Session 2010-11
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Written evidence from the RAC (AWC 26)


RAC believes that it is imperative that the major urban and inter-urban roads remain open and useable through periods of adverse weather. Although we appreciate that our rescue vehicles will encounter challenges travelling on minor roads that do not command a priority for gritting, we advocate that as many of the minor roads as possible are kept passable. This occurs at the start and finish of a service call and would enable our vehicles to access our customers as quickly and efficiently as possible to ensure the roads are not blocked by broken down vehicles.

To address these challenges, we believe that the Government should:

A. Require local authorities to adopt a more consistent approach in order to ensure that roads are accessible during adverse weather conditions. RAC believe there needs to be a consistency both:

o Nationally in the approach to prioritising routes and

o Regionally in terms of the severity of the situation and therefore the "level" of the response.

B. Ensure that motorists and motoring organisations are informed as far in advance as possible of impending adverse weather. Accurate forecasts are required a minimum of 2 and ideally 4 to 6 weeks ahead of adverse weather to fully align resources to demand for roadside assistance.

C. Implement David Quarmby’s Winter Resilience Report recommendations prioritising a minimum of 12 days salt stock for all local authorities.

RAC background

· With around seven million customers, RAC is one of the UK's most progressive motoring organisations, providing services for both private and business motorists. RAC aims to meet motorists' needs through providing roadside assistance, insurance, vehicle inspections and checks, legal services and up-to-the-minute traffic and travel information.

· RAC attends almost 2.6 roadside breakdowns per year on behalf of our 2.3 million individual members and approximately 4 million members to whom we provide services through corporate contracts.

· RAC was the top-named breakdown organisation in the July 2009, January 2010, July 2010 and January 2011 half-yearly UK Customer Satisfaction Index from the Institute of Customer Service. RAC also achieved a "Best Buy" status for breakdown in August 2010 in the annual Which? motoring survey.

· RAC is part of Aviva, the world's sixth largest insurance group, serving 50 million customers across Europe, North America and Asia Pacific.

Impact on transport of recent adverse weather conditions

Our submission will focus on three points of the inquiry.

1. Impacts on the road networks in England and Wales.

2. The provision of accurate weather forecasts to transport providers in advance of the bad weather

3. The recommendation of the Quarmby reviews into the resilience of England’s transport systems in 2010.

Background statistics

A. During the 4 weeks from 17 December 2009, RAC attended an average of 10,000 service breakdowns per day at the roadside. This is approximately 40% greater than the daily attendance averaged over 12 months. In January 2010 we attended 9.1% more incidents than the average for the 4 previous Januaries. As the majority of this extra volume arose during the first 2 weeks of January, the like-for-like comparison is nearer 20% for the first 2 weeks. These figures are national (UK) averages but locally the picture was far more extreme. At peak times, we were receiving a call for assistance every 1.2 seconds.

B. During the 4 weeks from 25 November 2010, RAC attended an average of 9,300 service breakdowns per day at the roadside. This is approximately 35% greater than the daily attendance averaged over the last 12 months. At peak times we were receiving a call for assistance every 2.3 seconds with Monday 20 December proving our busiest day.

1. Impacts on the road networks in England and Wales.

1.1 RAC’s particular difficulties delivering service to our members with our fleet of rescue vehicles arose from 3 factors:

A. Demand was unusually high because of typical cold weather problems affecting members’ vehicles (flat and faulty batteries, damage to wheels and tyres, general vehicle electrical problems, frozen engines, road traffic accidents etc.). Batteries, either non-serviceable or flat, were our two highest faults from customers in this latest 4 week period of snow and ice last December.

B. The condition of the roads made it particularly difficult for our patrols and contractor partners to reach customers. We suffered the same problems as other motorists when the roads became impassable. Even if main roads are salted and remain open, a high proportion of our demand comes from people at home, at work or in other locations off the main roads. A strategy that keeps main roads open is therefore valuable but still leaves us with very difficult conditions on local roads at the start and finish of a service call,

C. Our RAC staff manning "in-house" activities (breakdown assistance call taking, resource deployment, customer liaison, tactical resourcing, technical support etc.) also have difficulty reaching their place of work (Stretford in Manchester and Bescot in Walsall).

1.2 RAC owns a limited number of 4x4 vehicles. In December 2009 and in December 2010 we hired additional 4x4s to ferry staff between their homes and the offices in Stretford and Bescot but Stretford was particularly badly hit. Never the less, we recently installed an IP based telephony system which was part of an Aviva-wide system. This enabled us to "borrow" in-bound capacity (i.e. more lines) from other parts of Aviva UK. We were also able to filter out calls from people at home and route these to other colleagues around the business to increase the number of call takers.

1.3 During the summer of 2010, following our experiences in January 2010, RAC also invested in snow socks for a number of our patrol vehicles and subsequently we ordered snow chains for a number of our vehicles.

