, closures are also shared with technology managing agent contractors suppliers, local authorities and utilities. “The MAC sector is developing a specialism for managing temporary lane closures for minimal disruption,” add Coutts.

“The programme delivery team is the biggest within Area 7, including the “watchman” function identifying work needed, supported by a series of people focusing on network performance, planning and journey time reliability.

“A tactical assessment is carried out every month to measure vehicle hour delay, which is proving the value of the approach and it’s all building our understanding for reducing delays.”

Communication is a big part of the overall strategy, Cockell says. In advance of the recent fiscally stimulated programme in Area 7, warning of planned works and lane closures was channelled through the freight transport and road haulage associations
and to local business such as key distribution centres.

“In Area 7, when crews go out on the network they phone into the MAC control centre 15 minutes before setting up traffic management. This information is relayed to the Traffic England website, which is updated again within 15 minutes of the last cone coming off,” Cockell adds.

But safety also has to be a primary concern. Temporary traffic management has developed as a more professional and better-equipped discipline through the MAC sector, partly as a result of the move to night working.

But despite a more thorough regime of operative training, the MAC industry is still losing operatives every year. “This is unacceptable,” Cockell says. “Everything we do has to be focused on making the work as safe as possible and we need the public to understand the hazards and the importance of driving with care.

“We’re looking at automated cone laying and mobile gantries over closed lanes, for example. Roadworker safety remains a top objective, with the difference this year of seeking to achieve zero harm to our roadworker colleagues.”

A new dawn follows the darkness

A 30-week programme of night work is running on the A42 in Area 7 until November this year as part of the Highways Agency’s second large-scale deployment of technology on a trunk road.

Following on from similar work on the A14, variable message signs (VMS) and CCTV masts are being erected along the entire 24km length of the A42 from the northern end of the M42 to junction 23a of the M1 at Kegworth.

“The work is being carried out in three phases. Each has two sections programmed to Agency rules regarding works with overnight lane closures - 5km of separation between sites and a maximum of 4km of coned carriageway,” says the Highways Agency technology manager for the East Midlands Stuart Brown.

All of the civils work for the A42 technology scheme is being done at night. Lane closures are needed for installing cable infrastructure and building maintenance access lay-bys and bases for seven VMS structures.

Five of these will also carry CCTV cameras, and a further 12 CCTV camera masts will be erected. All will be connected to the Agency’s East Midlands regional control centre.

“The cost [£10.8M in total with a £6.4M civils contract awarded to Birse] has been impacted upon by the lack of hard shoulders, which means maintenance accessareas are needed in the verges,” says Brown.

“Lack of hard shoulders also limits the opportunity for day time work. Later on, when we’ve completed the maintenance areas, some day time installation and commissioning will be possible before operational hand over by February next year.”

Night work is not allowed on Fridays and Saturdays. Some carriageway closures are needed for installing induction loops, Brown adds. Some time has been taken out of the programme by the decision to use helical screw pile foundations for the VMS bases.

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