Asset management challenges

“Traditional but innovative” might sound like something of a contradiction, but it is actually the formula for a successful asset management strategy for highway maintenance.

“You can extend the life of the asphalt surface by 10 to 15 years...”

Carl Skelton, Group Manager Highway Maintenance Services

It is the phrase Carl Skelton, Group Manager for highway maintenance services at East Riding of Yorkshire Council, uses to describe the authority’s approach to maintaining the county’s road network. “We take a traditional approach in terms of putting resilience into the network, and we try to stick with traditional ways of doing things where we know it works effectively,” he explains. “But we are very willing to innovate where it is going to save money or be more effective.”

All highways authorities have unique asset management challenges; many of East Riding’s are the result of geography. The council is one of the largest unitary authorities in England, covering an area of over 1,000 square miles (259,000 ha) and with an extensive road and footway network that includes over 2,200 miles (3,500 km) of carriageway and 1,200 miles (1,900 km) of footways. “It’s a big county to manage and a big network to upkeep,” says Councillor John Barrett, who has responsibility for highways and footpaths on the authority’s Cabinet.

Richard Alderson, East Riding Council’s Principal Engineer for highways asset management, adds: “We are a mainly rural authority. Many of the roads in the network are not highly trafficked, but for residents it’s their lifeline.”

The size of the county – and the accompanying logistics challenge – impacts the strategy for highways maintenance. The expense of mobilising maintenance crews over large distances makes it more cost effective to do repairs that will last a long time, rather than to keep revisiting a site.

This is evident in East Riding’s approach to surface dressing. The council sees the technique as an really important method for extending the overall life of its road network and invests in high quality materials and equipment to get the best engineered product. As Skelton explains: “You can extend the life of the asphalt surface by 10 to 15 years by surface dressing.”

Alderson describes the asset management approach to the use of surface dressing: “We establish a lifecycle – at least two dressings within the life of the asset – and use that to allocate funding.”

Skelton adds: “Surface dressing plays a lead part in our armoury against reduced budgets, increased traffic, increased public expectation and an increase in the number of potholes. It’s a very traditional method – we’ve been surface dressing for 50 years. But we’re trying to do it better, and in the most innovative way we can.”

That innovative approach encompasses investment in the latest equipment, as well as careful choice of materials. The local authority incorporates recycled chippings where possible into its surface dressing and always uses a premium binder, namely Nynas Duramuls.

The authority made a conscious decision some time ago to buy premium binders, having realised that standard binders have sometimes proved a false economy by not delivering the desired durability. “I would rather up the quality and do it once,” says Skelton. “It lasts longer, and we get fewer complaints.”

He adds that, with labour, plant and equipment costs accounting for a significant element of the overall budget, the priority is to use the crews as efficiently as possible and the small additional premium binder cost is easily off-set by productivity savings. Using premium aggregate and binder also means the crews can be used effectively in a works programme that is planned up to two years in advance, rather than reactively.

In the record-breaking high temperatures of summer 2018, the premium binder had another advantage: the polymer modification of Nynas Duramuls raises the softening point of the binder, enabling it to better withstand higher road temperatures compared to standard binders. The performance of the material was matched by that of the laying crew, as Skelton explains: “We were able to keep working in the hot weather because of the quality of the binder and the fact that our guys were working at 4am to make the most of the cooler hours. It’s testament to the flexibility of our team.”

This is another example of the “traditional but innovative approach”: East Riding has bucked the trend of service externalisation, and retained and developed its highway maintenance operations in-house, both at management and operative level. This is supported by framework contracts to supplement the in-house delivery of capital and machine paving works. As a result, the authority has retained vital skills in house, and has the flexibility to cope with local needs in a timely, efficient and sustainable manner.

Councillor Barrett says the authority as far as possible, tries to keep all of its services in house tries. He says this creates a distinct culture of everyone – from management to operatives – being “very keen on noticing what the residents want, as a result, we tend to get everybody working together,” he says.

Skelton adds: “We have retained in house capabilities and skills, and can trial things and make changes to processes quite quickly. We’ve got good staff who don’t see change as an issue or a barrier. We will change something if we can see the benefit to the end user or to us financially, and if it will put resilience into the network.”

The in-house maintenance teams involved in surface dressing and paving are supplemented by key suppliers also employed on framework partnerships. And alongside the investment in skills is a parallel emphasis on plant and equipment. “We are always planning for the next piece of equipment for the future as long as it is going to reduce our overall service costs,” explains Skelton. “It’s about being ahead of the game in terms of modern processes, but also about staff morale – making sure they have the best kit. Availability of modern and effective equipment is really important to the guys – and for turning out a better product.”

He adds: “Having long term knowledge of the specialist plant together with the skills and experience of our internal workforce allows us to make these good investment decisions.”

Tony Wilson, service manager for highways, says: “We constantly look to balance costs and the best quality products available. Because we’ve got control of the whole programme, we can still make that efficient in terms of lasting benefits to highway users.”

On the photo: Tony Wilson and Carl Skelton are part of the East Riding in-house maintenance team.

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