Come rain or shine – or snow and ice – gritting teams are on standby to keep our roads clear
- Credit: Su Anderson
When the cold weather bites many motorists take for granted that our region’s roads will be able to transport them wherever they need to go. Reporter WILL LODGE looked at the nitty-gritty behind gritting.
While many of us curled up in front of the fire over the festive break, maybe with a glass of wine, there was – and is – a dedicated team prepared to venture out into the cold at the drop of a hat – or snowflake – to keep our roads clear.
Fortunately for the gritting team at Essex Highways it has been a quiet winter so far. By December 16 there had only been eight shouts, three of them county-wide with the remaining five in specific zones where temperatures were forecasted to drop.
Indeed Robbie Jamieson, winter service manager at Essex Highways, always keeps a weather eye on the forecast and confidently predicted – correctly thus far – the warm weather would continue until at least the New Year, and possibly as far as mid-January.
“It has been uncharacteristically mild, but we don’t know what is coming after early January,” he said
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“I think we might well have a cold snap at the end of the season, so we can’t be complacent. At the drop of a hat it could come back and bite us.
“We are always in a state of readiness.”
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The gritting season runs from the last Monday in October until the second Monday in April, but Mr Jamieson recalls just a few years ago when temperatures plummeted on April 30 and gritters were sent out around Colchester and Tendring.
When to grit?
A decision to grit is made around midday each day based on the latest forecast. If the road surface temperature – not the air temperature – is due to drop to 1C (34F) or below then the teams will be sent out.
Road temperatures are typically 1-1.5C colder than air temperatures, which is why some people question why gritters are out when the televised temperature is above freezing.
“In line with national guidance we go out at 1C – we don’t put the public safety at risk,” said Mr Jamieson.
“You can argue we are over-zealous but the cost of a treatment against the human cost of a multiple-fatality crash – you don’t need a business case, it stacks up.
“We can’t make guarantees – drivers must still drive to the conditions – but we do our best.
“Freezing rain is our worst nightmare, water freezing on impact with the ground. There is little we can do about that, which is why motorists must be careful.
How is the county covered?
Essex is split into five “climatic zones”, based around the prevailing weather forecast. The northern areas generally see the most gritting actions, as polar weather reaches it first.
In total there are 57 gritting routes, designed to be the most effective in terms of distance and time spent driving and not gritting, along with two mini-gritter routes serviced by adapted pick-up trucks which cover areas the heavy lorries cannot go – such as weight-restricted bridges.
All of the routes can be gritted within three hours.
This is not as simple as it sounds. On major routes with multiple slip-roads, or roundabouts with filter lanes, drivers may find themselves doing several loops to cover each part of the road network.
Roads are gritted in terms of priority. While Highways England deals with the A12, A120 and motorways, Essex Highways (a partnership of Essex County Council and Ringway Jacobs) deal with the next level of major roads and key local roads – such as “spine” roads in estates, or those served by four or more daily weekday bus journeys.
There is also a rural access policy, where villages of 50 households or more will have one route in and out to a nearby town gritted, and high-risk areas such as sharp bends or hills with previous issues will also be covered.
Unsurprisingly access routes to ambulance and fire stations are also gritted.
In total about 2,500 miles – 40% of the Essex road network – is gritted, accounting for roads used in 70% of journeys by the public.
Essex is believed to have the second-longest gritting network in the country, after North Yorkshire.
The authority is also prepared for snow. Each gritter can be fitted with a snowplough, while it also has a network of farmers on standby to clear rural roads in the event of a severe snowfall.
The power of technology
Gritting is a highly technical business, from the forecasting (done by a third party) using data from a series of ten weather stations across Essex to the gritting lorries themselves which can adjust how quickly the salt is spread depending on wind speed and which track exactly how fast and where they have gone.
Even the salt itself is not a simple thing – Maldon’s famous Sea Salt is no good here. As well as the standard rock salt – mined in North Yorkshire and Spain, depending on the supply – spread across the road, gritters also lay down a brine solution with an optimum 23% white salt if the weather conditions are right. This brine sticks to the road surface, does not get blown away, and is more cost-effective too.
Gritters typically spread 70% rock salt and 30% brine.
The quantities involved are also huge. Essex Highways has 15,500 tonnes of salt spread between seven strategic depots across the county, and Mr Jamieson is keen to keep all the stores filled up to the brim.
When a typical gritting run uses approximately 200 tonnes of salt, you can understand why – and the salt lasts three years, so will not go off.
Mr Jamieson said: “If a snow event happened we can get through the salt very quickly. But we are as ready as we can be.”
The human element
But despite all this technology, the skill and knowledge of drivers are also called upon, said Mr Jamieson – who himself has worked in this industry since the winter of 1993.
“Drivers have to expect the unexpected because we are dealing with the elements, Mother Nature and what she can throw at us,” he pointed out.
“Conditions can change rapidly, for the public and for us.
“The drivers also feed back to us about conditions on their run. They are our eyes and ears on the ground.”
Gritter lorry drivers are essentially volunteers, those who do other road maintenance or similar jobs – anyone who has an HGV licence – while some are kept on a retainer.
Over the Christmas period there is a double roster on to make sure a full gritting operation can be carried out.
They are split into a morning and evening shift, geared around the rush hours. The morning team usually heads out around 3am, ahead of 7am – which tends to be the coldest part of the night.
Eddie Johnson, Essex county councillor for highways delivery, said: “Our gritting team do a great job, from the people sitting at a desk planning which gritters should go out and where they should go, to the drivers in the gritter lorries.
“They will be on call day and night throughout the holiday period to ensure the roads of Essex are kept open and safe.”
• To see when the gritters are being sent out you can follow @EssexGritters on Twitter, or @Essex_Travel which gives updates from 6am-7pm weekdays.