Monday, 24 November 2014

Road works: a millenial oxymoron?

The seed for this post came on the way home from our trip to Orange.  We had three encounters with road works on that leg of which the classic started just South of Boorowa.  A sign warned of roadworks ahead and the speed limit was reduced from 100kph to 80kph as a result.  I realise that there are two reasons for slowing down for road works:

  1. the safety of those in the vehicle; and
  2. the safety of those doing the roadworks.
After about 2km there was no sign of any activity relating to point 2 and point 1 was thus also null, so I resumed cruise control at 100kph.  About 5 km down the road another set of signs appeared (possibly augmented by one suggested that Mr Plod may be doing some monitoring).  Ignored on the basis of experience.  Possibly about 15km South of Boorowa we finally found some guys doing something with a backhoe, possibly using up half of the North-bound carriageway.  So I slowed down while in the area.

This led to some discussion of our past experiences with the descendants of the navvies.  It is pretty much summed up by this cartoon from the great South African strip "Madam and Eve".
What follows is more or less a set of reminiscences which I hope won't be too boring, but I am enjoying writing it!

Going way back into my past (to about 1962) I was helping my Dad dig over his commercial glasshouses and contrasted the physical work he was doing with the activities of some Council road 'workers' in the road outside.  This summarises the processes.

  •     Basically Dad dug, with a fork, about 2 acres of glasshouse every year and added several tons of cow manure: this pretty labour intensive approach kept the soil in good nick and gave good tomato.
  • ·     There were about 6 Council guys with shovels spreading gravel in a hole where the road was being repaired, plus 1 with a dumper and 1 with a back hoe back at the gravel pile.  The process was along the lines of:
1.     the guy with dumper drives off from the worksite to the gravel pile where he stops.
2.     the backhoe guy starts the hoe gets a load of gravel and drops it in the dumper. He then stops the hoe and resumes reading (or at least looking at) the racing pages.  
3.     Dumper dude drives back to the worksite where the Magnificent 6 are leaning on their shovels waiting for him.  He dumps the gravel into the trench and turns off the dumper, probably lighting up a Woodbine;
4.     the 6 dudes then spread the heap out and resume a position leaning on their shovels. Back to step 1.

I haven't kept the exact metrics in my head (shime! shime!) but remember the outcome was that each day, Dad moved twice as much material as the entire mob did in aggregate.

Coming forward a bit, to about September 1973 Frances and I drove from Adelaide to Sydney and came back back via Broken Hill.  Somewhere between Cobar and Willcannia the road surface was being replaced and an old bloke was holding up a stop-go sign.  As we were the first car in line and were going to be there for a while I started a conversation with him.  Mainly about heat and flies I seem to recall - there were adequate supplies of both in the area.  Frances was astonished that my accent changed from hybrid Pom x Adelaide middle class to absolute rustic Ocker.  However it made the old guy happy and gave Frances and I something to talk about for the rest of the day's drive.

We spent 1991 in Ottawa and a Canadian friend commented that Ottawa has two seasons: Winter and roadworks.  This was certainly the case for the Transcanada Hwy (aka route 417).
I don't recall getting a clean 3-lanes-open run on that at anytime except when the snow was flying.

Coming forward another 10 years we spent 2001-03 in Tanzania.  There were 2 approaches to road works there.  

At the basic level villagers would fix up the minor roads (pretty much always dirt) through their village, especially the bits that were shaded by mango trees.  The following image is from Dar es Salaam - on one of the few bitumen roads in that city - but does show the technology used in both rural and urban local works:
In contrast to the UK example above, when we came back an hour later this huge tree had been sliced and all the bits rolled to the side of the road!

For the major roads when work was in progress traffic tended to be sent off on diversions along dirt roads.  
The example shown was just to go round a collapsed bridge.  It could be great fun when it was raining (and in some areas gave added employment opportunities for the local bandits).   Another sample:
The longest diversion I recall was about 16 kilometres! 

Of course this being Africa funds for road works were allocated on a strange basis, formally opaque to any mzungu: so the bitumen road to the National Capital (Dodoma) had a stretch of about 30km that had to be driven at about 30kph or less due to the great number and size of the potholes. No aid project had seen fit to fund fixing this up (or if they had, the funds had been reallocated to some other more urgent purpose with a clearer link to a Minister's re-election prospects - but this was never formally recognised).

Getting up to date the situation around our local area is interesting.  When Palerang Shire or Queanbeyan City Council are using their own staff things go pretty well as the work is done efficiently and it is usually possible to talk sense to all involved (including the lollypop persons).  On the other hand when the State Government is involved there will be layers of contractors involved and the people at the bottom of the food chain (holding the lollypops) are not told anything so cannot answer complex questions such as:
  • "When is this going to be finished?", 
  • "Will both lanes of this, the only road to town, be blocked again tomorrow?" 
  • "Why didn't you do a letter box drop to warn residents the road was going to be completely closed?"
Apart from the Boorowa example at the start of this rant the worst examples I have come across of bone idleness and poor planning was the Pacific Highway North of Coffs Harbour in July 2014.  An episode involving a sign that sent us 5km towards Coffs where a fat bozo told me I had go back the way I had come was close to an award winner.  However the clear winner was an 8km stretch of dual carriageway where 1 lane was blocked by road works signs and the speed limit was 60kph.  Apart from the signs there was no reason not to use both lanes and have a limit of 100kph.

I have heard it rumoured that in Victoria if restrictive signs are in place when the work is completed the contractors cop a big fine.  I do wish such a rule spread to NSW.

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