Baptism of fire would be a good way to describe Ringway Highway Services’ first winter looking after Kent’s roads, if it were not for the cold and rain. Claire Symes reports.
Apalling weather at Christmas meant that Ringway Highway Services dealt with 150 emergency call-outs in Kent over the holiday period, about four times the winter monthly average. Ringway’s huge highway maintenance term contract with Kent County Council had only been in place three months when weather conditions tested its systems to the limit.
Ringway’s £10M per year contract began in October 1999 at the start of the winter maintenance period, following tendering, appointment and a clarification process that took four months. It involves maintaining, strengthening where necessary, and improving KCC’s 5,500 structures and 8,000km road network, including 47 primary routes.
Winds of up to 145km/h and the heavy rain experienced by Kent in December meant Ringway had to deal with a variety of emergencies, mostly related to flooding, blocked drains and fallen trees. Through the night of Christmas Eve a 20 strong team worked flat out to cope with more than 40 emergency calls.
According to Environment Agency spokesman Ray Kemp, west Kent was one of the worst affected areas in the country. It received more than 50mm of rain in two hours in what he describes as one of the severest storms the century - the biggest since the 1987 hurricane.
‘One of the more unusual emergencies involved rescuing a police car which had become stranded on a flooded road and was floating by the time the rescue crew reached the scene,’ says Ringway Highway Services regional director (southern), Mike Burnett.
Ringway believes the close working relationship that is developing through partnering and good communication - between not only itself and KCC, but also with its ex-KCC employees - was the key to coping successfully with all the challenges over Christmas and New Year.
‘Fortunately none of the emergencies was too serious. The challenge for us - having got the resources and communication in place - was to deploy them efficiently to cover what was an enormous number of emergencies,’ says Burnett.
‘I believe we received more call outs in a short space of time than we have ever had to deal with before, on any maintenance contract.’
The experience will stand Ringway in good stead as it gets into its stride and tests staff handover arrangements.
Transfer of Kent County Council’s direct labour organisation highways maintenance team to Ringway was included in the terms of the contract. Ringway saw this as a potential flashpoint with new employees feeling unsettled. It was considered essential to foster good relations to allow the contract to run smoothly, especially with winter on the way.
Ringway put on several roadshows to introduce the company and its subsidiaries. The roadshow created an informal atmosphere for the operatives and management to get to know one another, says Burnett. The company also produced a special edition of its newsletter to welcome the newcomers.
‘The Christmas weather and the way we all dealt with it was proof that this groundwork was well worth while,’ says Burnett ‘Good communications and good relations saw us through the emergencies.’
The highway maintenance contract takes the form of a partnership between KCC and Ringway. Partnering is a familiar process for the company: it can point to a number of previous and ongoing term contracts with the Highways Agency and other county councils.
The partnership operates through a programme of weekly, monthly and quarterly meetings. Ringway’s work on smaller projects is monitored by the district councils, with larger projects checked by Babtie.
Weekly meetings take place between Ringway and the district councils within KCC. Works orders are issued, payments discussed and ongoing work monitored.
Following the meeting, a programme of works is drawn up, discussed during the next weekly meeting and implemented within a two week period, creating a four week rolling cycle of work. Monthly meetings between Ringway and KCC area managers and highway unit managers discuss progress, problems and areas for improvement. Quarterly meetings between KCC and Ringway review the overall operation of the partnership.
Contract efficiency is maintained by KCC through regular benchmarking and task groups.
‘The KCC task group was set up to identify tasks or functions within the contract which could be improved,’ says West Kent network manager at KCC, Mike Stephens.
‘Ringway is given the opportunity to put forward proposals to increase efficiency in these areas. If a cost saving is made through use of these proposals then the benefits are shared between KCC and Ringway.’
The Kent contract responsibilities include general works, winter maintenance, surface dressing, road studs and marking, traffic signs, safety barriers and bridge maintenance - and, of course, emergency response.
Ringway’s contract management team members have been seconded internally from other term contracts, with the possibility of external appointments to follow later in the year when the contract is fully up and running.
KCC’s highway maintenance vehicles and other associated assets were sold to Ringway Highway Services as part of the contract.
The contract administration is based at the former KCC depot at Aylesford, with operations undertaken by seven regional depots, which were also formerly under KCC control.
A review of the fleet is planned later this year with a view to developing a replacement policy.
Ringway likes to describe itself as an innovative group which constantly updates its work methods in the light of experience. It also has access to new materials and processes developed in collaboration with its parent company Entreprise Jean Lefebvre.
Ringway’s current annual research and development budget is worth about £5M.
Burnett says: ‘Research is one of the things that a private sector company can bring to what is essentially public sector procurement.
‘Public private sector partnerships mean the public sector can tap directly into private sector research and development, contracting experience and the knowledge and skills that come from this.’