Wednesday 25 May 2016

Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom

"Somewhere hidden amongst thorny brambles is a little kingdom of elves and fairies. Everyone who lives here is very, very small." If you have kids of a certain age, you'll know this show and might even recognise the local mayor!

So what on Earth has this got to do with a civil engineering blog? Not much, but it's a bit of fun to make a point. In the show, the fairies simply have to wave a wand to make things happen (often with unintended consequences) whereas the elves are clever and industrious with their work grounded in science (stay with me). This is very much like how the public perceive civil engineering (especially highway engineering) compared to reality.

I recently responded to an enquiry at work which was basically someone venting their spleen at having been sat in some of our roadworks. The gist was the work was taking too long to complete, the contractor was slow and we should sack them and get someone else and we didn't know what we were doing. My response highlighted that we were working on a main route and so had to work off-peak, the contractor got paid on work done and not a day rate and how and how we did, in fact, know what we were doing.

The enquirer had been stuck in off-peak traffic when the cones had been out and for sure, (motor) traffic capacity was greatly reduced. Over the years roads have got busier, especially in urban places. This has pushed governments to legislate in favour of maximing capacity at peak times and this has led to it becoming harder to get things done in less time during the day. 

In general, restricted weekday hours been we can work between 9.30 and and 3pm. When you think that temporary traffic management needs to go out and come back in as well, the actual time for work is much reduced. In urban areas, we can't generally work all night because of noise considerations (typically no noisy stuff after 11pm) and there is a cost implication. OK, things vary with scheme and location and the nature of some work has the cones out all the time, but you get the point.

For local A roads, we've the Government consulting on measures to force local authorities to get roadworks taken in over weekends or for works to continue over the weekend; my industry thinks it's a pretty daft idea and one does wonder who will be appointed to police local authority works.

There are always tweaks and efficinecies to be had, but I do think my industry needs to be more straight with people, whether our highway users or the politicians holding the purse strings. At some point we need to do work and it will lead to distruption, so people need to consider alternative methods of travel, change their times of travel or sometimes, put up with it.

As we've seen only this week with a hydraulic oil spill in London's Blackwall Tunnel, we sometimes have to react to circumstances and it will cause huge levels of distruption. Yes, it is hugely inconvenient when you are stuck in it, but things have to get done. The underlying issue of course is that in terms of the road network, we don't have a great deal of capacity going spare in many places and it affects our resilience. But, it is unrealsitic to expect miracles. 

Our roadworkers are not the fairies from the Little Kingdom, able to magic up highway repairs and schemes while everyone sleeps, they are more like the elves. Their effort is tangible, it takes technology, planning, skill and a huge amount of muscle from the roadworkers themselves.

So next time you are stuck in your car cursing the cones, or your bus is running late because a sewer has collapsed, just spare a thought for the people out on our streets in all weathers, day and night, summer and winter. The unsung heroes of our industry who physically do the work; and that's no fairy story! 


  1. Drie proost voor der bouweren. Je kunt do het. Oh, and don`t worry about the second word, second sentence. It just means can in Dutch. It is among my first sentences that I wrote using my knowledge of how to put words together rather than replying on Google to translate a whole sentence.

    There are a few things that the Dutch do that the British could learn from. One example is how kerbs are actually pre cast and shipped in standard lengths and sizes on side and there's a little interlock thing like a puzzle piece so that they stay together. This goes for all kinds of kerbs. Kassle kerbs at bus stops, the ramps used at minor side roads, standard kerbs, bicycle angled kerbs, all of them, even the metal drain grates do this. It just helps to make it a bit faster and with less need of concrete trucks on site.

    Footways are made out of standard bricks, not asphalt or large concrete blocks (like the 1.5 metre wide cubes that my city uses for it's sidewalks). And brick paved roads are laid with a special machine. All you need to do is to get the subbase ready, and this includes any elevations for a raised junction or speed tables, get the machine in place and start working. It's electric, so not loud, and it's also in quite a few sizes.

    Utilities are laid under the footways by the way. Given that bricks with nothing like glue to hold them together is used for the paving, it's easy to go and dig them up when you need to, and it's easy to repair. It is also easy to divert pedestrians. Make a temporary ramp for wheelchair users if required and mix them with cyclists on a separate path or onto the 30 km/h road, maybe laying down some temporary barriers filled with water to keep them in place and feel solid, even next to a 12 tonne bus. It works very well.

    The utility companies are also in one big registry, so are things like excavators (the company doing the digging, not the machines). They are notified if anyone is doing something on a road, so that they can coordinate whatever they do. Saves money and time.

    And also, a lot of updates to the streets are done when they are being rebuilt anyway. When a surface is at the end of it`s lifespan anyway, they redesign the entire streets from the utilities up so that everything can be up the latest standards. Hey, it was going to happen anyway, so why not move forward a planned street redesign one head ahead when the utility companies wanted to do maintenance? And also, this is one argument in favour of cycling. The streets are going to need to be rebuilt anyway at some point. It might as well happen sooner so that we can have more cycling sooner and things like fewer crashes, more business, and a more clear street?

  2. Makes me think of all the daft could have been done in 2 weeks nonsense that has been spouted about the A591 in the Lake District based on the photos of the road washed out by the river and ignoring the bit where the entire mountain moved. I love the popular assumption that planners and engineers want to delay things. Why would they?