If calls from the CBI are heeded the UK will soon have a privately owned and managed national roads network. Whether that ambition is ever fully realised or not, large parts of the network are already under private sector management, through term maintenance and Super Agency contracts. As a result, says Amey chief executive Brian Staples, private contractors and consultants will have to adapt to become involved in everything to do with management and maintenance of the roads, including traffic policing.
'Contractors have already shown they are capable of bringing the investments required to the roads network through promotion of Private Finance Initiative schemes,' says Staples. 'We are obviously able to demonstrate that we can manage as well as maintain the roads network through our performance on existing contracts. The question we have to answer as an industry is whether we are able to manage an increasingly technically sophisticated roads network which will be run efficiently only by using the new traffic management technologies which are coming through.'
Among the high tech elements will be roadside beacons using microwaves to measure traffic volumes and conditions which can communicate directly with vehicles. Smart cars will use radar systems to position themselves in the middle of lanes and control steering to maintain distances from the car in front. Overhead gantries will warn drivers of traffic jams and perhaps weather conditions, offering alternative routes if appropriate. The success of using gantries to impose variable speed limits has already been demonstrated on the M25 between junctions 10 and 15. This will soon be seen on other parts of the M25, the M5 and M6 and on routes around Manchester.
Staples says: 'We have a reputation as a low tech sector of industry, but that has to change dramatically. Roads themselves are becoming more and more high tech as we move towards performance related as opposed to recipe specifications for materials, for example. As we see on PFI schemes, each road will have its own cost optimising maintenance strategy and some will use the latest long life surfacing materials. Others will be well served by traditional hot rolled asphalt and devising the precise maintenance equation will be increasingly complex as the range of options open to us increases. Add to this the new electronic equipment and we see the modern highway as an increasingly sophisticated transportation system which requires careful management to ensure it is used optimally.'
Staples says installing and maintaining traffic management equipment will become an increasingly important part of workloads. 'Integrated transport policy will ultimately need contractors capable of implementing appropriate maintenance programmes across the various modes of transport,' he says. 'Contracts for maintenance need not end where a railway track or a road ends. Road traffic policing might also be outsourced by the public sector as technology renders current methods obsolete and Staples says that with partners, Amey could be interested in this development.
Fortunately, maintenance oriented companies already have key multidisciplinary skills in house, partly as a result of acquiring railway infrastructure maintenance businesses from British Rail. 'We have a lot of relevant expertise through the railway signalling and telecommunications specialists we employ in Amey Rail,' Staples says. 'Looking after the sophisticated parts of the electronic infrastructure can always be subcontracted by maintenance contractors, but we believe it is a major advantage to have these skills in house. Separate teams of operatives may handle the railway and highways work, but management and technical issues will be increasingly common to both.'
Amey has regrouped its civil engineering activities to reflect the importance of the new highway maintenance market, with Amey Highways having been formed to take on responsibility for its maintenance work. Amey Highways is now the UK's biggest road maintenance contractor, looking after some 25% of the country's motorways and trunk roads under term maintenance or Super Agency agreements. These represent a secured or extendable workload of more than 200M over their contract periods of between three and five years.