Managing Essex Highways in winter with the support of MeteoGroup

The county of Essex has one of the largest winter gritting road networks in the UK. For its winter road management, managed by Essex Highways (a partnership between Essex County Council and Ringway Jacobs), it uses 57 gritting lorries with ploughs plus two mini gritters and 5 spare machines, all deployed based on weather conditions, forecasted and monitored by MeteoGroup. Over 2,000 miles of roads are treated with a mixture of salt and brine (pre-wet). A typical treatment (10 g/m2) uses approximately 200 tonnes of salt and the council maintains 15,000 tonnes of salt at seven depots around the county.

“As well as the standard rock salt, our gritters also use a brine solution. This so-called Pre Wet system is more cost-effective. Gritters typically spread 70% rock salt and 30% brine”. Drivers have to expect the unexpected because we are dealing with the elements. Conditions can change rapidly, for the public and for us", says Robbie Jamieson – Essex Highways Winter Service Manager.

“Our source of weather information is from MeteoGroup. They provide us with a weather forecasting service on a 24/7 basis, with all the relevant information and warnings, mainly through their RoadMaster platform and app. In addition, the Road Weather stations and the (gritter) drivers also feed back to us about conditions on their run. They are our eyes on the ground."

Decision to grit
“A decision to treat is made around midday each day, based on the latest forecast. Our Policy is to deploy the gritters if the road surface temperature – not the air temperature – is expected to drop close to freezing. During the winter season, October to April, we maintain a constant state of readiness.

“Our absolute priority is public safety on the network. The cost of a treatment is low compared to the human impact and cost of a fatal crash. We can’t make guarantees though – drivers must still drive to the conditions – but we do our best.”

Gritting operation
Essex Roads are gritted in terms of priority. While Highways England deals with the A12, A120 and motorways, Essex Highways deal with the next level of main roads and key local roads, divided over five “climatic weather zones”, based around the prevailing weather forecast. In total there are 57 different gritting routes, designed to be the most effective in terms of optimization of resources, along with two mini-gritter routes serviced by adapted pick-up trucks which cover areas the heavy lorries cannot access – such as weight-restricted bridges. All of the routes are designed to be treated within three hours. 

“Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it sounds", Jamieson continues. "On major routes with multiple slip-roads or roundabouts with filter lanes, gritters may find themselves doing several loops to cover each part of the treated road network.”

The power of technology
“Gritting is becoming a highly technical business, from the forecasting by MeteoGroup, 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 use of gritter GPS tracking and recording the treatment settings.

The human element
'But despite all this technology, the importance of the skill and knowledge of drivers cannot be underestimated", says Robbie Jamieson – who himself has been involved in winter operations since the winter of 1993. "Gritter lorry drivers are essentially trained operatives, who do other road maintenance or similar jobs while some are kept on a retainer. They are split into morning and evening shifts, geared around pretreatment in advance of rush hours. The morning team usually completes its treatment prior to 7am, the evening team starting after 7pm. 

Winter decision making
"Our decision makers receive every day four emailed forecasts from MeteoGroup and have access to the updated information via the web portal. This shows the minimum temperatures along with any hazards expected (frost, black ice, snow etc). From this they can make the best informed decision whether to treat the County’s Priority network and the optimum time to do this. The Priority network is pretreated before frost/ice forms. When we have made the decision, usually at lunchtime, we communicate this via SMS text, email, our Essex Highways website and Twitter account.

MeteoGroup and RoadMaster
“There have been lots of changes since we have started with MeteoGroup 18 years ago. Season 2017/2018 was the first season we have been fully reliant on the RoadMaster product. At the time of introduction, in 2016, we were not fully reliant on the system as we felt the new portal lacked some of the functionality that the existing MeteoGroup product, RoadCast, did offer. So we decided to run the two systems in parallel. Fortunately, MeteoGroup picked up on that message and has worked hard to get its RoadMaster product up to speed. This year we have switched completely over and we are happy with the results. It’s working out really well.

“Among the desired improvements that were made, was the possibility to see all graphs and forecasts on one single screen without having to flip through pages. Another enhancement was the introduction of actions logs. We wanted to be able to keep track of what exactly had been done, and to be able to share this with our neighboring authorities and road managers. Now, in the latest version of RoadMaster this has been included.  It’s a much better product now.

Double amount of treatments this year
“This winter we have experienced many snow events, especially at the end of February and the beginning of March (the Beast from the East). In total this winter, we have completed 108 treatments, which is double our 10-year average of 55. As a result, we did exceed our annual budget but Essex road safety is our top priority. Over the long run, the budget does even itself out and our priority remains to do what’s necessary. 

"Of course, we always try to be more efficient and save money, that’s why we’re currently evaluating and possibly trialing MeteoGroup’s Route Based Forecasts in the coming season. In addition we are tweaking our “trigger” temperature. E.g. if we lower the trigger temperature to +0.5 instead of +1.0 DegC. It could make a positive difference to the budget, under certain circumstances. However, we will not take any risks. What if the actual temperatures are lower than the forecast? MeteoGroup have a system of monitoring in place and Essex Highways are equipped to react quickly. This, however, could bring challenges regarding the regulatory limits on drivers' hours and duty times.

“The decision-making process is still a mixture of hard facts and (more and more) big data, combined with experience and local knowledge of the network. Our team of winter decisionmakers are experienced and have endured multiple snow events. During the whole process of decision making and execution, we have good contact with operational colleagues and snow clearing contractors, as well as the weather room at MeteoGroup. It also has a lot of experience to contribute. 

“Our winters now seem to start later and finish later. It used to be that our season ended in early April, now the season extends through to the end of April, or even May. The weather keeps providing surprises. That’s what keeps this job so exciting and that’s why the close cooperation with MeteoGroup is so important.

“Overall the services we receive from MeteoGroup form a critical and essential element for our day to day operations and decision making. We have found MeteoGroup to be reliable, flexible, professional and committed to innovation. MeteoGroup’s performance and accuracy have always been of a high industry standard.”

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