Peter Daniels joins Denbighshire’s winter salt & maintenance team ahead of this year’s season
It’s ironic as I join the Denbighshire winter maintenance team planning for this coming winter that it’s on a sticky and humid day in mid-summer. “We usually carry out our preparations during the hottest days of the year” said senior manager Tim Towers, with a smile.
Keeping the county’s A and B roads open is a major task. Last winter was the longest and the worst since 2010. Denbighshire spread over 170,000 cwt of salt, or nearly 9,000 tons’ worth—about twice the usual amount. Last winter started very mildly but increasingly frosts and ice resulted in a long gritting season, with twice the number of runs than usual. In 2017/18, we had three significant snow events. During the winter before, there was none. There was a major snow event in December 2017 but it was the last week of February and the first week in March 2018 that people will remember.
Tim Towers recalls commenting at the beginning of March, “Winter was due to finish but it felt like it was only about to begin”. By this time, spreading crews had already worked long, hard, over-night hours and were tiring, having been out more often than usual and sometimes around the clock. Crews face challenging conditions with or without ploughs fitted and, at night, operate their entire shift under the continual hypnotic distraction of the reflection on the road surface ahead of them of their flashing amber beacons. There’s no escaping it. “It’s a headache in every sense of the word”, said Tim.
Air temperatures in late February went down to –9°c, the lowest since 2010. This is below the temperature when salt begins to lose its effectiveness. On St David’s Day, fine snow on strong easterlies caused drifting on high and even lower ground. It is during times such as these that officers have to patrol to spot, report and direct crews to the worst affected areas.
Although most comments on social media praised Denbighshire’s snow response, there were a few who criticised Denbighshire’s management. Complaints usually revolve around questions like, “So, just where were the gritters?”.
Spreaders cannot, of course, be everywhere at the same time. They can get stuck thanks to abandoned vehicles. They are not even immune from sliding off the road, as a report of a Denbighshire gritter in December’s Daily Mail proved. Tim said: “During heavy daytime snow, spreaders join the queues of slow-moving traffic that inevitably quickly build up along main roads as, ironically, motorists all at the same time take to the roads they know will be treated”. As complaints come in, we respond. It’s a case of checking the gritters’ trackers to prove when roads were treated & when, diverting managers away from the business of moving resources in real time.
While the drivers themselves are rightly praised for the work they do, Denbighshire’s winter maintenance management is no less vigilant and no less hard-working. Managers work overnight at need, alongside their drivers. They spend long hours on-call in rotation, 24 hours a day over a seven day period. They are probably the most experienced team in North Wales. The Ruthin-based duty officer alone has 35 years’ experience. Even with ever more sophisticated satellite imagery and modern forecasting, a lot depends on the skill and judgement of those on duty, in calling in resources, in judging exactly at what height above sea level to treat, in considering the type & spread rate of salt and when exactly this should be during the day. Or night. Or both.
Indeed, salt at the wrong time and it may get washed away. Salt too late and you risk crashes. It’s crucial to get salt down before snow falls but this never guarantees that it will prevent settling snow. No amount of salt will do that in heavy, persistent snowfall. On the other hand, chasing after heavy, isolated snow showers while trying to predict the exact location in which they fall is tricky.
A and B roads are the priority but officers will respond to particular circumstances. Farmers who are running short of just-in-time feeds are among those who ask for—and usually get—a positive response from managers, on animal welfare grounds.
Spreading at 1 a.m., 4 a.m., 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. plus during the day are all part of a public service usually taken for granted.
As neck ties come off in the summer heat, it’s difficult to imagine managers and staff working around the clock in freezing conditions to keep our roads open. But that’s what they’ll begin doing from from this month onwards, till March.
Snowy Statistics 2017/18
- Amount of salt used in Denbighshire: 170,000 cwt
- Amount of salt used on the Ruthin area: 65,000 cwt
- Total mileage operated: 98,000
- Mileage in Ruthin area: 39,000
- No. of days during which spreaders in action in 17/18: 184
- No. of days in action during typical winter: 70
- Pool of duty managers: 5
- Pool of supervisors: 10
- Pool of drivers: 35
Credit to Peter Daniels and the Ruthin Civic Association for the article