When a lot of salt is good for you

I'm not a health expert so I'm not qualified to talk about the benefits of salt intake in the body. As director of Operations at Highways England, however, I can tell you about the challenges we faced during the winter, the good job we did to help keep traffic moving, and the important role that salt played in that.

This winter our specialist fleet used 53,000 tonnes of salt in just one week, which equates to just under 20 per cent of the stock held at the start of the season, resulting in the highest weekly use in more than six years. On 1 March we used around 11,000 tonnes – the most used during a single day for some time.

Those figures show this winter was a hard one - from "The Beast from the East" taking hold of most of the country to extremely strong winds that closed parts of our network.

We came into it all off the back of several much milder winters.

This meant we had to put all our months (years really) of preparation and planning into use.

So how did we do? I can safely say we and our supply chain did really well.

We saw an increase in the number of incidents on the roads from a weekly average of around 900 to over 1200 during the severe weather period (a 33 per cent increase). Despite this rise and during extremely challenging conditions we were able to clear the majority of incidents within one hour. That's a great achievement.

Our staff worked extra hours and volunteered to take on shifts. We even had staff being picked up in 4x4 vehicles to ensure we had on-road and control room traffic officers, as well as people in the customer contact centre where they were dealing with nearly double the number of calls and emails from the public.

Our communications team and those speaking to the media did an excellent job in getting the messages out there. The national incident liaison officers issued more than 1,800 tweets on regional feeds (compared to around 625 in the previous week) and our Traffic England and mobile websites saw a huge increase in use.

Apart from one or two difficult issues we were generally able to keep the network running and, most importantly, safe.

We worked hard to keep the welfare of road users as high up on our agenda as keeping the roads open to traffic. The emergency planning we did with police and local authorities, for example to make village halls available for any stranded drivers, was great and showed a good understanding of what our customers needed during the cold snap.

We have some locations with steep hills, for example in the south west, where even though the roads had been treated the incline meant it was hard, near impossible, to drive up. This resulted in people being stuck or having to abandon their vehicles. But this links in with my welfare point. We worked with our partners to make sure people were okay and to do what we could to get traffic moving and clear the road of any vehicles left behind.

Driving in hazardous conditions is something I'm pretty used to having lived in Chile with the Andes and in Austria with the snowy Alps.

I mention this because it leads onto something else I want to say: when we advise drivers to only travel if absolutely necessary we really mean it. We know the driving conditions are or will be tricky. It was a message we worked really hard to push.

It was good to see the co-operation with local authorities from the emergency planning to providing them with salt supplies and ploughing or treating some of their routes. A great example of team work.

Would we do anything differently? I think there are always lessons to learn. We don't get tested like this very often. Something I am taking away from it all is that although it was tough it was a relatively short period of time. What if we get severe, wintry weather for two weeks or longer, can we sustain that level of demand, how do keep people safe and our staff (and supply chain colleagues) available?

I believe we have the right people, investment, resources and tools needed to manage anything the weather throws at us. But that will be my focus: we know we can do a sprint, we need to ensure we can complete a marathon.

I will finish by saying again how impressed I have been with the dedication and effort by both Highways England staff and the supply chain. I didn't hear a single moan or complaint from anyone. Everyone went above and beyond. So a huge thank you to all involved.