Digging deep for the hole truth

Endless disruption is caused every time a hole is dug in England, but at a stakeholders' forum recently, delegates decided something must be done.

Chris Overton details the forum's aims Each year, on average, 4M holes are dug in UK highways and footpaths by utilities.

Every time a hole is dug in the road, it carries the risk of hitting and damaging other utilities' buried plants and equipment, and impacts on traffic and the local environment, often causing significant disruption. At a stakeholders' forum on July 14, organised by UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) , an international audience of more than 40 experts from utilities, research organisations, local and national government, contractors and equipment manufacturers identified a set of needs that are key to the successful reduction of disruption. They are:

  • reduced duration of road opening, in terms of both the number of openings and the time each is open,
  • more accurate and extensive information on the location and nature of buried assets,
  • a more effective mechanism for sharing asset record information,
  • improved co-ordination of all roadworks, based on more consistent agendas of all parties involved,
  • more universal adoption of a 'right first time' approach.

There is a further identified need to find different ways of providing services in the long-term, if we are to minimise disruption against a background of forecast increased traffic volumes and continuing high levels of utility works.

Delegates agreed that reducing disruption needs utilities, local authorities, highway authorities, regulators and government to work in partnership, with less competition and more co-ordination. The forum heard details of a research programme aimed at reducing disruption associated with streetworks.

The programme originated in 2002 at an international workshop attended by a group of experts from the UK, US and Netherlands, representing utilities, contractors, manufacturers, research organisations and academia. They identified potential research opportunities that will address the identified needs. The programme has four themes:

  • making the best of what we have currently,
  • improved future surface-based survey techniques,
  • below-ground survey techniques,
  • future developments and possibilities.
  • It will deliver a wide range of benefits, chief of which are:
  • significantly reduced direct and indirect costs, on a national scale,
  • a more highly-skilled workforce,
  • more sustainable construction,
  • proven new technologies, as the result of cutting-edge research, with potential spin-offs to other applications and application in overseas markets,
  • more positive relationships between the industry and its regulators,
  • improved perception of the utility industry by its customers, society and government.

The cost of the programme, including appropriate programme and project management fees, is estimated at £10M over a five-year period and coincides with Secretary of State for Transport Alistair Darling's stated intention: "In order to deal with the pressures over the next 20-30 years, we ought to look at the opportunities that are now being presented to us with new technology in order to deal with the pressures we face."

At the end of the forum, 93% of delegates agreed the programme should be developed further and 86% agreed that successful implement-ation of the programme will make a difference.

The working group, which developed the detailed programme, consists of Marilyn Burtwell (TRL), Ed Faragher (Advantica Technologies), Professor Chris Rogers (University of Birmingham and convenor of NETTwork) and Tony Woodward (Thames Water), supported by Dr Mike Farrimond (UKWIR) and Jo Parker (Veolia Water).

Following the endorsement of the programme, they are now working on developing the partnership seen by all as an essential platform for the development and delivery of the research programme. As a society, the impact of this work on people, business and the environment continues to grow, with an increasing recognition of the need to mitigate its effects.

In April, Alistair Darling said: "We are determined to do more to prevent the endless disruption caused by roadworks in towns and cities." The direct cost of trenching and reinstatement work in UK highways for utilities is in excess of £1Bn per year, part of which is attributable to 'dry' holes and damage to third party assets.

Large though they are, direct costs are significantly less than indirect costs to business, local communities, society, government, the environment and the utility industry resulting from delays, disruption, congestion, waste and pollution. In total, these indirect costs are of the order of £2Bn per year. Total direct and indirect costs to utilities, industry, society and government of over £3Bn per year will continue to rise unless better information and more effective technologies can be made available to those doing the work. Utilities have no choice.

They are driven by regulators to maintain and improve their infrastructure, much of which is old and decaying and much of which lies under roads and pavements. Even with the most careful planning - which is not always possible if a main bursts in the middle of a busy road during rush hour - and the use of the most modern trenchless techniques, excavation within a safe working space has to be carried out, resulting in disruption. It is clear a different approach is needed. Alistair Darling also said: "What is needed is an entirely new approach. A change in culture"



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