1.4 In these testing weather conditions, the roadside assistance industry runs out of capacity. Motoring organisations have a limited number of patrols and our contractor partners are also trying to handle the surge in demand from those service providers who rely totally on contractors (e.g. Green Flag, Britannia, Europ Assist etc.). RAC operated a triage process so that those who were safe at home took a lower priority than those at risk at the roadside. Attendance times stretched on average to 60-65 minutes as compared to a more typical 45-50 minutes from receiving the initial telephone call to reaching our customers stranded at the roadside. This was due to a combination of demand and our ability to reach customers. Vehicles that breakdown, have been involved in an accident, or have simply been abandoned by the driver at the roadside, add to the problems of congestion making it more likely that other vehicles will get stuck and the road will become impassable.

1.5 Our experience in terms of our ability to travel varied greatly from area to area. Generally, we felt that the Highways Agency did a good job in keeping the motorways open. They seemed to have learnt lessons from 12 months earlier and had adequate salt stocks (though they had to apply measures to conserve stocks). Patrols kept each other informed of particular problems on local roads and helped each other out. This not only applied to our own patrols but there were a number of instances where AA and RAC patrols helped each other out.

1.6 RAC observed that there did not appear to be a uniform approach adopted by local authorities to keep the roads clear. There needs to be a consistency both:

o Nationally, in the approach to prioritising routes and

o Regionally, in terms of the severity of the situation and therefore the "level" of the response.

1.7 The Salt Cell arrangements seemed to work well at Dept for Transport and Transport for London but all they could do was to optimise the use of the stocks available. There is a fundamental bottleneck in that the mines cannot produce and distribute salt at a rate that matched peak demand. Therefore if stocks were inadequate or were used up locally without effective prioritising and rationing, the Salt Cell could optimise the use of remaining stocks but little else. The importing of additional stocks was the only opportunity to supplement local supply arrangements and this was obviously not an immediate solution.

1.8 The key question is "what levels of stock should local authorities be required to maintain?" It is understandable that authorities may claim that it is not a good use of tax payers money to tie up and house large stocks of salt that may not be required more than once in 10, 20 or even 30 years. The cost/benefit analysis does not seem to adequately reflect the cost to business, individuals and the nation as a whole if supplies run short. For example, in 2009/2010 the Association of British Insurers advised that their members paid out £395 million to 268,400 insured motorists who had accidents on the slippery roads. This compares to the annual spend in England quoted in the UK Roads Liaison Group Report of a total of £160 million on winter services.

1.9 The UK Roads Liaison Group recommended 6 days stock should be held in the UK. RAC understands that the Highways Agency increased stocks to 13 days after experience in the winter of 2008/9. RAC’s experience showed that 13 days stock proved adequate and the 6 days did not. RAC therefore supports David Quarmby’s Winter Resilience Report recommendations of a benchmark minimum of 12 days stock (48 gritting runs) for all local authorities.

1.10 Although road maintenance may lie outside the immediate terms of reference of the enquiry, RAC wishes to note concern regarding the time it is taking to repair some of the damage to our roads arising from the severe winter weather. The subject of potholes has already received much publicity and it is reassuring that both the former and current Governments have acknowledged the problem. Some local authorities have struggled to fix the problem and as a result, motorists are still doing damage to wheels, tyres and suspension on their vehicles as a result of unexpected and unwelcome encounters with potholes. Research for the RAC 2010 Report on Motoring reported - when asked what the top motoring spending priority for the new Government should be, motorists placed "improving the quality and condition of the roads" at the top of their list. As local authorities face financial challenges, it is likely that the state of the roads will be low on the list of spending priorities and therefore the condition of local roads will further deteriorate. RAC would welcome national accountability for the local authorities to ensure the main roads are all maintained to a similar standard to those maintained by the Highways Agency.

1.11 RAC provided reminder checklists and endeavoured to encourage our members and all motorists to maintain their vehicles to a high standard and ensure they are prepared for adverse weather conditions when leaving home.

1.12 The following RAC research is relevant to the inquiry.

· Last November our RAC survey indicated that 10 in 11 rural councils questioned¹ have not completed repairs required after last winter’s severe weather.

· Shortages in funding and higher levels of damage are highlighted as the main reasons why repairs have not been carried out and spending cuts of up to 40% mean the UK faces years of poorly maintained roads and winter pothole damage.

· A straw poll of 20 UK councils by RAC indicated that roads in rural areas have been hardest hit by last winter’s severe weather, with councils still struggling to deal with the backlog of repairs ahead of this winter.

· Many councils were concerned by the implications for the road network of the Comprehensive Spending Review, where transport budgets will be reduced, as part of local government budget cuts, by up to 40%. They fear this will result in a spiral of deteriorating road conditions which could be both damaging and potentially dangerous for the UK’s motorists. While this is a worry for councils in all areas, it is particularly of concern for rural councils where the road network is often the only means of transport in more remote areas.

· Ten out of the 11 rural councils² questioned reported that not all necessary road repairs had been carried out since the ‘Big Freeze’ last winter, while 75% of urban councils say this is the case. Of the councils whose repairs had not been completed at the time of the survey, just over 20% expected the repairs to be completed by the start of this winter.

