Out and about with hertfordshire gritters
IT'S almost midnight, and the road ahead of us is completely empty, save for a thin layer of salt across the tarmac. For the past two-and-a-half hours, I have been travelling through Hertfordshire in a road gritter, and we are now retracing our steps ba
IT'S almost midnight, and the road ahead of us is completely empty, save for a thin layer of salt across the tarmac.
For the past two-and-a-half hours, I have been travelling through Hertfordshire in a road gritter, and we are now retracing our steps back to the depot in South Mimms.
Travelling with me is head of Hertfordshire Highways Vince Gilbert, who has been explaining to me the finer points of keeping our roads safe during the winter months.
"People get a better service without realising it," says Mr Gilbert. "The idea is to get the salt down before it snows.
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"Nowadays, it's all computer calculated, and because we can be more precise with times, we can target the trips better.
"We used to go out at set times, but now we go out when we really need to, which means you might not see as much of us."
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My trip could not have been better timed; this week has seen the worst snowfall in 18 years, causing schools across the country to close and leaving commuters stranded.
Hertfordshire Highways, like a lot of services across the country, has been accused of not doing its job, despite ample warning of the forthcoming weather.
"We always knew it would be difficult," says Mr Gilbert. "That level of snow is always going to cause us a few problems."
Was there anymore the gritters could have done?
"I don't think so," says Mr Gilbert. "I wouldn't have done anything different. The only way we could have improved the service is by spending a lot of money on equipment we might only use every 10 years."
Since Sunday, the Hertfordshire gritters have been out nine times to salt priority and secondary roads, using 4,000 tonnes of salt in the process.
Our driver, Barry, has been out on every single trip, without a day off.
The constant activity has had a significant impact on salt stocks, and, Mr Gilbert admits, re-stocking is proving difficult.
To conserve the salt, Hertfordshire Highways will only be focusing on priority networks over the next few days, despite predictions of more snow and freezing weather over the weekend.
An order for 6,200 more tonnes of salt has been put in to the agency's suppliers, Salt Union, based in Cheshire.
In the meantime, Hertfordshire Highways and the county council are seeking alternative sources overseas.
Because of the weather, it is expected that the cost of winter maintenance for 2008-09 will be about �4.3m - around �1m over budget.
But says Mr Gilbert, money concerns come second to maintaining safe roads.
"The decision on when to grit is not financially based," he says. "We just do it.