Tales of true grit from the frozen roads

Lawerence Halliday (l), and Will Finney infront of their gritting wagon, as they get ready to grit the roads around Doncaster. Picture: Andrew Roe
Lawerence Halliday (l), and Will Finney infront of their gritting wagon, as they get ready to grit the roads around Doncaster. Picture: Andrew Roe

Doncaster is shivering in the grip of snow, ice and freezing temperatures - so spare a thought for the town’s gritting teams out and about helping to keep our roads safe and clear.

Darren Burke jumps aboard one of the council’s salting lorries for a typical night’s work and discovers there’s more to the job than meets the eye . . .

The gritters line up to be filled with salt. Picture: Andrew Roe

The gritters line up to be filled with salt. Picture: Andrew Roe

IT’S a well-worn cliché that just a slight scattering of snowflakes can bring Britain to a grinding halt.

Virtually every winter our television screens are filled with shots of grounded planes, motorway tailbacks and closed schools, simply because there’s been a slight dusting of the white stuff.

This week’s much-heralded snowstorm, dubbed “snowmageddon” and “the Beast from the East” has proved to be a pretty damp squib in our part of the world with no significant problems reported so far.

And that’s largely down to the efforts of Doncaster Council’s highways department. Throughout the blizzards and in the hours leading up to the first snows of winter, the town’s gritting lorries were out and about on the streets.

Andy Marr inside the mini gritter which grits the car parks around Doncaster. Picture: Andrew Roe

Andy Marr inside the mini gritter which grits the car parks around Doncaster. Picture: Andrew Roe

Masterminding operations in Doncaster is Peter Turland, the town’s asset maintenance engineer who is tasked each winter with deciding where and when to salt – and how much.

On a bitingly cold night, harsh fluorescent lamps illuminating a stark, dirty and puddle strewn stretch of land, against a backdrop of noisy revving engines and the bitter smell of salt in the air, he tells me: “It is a tough job – but someone has to do it.”

This is Doncaster’s salt storage depot where those distinctive yellow lorries chug in to load up before hitting the roads on three to four hour shifts.

Huge scoops of claggy, brown salt are dumped into the hoppers from enormous stockpiles by loading shovel operator Aidan Beardmore, there’s time for a check of the cab and a brush off of any stray salt and then its out onto the streets.

Tonight we’re tackling the winding and narrow streets, both urban and rural, around Mexborough and Conisbrough and driver Scott Harper is at the wheel.

“I’ve got the worst route,” he tells me. “It’s the one with all the hills and it can be a bit scary at times. We are out and about no matter how bad it gets and it can play havoc with your social and family life, but there’s a real satisfaction in knowing you are helping to keep the town moving.”

And anyone who thinks its just a case of driving while the truck does its work should think again.

Each driver has an on-board computer. They can control the amount of salt being spread, the direction its been flung in and alter the settings depending on the width of the carriageway.

“You are having to think all the time,” adds Scott, 28. “It can be a very detailed job and we have training to help memorise the routes.”

Each truck is linked back to a nerve centre at North Bridge, where Ray Mace can monitor operations.

A huge wall-mounted screen tells him the exact location of each truck, who’s driving, the amount of salt on board and how much is being spread and other key facts. He says: “It means we can keep an eye on things and respond quickly if there are any problems. We’ve had breakdowns, gritters going into ditches – all sorts. It’s a safety feature so we can make sure all drivers are OK.”

It’s also here where Peter receives weather reports from the Met Office and after studying the data each day, the decisions are taken on whether to hit the streets or not.

But what about that age old question that pops up every year – why have the council not gritted my street?

“There’s no criteria to it,” he says. “We prioritise the main routes but we simply can’t salt every street in the borough.There are all sorts of factors taken into consideration when we draw up the routes.”

And drivers who moan about their own street not being salted can sometimes be key to the problem.
“When people park badly, we can’t get through,” adds Peter. “Drivers can help us by keeping their cars off the road allowing us room to get through.”

Each driver knows the routes like the back of their hand. “We have to,” says Scott. “We know what kind of problems we are likely to face and what’s going to be round the corner. But that said, no two nights are the same and there’s always something new to contend with.”

And knowing when to grit is key. Too early and the salt is washed away, too late and you can expect a barrage of angry calls and an array of bumps, skids and slips.

Another criticism levelled at drivers is what exactly do they do for the rest of the year? “They don’t just come out of hibernation,” says Peter. “The rest of the time they are doing other highways work - repairing roads, installing signs and filling in potholes.” And the lorries themselves are put into good use too - they are simply loaded up with different bodies for gritting use.

The route done, its back to the depot to dump any unused salt and the truck is washed down to help keep it in check.

“Lorries and salt don’t go together,” says Peter. “It is very corrosive so we have to try and keep them in good repair. You can get ten years out of a lorry if it’s looked after.”

As we thaw out as the mercury drops even further, Peter can put his feet up and congratulate himself and his team on another job well done. But there’s no resting on laurels round here.

“As soon as this winter is over, we’ll be planning for the next one,” he says. “Its a year round job and one that we have to get right. Like I said, it is a tough job, but someone has to do it.”

* Doncaster Council takes delivery of 7,500 tonnes of rock salt during the summer months, mined from the UK’s largest salt mine in Cheshire. The authority always tries to maintain a stockpile of at least 1,000 tonnes

* During a typical winter, the gritting teams can be out up to 50-60 times, spreading between 40 and 160 tonnes of salt a night, depending on conditions on shifts lasting approximately four hours.

* The town is divided into ten key routes for salting – approximately 50 miles of road on each route

* There are sixty lorry drivers on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week

* Each 18 tonne lorry can carry 6 cubic metres of salt. Each lorry is worth about £90,000

* While gritting, the trucks are limited to a top speed of 30mph. Flashing yellow beacons are switched on to alert motorists that gritting is about to commence

* Roads are gritted up to the borough council boundaries - so if the road continues into Rotherham or Barnsley, Doncaster Council only takes responsibility for its part of the road

* The council also has a mini gritter used for town centre streets, footways and car parks

* There are 125 roadside grit bins across the borough for public use