The term nighthawk is often used to describe questionable behaviour during the hours of darkness, regularly associated with people metal detecting at a site where they shouldn’t be. However, the nighthawks of the arbo world are very much heroes not villains, working on the highways network to ensure the country’s road system runs safely and smoothly.
You can see them grafting on the roadside if you’re ever out and about late at night, their protection fromthetraffic usually limited to a simple row of cones. Ray Britland Contracting are very much rooted in this work, teams of their staff regularly seen hard at work through the night on the road networks. But, as the firm’s s principal contract manager, Neil Moss, explained, it’s not a job for just anyone. “With motorway work you’re always on your guard,” said Neil, who manages the night teams working across the highways of the north west of England. “When I was‘on the tools’ it would take around 20 minutes or so for you to sort of zone out –not in that you become unaware of the dangers,but you are able to focus on the work that you’re doing rather than focusing on the traffic that is flying past you“We’re there to do a job and we’ve got a really good gang of lads working for us but you have to be a certain type of person to work on the motorways because it’s not for everyone.
You do get the odd time when there is an incursion (when a car comes into the cones) and then you realise that all that is protecting you is a line of cones, and a cone is not going to stop anything that is coming towards you. “People who thrive in those situations are people who know what the danger signs are;people who are switched on and areaware enough that they can just get on with their shift but in the back of the mind they know where they are. You don’t want a robot!”While Neil rightly points out that the people working on the highways must be fully aware of their surroundings rather than simply completing tasks robot-like, the use of robotic machinery is very much part of roadside environmental work.
Ray Britland Contracting, based in Cheshire, utilises a fleet of high-tech equipment, and sent out around £1.5m worth of kit on a recent job on the M6, including their robot McConnells.Whilst their fleet of kit is impressive, Neil explained the use of high-tech vehicles is geared towards limiting the risk to the workers more than anything else.Neil added: “It’s all about safety. We have portable task lighting, all the lads wear portable head torches with warning lights on the back and all the vehicles are fitted out with bright work lights –and the Unimogs we’ve got, which do a lot of the nearside ground work, are fitted with special work lights.
“We try and minimise the workers we’ve got on site by using machines. We’ll have the Unimog going down with a barrier mower so we don’t need a worker using a trimmer near the carriageway.“We’ve also got the Mulag, an RM70 and we are the largest independent owner of the reform Metrax specialist banking mowers –we have 11 of those at £90K a pop –and we also have the robot McConnells.”The firm was environmental contractors for the recently completed Congleton bypass which opened for business in April. The £90million,5.5km route,has been under construction since around 2012 and required extensive planting work, including in excess of 2000 trees and 7000 different species of shrubs and hedgerows.
The creation of 33 new hectares of new grassland and 16km of new hedgerows will help increase biodiversity, provide habitat for wildlife and help reduce flooding and pollution.While safety isalways at the forefront of those associated with highways work, it can also lead to one of the most frustrating aspects of the job.“The main issue, the main drawback of our work is the waiting,” added Neil. “It’s normally around 10.30pm when we’re give notice to start setting up and it’s normally around 4am when we finish. “But before we start,we have to get the all-clear.
We’re told ‘the closure will be on from 10.30pm’ and then half ten comes around and we ring and ask if the team can get on site and we’re told ‘no, they haven’t finish putting the calming measures out, yet’ or ‘the traffic flow is still too high’. Sometimes we’ll have to ring back a few times before they give us the all clear to get on site.“But it’s all about safety, and if major work has to be done,they’ll do a complete shutdown. They had a big shutdown of the M6 a few weeks ago from Junction 20 to Junction 17. I had 30 odd lads out over the weekend cutting back everything from the kerb edge to about four or five metres up the embankment –all the vegetation in a stretch from J20 to J19 and that’s when we had about £1.5million worth of kit out on the network.
We knocked it out in two nights. We had the robots with the mulching heads on working which saved a lot of time.“Generally, we move like a train –we’ll send in a scavenging team to start picking up any litter, then the machines will come through, then the tree lads will come through, then the strimmers will come through. Then the litter lads come back and pick up anythingwe couldn’t get on the first run because of the long grass.”