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Guest blog - Symology Ltd.

From time to time, JAG(UK) will publish articles by third parties from the industry. The views expressed herein are not necessarily representative of or endorsed by JAG(UK).

By Sarah Twigg

We don’t need statistics to tell us that the traffic loading on our highway network is increasing year on year; nor that, as this happens, the disruptive effect of street works is inevitably increased dramatically. We experience these symptoms in our every-day lives.

Works on the street are essential, so how do we ensure that they are done in a way that minimises the disruptive effect. There are many possible areas for improvement; trenchless technology, methods of speeding up the work, appropriate timing of the work, etc. However, the commercial objectives of the works promoter or contractor may clearly conflict with the objectives of minimising occupancy of the highway, particularly at Traffic Sensitive times.

Current thinking appears to be along the lines of introducing a range of penalties or charges aimed at reducing bad practice and incentivising the promoter to complete the works in the least disruptive way. Overstay charges, differential permit charges depending on whether Traffic Sensitive times are avoided, and Lane Rental are all examples of this. More recent concepts being considered include:

  • Penalties on “A” roads if roads remain occupied without works going on at weekends, and for delays in removal of traffic signals.
  • The possibility of extending “Lane Rental” to consider hourly (as opposed to daily) charging and differentials for Traffic Sensitive times.

As these ideas evolve, they become increasingly targeted and time critical – for example, we are talking about the removal of traffic signals within an hour or two, not within a day or two; we are focussing on whether works can be removed by the start of the evening rush hour at 16:30. If we are convinced that financial incentives/disincentives are the right way to proceed and we are committed to pursue these avenues, we need to review how the associated processes to control, monitor and police them can be introduced.

Current street works noticing procedures are inadequate. It makes little sense to have a requirement to remove traffic signals within an hour or two, when the completion of the works does not need to be recorded until the end of the following day. Similarly, how could you use hourly “Lane Rental” charges to incentivise minimum occupancy when the start and completion of works is only recorded with a date and we currently have no way of knowing whether the works occupied the highway from 08:00 to 17:00 or only from 10:30 to 12:00.

It is ludicrous to think that we can control and automate these types of carefully targeted incentive schemes based on a set of street works regulations that are outdated. As an example, the whole concept of “working days” in the regulations probably dates back to a time when Saturdays and Sundays really were “days of rest”.

The type of system needed to monitor and control these activities should be based on the operative pressing a button on site to indicate start of activity, completion of works, removal of signals, clearance of the complete site, etc. and both works promoter and highway authority systems being updated with the precise date and time almost instantaneously. The relevant systems could then be prompting the promoter in “real time” of potential deviances from plans, additional costs, etc., providing the highway authority with the information necessary for any policing activities, and automating any charging/penalty systems so that administrative overheads are minimised.

Imagine a system that enabled works promoters to view a running total of the costs being incurred for all charges/penalty mechanisms for each works (and totals, of course) on an hour-to-hour basis, so it would be easy to monitor by drilling down to see where things were going wrong and have the opportunity to rectify problems whilst they were happening. The highway authority would have a precise and accurate picture (including on their GIS) of exactly where works are currently in progress. Inspectors would have equally accurate and up-to-date information for their own monitoring and policing activities.

The same solutions would resolve the public information issue. There is much talk about the availability of street works data on the web and within your car navigation system, to assist in your journey planning. Yet, within the industry, we know that the current street works data is not “fit for purpose”; information on the start and completions of works may be up to 36 hours out of date (or over 3 days out of date at weekends).
The technology to support this type of advancement already exists and “real-time” monitoring is common in many other business areas – finance, retail systems, etc.. Your local superstore ensures the shelves remain stocked as a result of continuous real-time recording of sales at the till and mobiles used by the staff in the re-stocking process. We know that for street works there are some outlying areas of the country without data network coverage, but these are likely to be the least affected by traffic disruption.

Of course, the whole community would need to embrace the new systems and we would need a fundamental review of the regulations. EToN 6 has shown that, even where there are substantial efficiency and cost benefits offered by new processes, the initial investment required for implementation is unlikely to be allocated unless they are a statutory requirement.

One final consideration: The type of fundamental review outlined above, together with a rationalisation of existing procedures, could provide very effective solutions. It is likely that a single targeted approach, such as Lane Rental style charges for road occupancy on an hourly basis, with the emphasis on areas and times of high traffic loadings, could provide a progressive and universal solution to meet the objectives, and this could be very efficient to operate. Conversely, we should be careful not to embark on a series of small, isolated initiatives, each with its own unique procedures – “A” road weekend working, traffic signal removal, different variations of lane rental, etc. None of these can be operated efficiently without fundamental changes to street works procedures and a wholesale collection of these individual initiatives could create large overhead costs and an administrative burden, with questionable end-benefit.

Technology has the potential to provide elegant solutions and substantial efficiency benefits, but those who define regulation need the will and foresight to take advantage of the opportunities and remove some of the inhibiting factors embodied in current regulations. The future is there – if we can only grasp it!

Sarah Twigg works for Symology Ltd as an Account Management Consultant. She has worked in the industry for 7 years and specialises in Street Works noticing and co-ordination for both Promoters and Authorities.

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