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Letters: Highways Agency must step up asset management record

road maintenance

Maintenance: Highways Agency must improve its performance

Ten years ago I authored an NCE article which questioned the soundness of the Highways Agency’s motorway maintenance cost/benefit underpinnings. Subsequent letters to the editor contained howls of derision from an insulted highways fraternity, insisting that the sector was on top of its game.
On 25 September this year the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published Maintaining Strategic Infrastructure - Roads, which reported: “Neither the Department nor the Agency were able to tell us how much it should cost to maintain the road networks, because of a lack of evidence about how road infrastructure deteriorates over time and the costs of different maintenance activities.”
The PAC report built on a recent eponymous National Audit Office publication, which further found that: “Although the Agency has an asset management plan, it does not currently extend across the whole life of the network. The Agency is trialling the development of a 30-year asset management plan in its East Midlands area.”
Trialling? Lifecycle asset management has been established in the utilities for at least 10 years. Network Rail based the maintenance and renewal aspects of its 2014-2019 Strategic Business Plan on a series of sophisticated whole life cost models. What is so hard about highways that the Agency has apparently become the nation’s asset management tail-end Charlie?

  • Jim Bostock (M),

As a regular user of one of the busiest sections of the M25, (Junctions 9 to 15) I should like to point out that the motorway simply is not full. It is only full at certain times, which constitute a very small proportion of the 168 hours in a week. For the majority of the time it runs well. If the M25 were an asset of a private company, any manager worth his salt would be thinking: “How can we spread the load away from the peak times and make this asset work more effectively for a greater proportion of the time?” He wouldn’t be thinking: “Shall I build an even bigger road so that it can carry huge numbers of vehicles for 5% of the time and be under-utilised for the other 95%?”
In the modern era of flexible working, working from home, smart phones etcetera, is it really beyond the wit of us engineers to find a way to use a motorway more effectively? Spend the first hour of the working day at home hacking through the emails and then go to the office.
Charge for using the motorway at peak times. Reduce road tax for lorries using motorways at night, not during the day. Come on everyone, there must be dozens of ideas worthy of being considered.
If there are now so many people around that it is not feasible for everyone to do exactly what they want when they want then do we not have to move to a different arrangement? Isn’t it about time we accepted this and use our assets in a smarter way?

  • Mick Humphries (M),
  • Editor’s note: It’s worth pointing out that the M25 is an asset of a private company - Connect Plus. But the mechanism for paying Connect Plus does not encourage such “smart” thinking. When the deal is next renegotiated perhaps it should.

A lone voice cried out in the HS2 wilderness

As a regular user of the West Coast Main Line (WCML) from Milton Keynes into Euston I decided to petition the High Speed 2 Select Committee as it is clear that there will be 10 years of chaos during construction for existing WCML passengers.

The Department for Transport (DfT) claims that off line construction of HS2 will minimise disruption. It totally ignores the on line works at Euston and its approaches.

At Euston, five of the 18 platforms will close immediately and the rest will be redeveloped and there will be 10 years of major works on the approaches with dive-unders and tunnels filled in and huge bridges demolished and rebuilt, all resulting in a halving of track capacity.

So I went to Parliament, paid my £20, and deposited my petition (no 0004). Obviously the Department for Transport (DfT) did not want this issue discussed so I had to appear before the Select Committee to establish my “locus standi”.

The DfT’s view was that as a regular traveller on WCML I was not allowed to present my case to the Select Committee as I was not directly affected. Their view was that Members of Parliament would deal with construction issues in the second reading debate. In fact, there was not a single word spoken about construction problems in the seven hours of debate but there was plenty of discussion of Devon and Cornwall. Its other point was that there could be hundreds of petitions like mine submitted by those hoping for significant improvement in their journeys into London when HS2 opens. In fact, there was only me but the Select Committee decided in favour of the DfT.

The DfT barrister did, however, agree that HS2 chairman Sir David Higgins and I were the only two people interested in the WCML to Crossrail link as a potential solution to some of the construction problems.

Indeed, the DfT has now decided to look at part of this for trains out to Tring. As trains to Milton Keynes and Northampton are some of the most overloaded in the country it seems typical to ignore them.