· The research also showed many councils had budget deficits as a result of road spending due to last winter’s damage, with individual shortfalls of up to £10 million. They fear they are running out of time to make repairs before another winter, leaving the road network vulnerable to further structural weakening.

· The results of this survey highlight the views of motorists from the 2010 RAC Report on Motoring3 with 88% believing their local roads are getting noticeably worse.

¹ In depth research of a geographical spread of 20 councils in England, Wales and Scotland (11 rural and 9 urban) undertaken in September 2010 by Wriglesworth Research on behalf of RAC.  The 20 councils represent 10% of the 206 councils nationwide.
² Rural councils defined as those with no cities.
3 2010 RAC Report on Motoring: in total, 1,150 British motorists were surveyed (i.e. those who hold a current driving licence and drive at least once a month).The survey was conducted in March 2010.

2. The provision of accurate weather forecasts to transport providers in advance of the bad weather

2.1 For organisations such as RAC, the problems were compounded by inaccurate long range weather forecasts. RAC rotas annually for 12 months from 1 April based on historic demand. Capacity is adjusted to respond to the latest forecasts thorough the deployment of "reserve hours". These are overtime hours purchased in advance which are rostered according to agreed rules. Reserve hours are allocated for a calendar month typically 2 weeks in advance of the start of a month. Tactical adjustments are made on a weekly, and even a daily basis right up to "the day before" but such arrangements are dependent on patrols being willing and able to alter their plans at short notice and whilst the vast majority are very responsive, particularly in response to bad weather, there is no substitute for accurately forecasting demand at a minimum of 2 and ideally 4 - 6 weeks in advance.

2.2 RAC uses weather forecasts made available by the Met Office and BBC. Short term weather forecasts were generally accurate and allowed us to respond tactically with some certainty on a day to day basis. However, longer term forecasts failed to forecast the cold spell in time for rosters to be fully optimised.

2.3 RAC would welcome actions by Government to ensure that motorists and motoring organisations are informed as far in advance as possible of any adverse weather.

3. The recommendation of the Quarmby review into the resilience of England’s transport systems in 2010.

3.1 RAC gave evidence to the Quarmby Winter Resilience Enquiry and regards the report as both thorough and relevant. We support all of the recommendations but particularly believe that recommendations 1, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 16 and 25 are particularly relevant to the concerns and needs of our members and our ability to deliver service to them.

These recommendations are:
Recommendation 1: That for the forthcoming winter the need for a strategic reserve stock of salt for England’s highway authorities be recognised, if the resilience to handle the risk of its being as severe as last winter is to be secured, and given the projected shortfall of UK production against the possible demand; and that the Highways Agency should be tasked, on behalf of the Secretary of State, to acquire by import, store and make available on terms to be agreed an initial reserve stock of some 0.25 million tonnes of salt for ‘last resort’ use by local highway authorities and for itself; and that the DfT at the end of December should formally lead the consideration and review (using information and forecasts then available) of whether further additional reserve stocks should be secured for the remainder of the winter.

Recommendation 5: Every local highway authority should have a robust winter service plan, and should regularly review the key elements of it, including network coverage, operational procedures and standards and appropriate salt stockholding to meet defined resilience standards, all in line with current best practice.

Recommendation 6: Consultation on treated networks should be broadly drawn to include business representatives, passenger and freight transport operators and local communities, as well as health and education service providers; and to help manage public expectations should be followed by clear and comprehensive communications of winter service plans, supported by good real-time communications through media and on-line when winter conditions arrive.

Recommendation 9: Professional bodies and the Local Government Association should encourage the more widespread dissemination and adoption of best practice in the preparation and delivery of winter service plans.

Recommendation 10: While recognising that the resilience of salt supply is being addressed as a nationwide issue, local highway authorities can support this and should:

· all participate fully in the year-round systematic information collection and monitoring of salt stocks and movements which we are recommending should be adopted by DfT;

· ensure their own planning of salt stocks and supply is sound and carried out in accordance with best practice, and supported by practical measures to improve salt utilisation;

· put in place (or confirm where existing) mutual aid with neighbouring authorities to help address localised shortages.

Recommendation 11: Local highway authorities should treat their winter service planning as an integral part of wider general resilience planning for civil contingencies, bringing to the development of winter service plans the benefits of processes and disciplines associated with resilience planning, together with the culture of constructive challenge and validation.

Recommendation 16: We note and commend the generally high quality and accuracy of short term (0–5 days) weather forecasting now available to support the operational decisions of highway authorities and their contractors, and recommend that the weather forecasters continue to develop their capabilities both for 15–30 day forecasting to meet the resource planning needs of highway authorities, and for longer term seasonal forecasting.

Recommendation 25: A new resilience benchmark of 12 days/48 runs should be adopted for pre-season stockholding for English local highway authorities; they should then review their history of usage and mutual aid or other arrangements to consider:

a) whether there is a case for increasing capacity towards 48 runs if it is currently less than this, in addition to filling the capacity they have; or

b) at what level to stock – at or above the 48 runs level – where the capacity exists to do so.

February 2011