Yet again, during the peak period for our Tourist Industry here in Whitby a small piece of road is dug up in an emergency. As inconvenient as it is I, for one, can accept the inevitability of it. Shit happens.
However, is the level of inconvenience which often follows as necessary as it would seem? I say that, usually, no it is not. Why so? Well, here in Whitby we have had TWO instances that prove my point.
First instance is August Bank Holiday, 2014 – probably the busiest weekend of the year on our roads (remember Tourism, probably our busiest industry =visitors = vehicles). Emergency occurs, a burst water pipe on the A171 where it is joined by the A174 (Prospect Hill) and about 100 yards or less on, on the bend heading towards the high-level bridge. Excavation equipment is needed to expose the leak, which is under the footpath, so a couple of vans, a couple of wagons and a JCB need to be parked up on the road (Why?), which means two-way traffic control needs to be set up. Again, why?
There was sufficient space on the verge to accommodate enough equipment to excavate AND to park the spoil from it. But no, the guys decided they needed half of a very busy road as a base – never mind the traffic, which on the A171 Eastbound was queued, at one point, as far back as Victoria Farm (Park & Ride) roundabout. We wanted some shopping from Sainsbury’s supermarket. Two-way lights at this distance from the static permanent lights and Pelican (?) crossing by the school entrance could only have one result: chaos!
I complained to Yorkshire Water, who promised to look into it and get back to me, but the school-leaver I spoke to could not find the junction of the A174 and A171, or Prospect Hill on the map, didn’t seem to know where Whitby was/is, and asked me if I knew the grid reference! No, dear.
Next day I had a call back from a man who reminded me it was an emergency, as if that excused the Fred Karno’s traffic lights phasing, and he promised I’d get a full explanation asap by way of someone in authority phoning me back – I’m still waiting!
Second instance is Thursday 30th July, in one of the busiest weeks the UK tourist industry experiences – peak season in a very busy tourist destination not a mile along the same A171, this time at Four Lane Ends roundabout. It was a four-way traffic light set-up but the chaos caused was every bit as effective as the previous instance – absolute! Reason for the roadworks – a “live gas leak”. It took me 40 minutes to progress just over 100 yards. The lights were set up but not supervised.
Shit happens, inconvenience occurs for lots of people for many reasons and at different times, and as such when an emergency arises we take it on the chin. We have to trust that just as the work is carried out for the general good, so the inconvenience is also minimised as much as possible for the general good. Except that it isn’t minimised: “traffic control” is set up but that doesn’t mean it is timed correctly – that seems only to happen AFTER the initial settings have been found inadequate and, therefore, adjusted.
In fairness to Northern Gas Networks’ agent, who called me back on the Friday morning I have to say he was already aware of the problem at the same time that I experienced it (we both were not alone!) and put matters in hand to remedy it, insisting that the phasing was manually monitored and controlled. So he does appear to have sorted the matter as we would expect it to have been sorted, even if it could have been avoided. It could.
The common denominator in each case was traffic control. We have more sophisticated equipment nowadays, but also more traffic to control. There are also minimum standards of competence regarding signage of roadworks and a system of fines for both inadequate signage and inadequate traffic control. In each of these cases it has to be said that the utility involved was fined by our County Council, for failing to provide adequate traffic control. Wise after the event.
North Yorkshire County Council are clear that they take such action as they can in our best interest – they’ve applied the sanctions available to them under law in both of the above instances. They have acted but the problem is still with us.
Once upon a time we could have expected the Highways Authority to override the wishes of the contractor and take over the operation of traffic control at the contractor’s expense in the event of such chaos, or else for the Police to do so themselves. However, these days they both seem to operating with no “slack” at all, and so it won’t happen.
So what can we do about it? Could we start by changing the rules and increasing the existing sanctions such as:
Double the maximum fine available for Highways Authorities to impose.
Make the traffic management company responsible to a Magistrates Court in the event of a “second offence” within any highways authority’s area.
Put the responsibility upon the traffic management company (TMC) to spend time on site to properly assess and adjust the phasing of traffic lights.
Require the installer to liaise immediately upon beginning to set up the traffic lights with the local highways authority, and Police, to ensure their satisfaction that the system can cope with known traffic flows and – importantly – that a nominated site operative is detailed and competent to operate the lights manually upon hearing an approaching emergency siren, in order to facilitate the progress of the vehicle through the works, or should changing traffic conditions make alterations necessary.
Any site correspondence to be carried out initially and immediately by email to a nominated and dedicated address bearing site references and followed up by hard-copy.
Road-space must not turn into a civil engineering depot. Any space taken by vehicles and machinery must be unavoidable, i.e. wagons, vans and plant MUST be essential to the works.
Define the period the installer MUST spend on site observing and monitoring the existing traffic flow, such as minimum of one hour monitoring for two-way lights, 90 minutes for three-way and two hours for four-way etc.
Require that after any second offence by an installer he/she be required to attend a suitable training course teaching the importance and basic principles of traffic control and traffic flows, and the importance of smooth progress of emergency vehicles. Ideally all installers should be so trained (and certificated), and this can and should be compulsory by Easter 2016.
Placing the implementation, responsible monitoring and amendment of traffic control to the direct responsibility of the traffic management company providing, the operative installing it, and the manager of both the site and the TMC, and transgression being punishable by fines and points on a driver’s licence in a Magistrates Court.
Upon completion of the works the road MUST be reopened as soon as any backfill and reinstatement is completed.
Utilities companies must be prepared to work at least fourteen hours per day, every day until work is completed. No more endless periods of open excavations with no work being carried out.
Typically, a delay might have occurred in the past due to the non-availability of a particular spare part. This is not acceptable, so all utility companies should carry spares of all underground replacement items in regional stores in order to effect immediate availability to expedite completion.
The days are long gone when all we needed to hear are the words “this is an emergency”, “we can’t get hold of the spares”, and “we can’t spare the manpower” to effect earliest completion.
This can be dealt with largely, or possibly entirely, by Statutory Instrument, but the question is …. WILL IT EVER HAPPEN?