Monday 14 September 2009

Keep Right On To The End Of The Road

My back hurts a lot. It has been Heritage Open Days weekend and I was dragged out to look at high cost facilities preserved to remind us of our past. There are many wonderful places, and little known treasures to be found, but there are temptations to the urge to debate. As someone who thinks that Thomas Becket had it coming, it can make me an unwelcome guest at a place where the devout pray to him. When they remind me that he scattered silver coins to the poor pilgrims I remind them that it was the equivalent of chucking £50 notes at football supporters and the money had been obtained by monastic financial and property frauds, malpractices and tax swindles imposed by him as Chancellor. Reginald Fitz Urse, whose manor and lands at Wrotham lay halfway between palaces of the Archbishop in Otford and Maidstone, and had suffered, was responding as any hard pressed tax payer would at the time. King Henry II simply wanted to have a look at the accounts. But it is difficult telling worshippers not to be judgemental.

Which brings me to the money and the roads. The places we visited could be reached by “B” roads at best, and more often by distances over Unclassified (back) roads. It was rough riding, and the roads reminded me of the days when I first cycled when rural roads might have little more than a spray of tar and gravel over limited or negligible foundations. Our car has decent suspension, and comfortable seats, but it was doing a lot of bouncing. This happened on stretches of “A”, trunk roads as well and we have noticed that many of these are in poor condition. Moreover, our journeys were in areas near to towns, motorways or dual carriageway major routes, and busy railway lines. There is a high density of population, and none of it can be regarded as “remote”.

As traffic levels have increased; with increased intensity of vehicle use, the roads need a great deal more expensive maintenance. Also, the vehicles have changed. Not only are cars often heavier, and driven harder, but the commercial vehicles now common are in a different order to those when these roads were first engineered to deal with the traffic of the middle decades of the 20th Century. They are bigger, heavier, and carry more, whether trucks or vans, and modern logistics means that they travel widely and are not confined to motorways or major trunk routes.

A neighbour and good friend was a road engineer. The houses on the development had a few paving slabs as drives, thrown down just before the builders went into liquidation, so many chose to lay new drives. Workmen would spend a couple of days putting down a driveway. My neighbour did his own, and was taking a long time, and doing a very different job. I asked why. He had worked on some major road projects and explained the basic principles of road foundations. There were plenty of good examples around.

When the M62 was built, largely at the urging of Barbara Castle who had been talking to road engineers but to the derision of the Ministry of Transport planners and statisticians, much of the carriageway was laid to motorway standard near major towns. It was expected to function as a series of linked by-passes, but on other stretches, notably the East Riding section beyond the A1, for reasons of economy, the Ministry decided on having limited foundations against advice. The engineers were proved right, the M62 soon achieved high levels of heavy freight traffic, and in the East Riding the foundations quickly began to collapse and the whole section had to be rebuilt to much higher standards, at a huge added cost.

One feature explained to me that was when foundations became deformed and the surface uneven, then vehicles would “thump” up and down. With ordinary cars this was not much of an issue, but with anything heavy and with high axle weights, this would worsen the damage, and at an increasing rate. I could believe it, as once I had the job of diverting an Armoured Brigade of four regiments moving on its tracks down a side road, and inside a couple of hours the road and its foundations were torn apart and up to two foot taken off the level. Unless dealt with early a roadway under continuing pressure could collapse quickly, and sometimes without notice. Any services underneath would be damaged and liable to failure.

We are talking serious money. A back of the envelope calculation for the few miles I spent driving around a varied collection of back roads, “B” roads, and the few miles of “A” roads, would mean around £100 million to reconstruct them to modern needs, taking account of the range, weight, and intensity of vehicle traffic they now have. For the county as a whole, call it at least a billion. It could be needed soon, because some of these roads are deteriorating fast. In many cases the verges have gone and the edges are already collapsed. The potholes are getting bigger and deeper. If we ever do get a hard winter again the frost damage will be extensive. Surfaces are eroding fast, and fracture lines are common. The rutting that is now common shows a great many foundations are impaired. As other routes become clogged or under repair, many of these roads are experiencing not just local traffic but a good deal of incidental other traffic.

One thing is clear, it is that routine road maintenance, as well as much else that is “routine” in central and local government, has not seen its expenditure keep pace either with basic needs, advancing costs, or increased demand. Bitter experience of budgeting tells me that one of the first, often the first, casualty of retrenchment, cuts, or discarded plans, is maintenance and upkeep. If you do not do the basic work, and are late in dealing with worsening issues, then you can finish up with something that is no longer serviceable. Our road system beyond the motorways and major trunk routes is already in an advancing stage of decline. This is being written by someone who visits preserved railways and has all the ancient prejudices in favour of rail.

If you want to understand the thinking, then go to a heritage site which has ancient ruins. When I try to explain to those who love these places and their myths that it was the maintenance costs that did for most of them they do not believe me. Consider the state of the Exchequer over much of the past, the problems with taxation, and just how much it cost to maintain such places for so few people. It applied to the castles and to a great many other major constructions of the middle ages. Moreover the urge to build new prestige buildings added to all the burdens and something had to go.

It is surprising how quickly an infrastructure can collapse. For catastrophe hunters, one sport is trying to guess which advanced economy could be the next to go. At the moment the UK is at shortening odds, so keep your eye on the road.


  1. I would argue The UK is well into the decay, such as you descibe, already!

  2. Change and decay in all around I see, but especially in the concrete so beloved of the 60's construction industry.

    Surveyors in the US have expressed serious concerns that their bridges and flyovers are crumbling as a result of age, heavy traffic and salt corrosion of the steel reinforcing rods.

    Doubtless the same thing is happening here; add the deteriorating road surfaces and the record rainfalls in the northern UK and we have a recipe for disaster this winter.

    Perhaps when the first big motorway collapses, we should mark its passing with a bonfire burning an effigy of Dr Beeching.