By Paul Chandler
If you stop and think about it, the NRSWA processes that we are so familiar with are not fit for purpose in the modern world. What we did with EToN was basically take paper based processes and made them electronic. This dates from a time where a works undertaker, or their contractor, would print off the gangs jobs, the gang would pick them up in the morning and head out, dig holes all day and then hand in the paperwork for the various excavations either at the end of that day or first thing the next morning. Realistically they could easily not make it to the person who was going to be putting in the work start notice until the morning after the hole was dug. They might have a whole pile of holes to get start notices in for and it could be after lunch by the time they get to the bottom of the pile. A job dug on Friday morning might easily not have a works start raised until 3pm Monday and no-one considered this a particularly unreasonable state of affairs.
But does it need to be this way in 2016? When I was working for a contractor, 10 years ago now, they were already adopting camera phones and requiring digging gangs, reinstatement crews and anyone else who visited site to take a picture which was uploaded to a dedicated website. This kind of thing is now standard practice and gangers who a decade ago needed multiple training sessions to get their head around what they needed to do with a camera phone are now completely au-fait with smartphones, apps, tablets and all manner of technology not even dreamt of back then. It's now not unusual for a gang to have a phone or tablet connected to some form of works management system which they can use to raise the works start themselves and have it pass directly to the authorities EToN system without it needing to go across the desk of anyone in the back office. At the very least, the contractor knows as soon as a job has started.
So somebody somewhere has this information that street works have started, but they aren't compelled to share it with the Authority any quicker than they were 20 years ago (FPNs and the requirement under Permits to get a works start in by 10am for cat 0, 1 and 2 roads have certainly helped encourage more efficient processes however) and even if they are kind enough to do so, we aren't set up to do anything with that data that might help the end road user. Websites such as RoadWorks.Org and (the soon to be relaunched) LondonWorks.gov.uk can offer a good general indication of potential disruption but not anything that Google, TomTom or any other sat nav company can usefully and reliably supply to their road users. Surely with modern technology, this is a circle that we can now square, but how? Do we need legislation to compel undertakers to raise a works start within... an hour? Two hours? Four hours? Would it apply to all jobs? Just carriageway works? Just works on cat 0,1 and 2 roads?
All this applies equally to works stops as well. At the moment websites using data from EToN can show potential significant disruption on major arterial roads long after the site has been cleared. You can have a job that all parties work hard to squeeze into 1 shift of overnight works, on a Thursday night/Friday morning and the works stop might not arrive until the Monday. All over the weekend, anyone who takes a look online would see that there was potentially major disruption in the area.
Road Closures are another example where EToN is simply not nuanced enough to meet modern expectations. Major works might run for several months with a full closure only required to be in place for one week in that time but the correct process to follow when raising a notice or Permit is to always choose the most impactful traffic management that will occur during the works. Equally you might have a job where a closure is only in place for certain hours of the day and it wouldn't be that much of a leap to record that info and get it to the end user. We need to either provide more clarity around different phases of traffic management or link TTROs into the noticing/permitting process.
It seems to me that real time noticing in street works is a concept that is due for further exploration. I will leave you with some words from our utility colleague and Co-Chair of HAUC England, Peter Loft: "Technology has moved on, practical site operations, digging and reinstatement techniques and safety etc. have all improved. But EToN has stood still. It is time for it to move on."
Paul Chandler is currently JAG(UK) Deputy Manager and works for Westminster City Council