  • Jim Middleton, 5 Crab Tree Close, Olnet, Bucks MK46 5DU

Why the M25 is not a bringer of harmony

Concerns over the effectiveness of widening the M25 are not new. Twenty-two years ago, in response to widening proposals, I noted in a letter to NCE (28 May 1992) that: “The M25’s primary purpose is … a bypass for London to allow long distance traffic to avoid passing through the city,” and: “That it is failing to serve this purpose must be due largely to the development of ‘circumferential commuting’ by residents of the Home Counties.”

Noting that any increase in capacity would encourage more circumferential commuting, I suggested: “The obvious answer is to prevent circumferential commuters from using the M25 at all by the simple and cheap expedient of closing all junctions between the M25 and non-motorway or trunk roads, and closing all sliproads connecting the M25 with innerbound routes.”

Looking back, I see no reason to question my more youthful judgement, and regret that no-one took the idea seriously. Now, of course, unpicking the commuting patterns that were allowed to develop over the past quarter century would be nigh on impossible.

As Chris Rea sang at the time about the M25: “This is no upwardly-mobile freeway, this is the road to Hell”.

  • Frank Westcott (M),


Old hands offer sound advice -without prejudice

I was interested in the article by David Hollingsworth (NCE 25 September) regarding skills shortages. There have also been a number of other recent references in NCE related to this subject now that development is picking up.

As a retired civil engineer with extensive worldwide project, contract and commercial management expertise (Hyatt Regency Hotel, Birmingham, Hong Kong Mass Transit, Emirates Towers Dubai, Taiwan High Speed Railway to name but a few), I, and I’m sure other retired members, would be happy to get involved with consultants and other organisations on an ad-hoc basis to fill some of the skills gaps and, perhaps more importantly, to act as mentors, giving young engineers the benefit of our experience in contractual and commercial areas.

An added bonus would be the fact that, in our position, we’re not looking for career advancement, or ambitions to achieve, so wouldn’t be seen as any threat to anyone else in the organisation.

Richard Middleton (F),

Engineering Happiness is a great message…

As an engineer in the “older age bracket”, I think that the Engineering Happiness clip on YouTube is fun, exciting and one of the best messages that I have ever seen to encourage younger persons to enter our profession. All of the people that conceived, directed and took part in the video should be congratulated for their efforts, which I hope will have a positive effect. A special well done also to John Armitt; the hat wasn’t quite up to Pharrell Williams’ standards, but the lip synching was fantastic.

  • Gary Mills (M),


…but I thought the soundtrack lacked oomph

I have to admit that at first I was one of those who “hated” the Engineering Happiness video. But I’ve given it a few more views and it’s growing on me. So I would ask all fellow disparagers to give it another go.

My main problem is the song: it’s far too wishy-washy; a bit wet in fact for civil engineering. It lacks punch. I wonder if a more realistic soundtrack to those wishing to embark on a career in our wonderful profession might just be AC/DC’s Highway to Hell.

  • Ben Zabulis (M), 135 Victoria Road, Kirkby-in-Ashfield, Nottingham NG17 8AX


Reading station could be a cure for M25 woes

Following recent correspondence regarding M25 capacity, I recently flew from, and then returned to Gatwick airport, travelling from the West Country by rail, avoiding London by changing at Reading.

Although the route through Guildford, Redhill etcetera is much more scenic than via London, the journey is painfully slow, the line, particularly on the return leg including long sections of jointed track, an uneven ride and stops at multiple small stations.

It occurred to me what a wasted opportunity this is, to provide a fast connection from Gatwick and maybe the larger intermediate centres to Reading and thence to the West of England and Wales.

This would provide a real alternative both to the relevant sections of the M25 and painful journeys on London Underground, in the latter case also relieving passenger traffic through London termini.

A further and even better development would be to start from Ashford International, picking up cross-channel traffic.

The route includes long sections of straight or gently curving track and could, admittedly at some cost, be electrified and upgraded.

I have often thought that Reading could become a ‘hub’ station from where through trains not just running east to west could fan out to the south, west and midlands, cutting out what people hate, the inevitable and often stressful trek across London on the underground.

However, nowhere do I see on Network Rail’s Reading station development website any mention of such a ‘hub’ facility.

Would thinking like this be such a sea change?

  • Paul Garcia (M ret), ­

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