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19 Oct 2009

Autumn mists, mellow fruitfullness, and road works.

Now the holiday season is well over, there is a huge number of maintenance road works all over France: in addition to the existing longer duration road building projects, everywhere is subject to resurfacing, widening for cycle lanes, and similar short works.  These seem to be carried out quicker, more efficiently and with less disruption than similar jobs in the UK.
Yesterday, in a 35km drive, I passed through five different circulation alterné (one way) stretches. The basic resurfacing process operates in the same way at each. Firstly, there are warnings and speed restriction signs long before the works. At the start of the action, there is a man with a stop/go board, and usually a walkie-talkie to communicate with the other end of the works if there is a bend or other obstruction. 50m behind him is one of those big road plane machines, which moves very slowly forwards, scraping off the top 15cm or so of the old surface, which it conveys into the back of an attached lorry. As soon as the lorry is full, the plane stops, the lorry unhooks itself and drives off, to be replaced immediately by an empty lorry already waiting. About one minute of stoppage.
Behind this assembly is a tanker full of hot liquid tar, which sprays a thin layer of the tar on the newly scraped road. Next is a tipper lorry full of gravel, attached to a machine full of tar, which moves forward at the same speed as the plane. The lorry slowly raises its load, which drops into the machine, which mixes it with the tar and lays a 15cm even spread. When the lorry is empty, another is waiting to be hooked up and start delivering its load. Behind that are two large or three medium rollers, which roll backwards and forward compressing the new mixture into a hard surface.
The men with the stop/go boards are advancing another few metres each time they reverse the signs, so that there is minimum disruption of the traffic. And because they communicate, they can reverse their boards according to the volume of traffic in each direction, and as soon as one direction has passed, they can start the opposite lot going, rather than inflexible traffic lights. As the whole works moves along continuously, the single lane traffic stretch is always short.
Each team seems to be able to resurface about a kilometre every day, in both lanes.
In the UK, the same work takes days, with diversions, long contra flows managed by traffic lights, and days and days when nothing happens at all. If they use road planes, they always stop and wait for a lorry to be summoned from somewhere, rather than having one waiting. They seem to run out of tar and gravel, the rollers are off on another job somewhere. When one lane is finished, there can be a week or two before work starts on the other.
I think part of the problem is that the UK local authorities have no concept of negotiation, or how to manage contractors. They do not understand that time has a cost and a value, nor do they really consider the needs of the public. I can say this because I have seen them in action, both as a management consultant working for both sides in different deals, and as a resident. I have seen the inadequacy of their contracts, their failure to demand deadlines and penalty clauses, and in short, they are eaten alive by the professional negotiators from the contractors.
On occasions when I have discussed this with them, one of their arguments is that if they are too demanding none of the firms will bid for the work, to which one can only despair. These firms have to keep working, and the public sector represents a huge part of their business, if not all for some of them. They are bluffing. And if all of them refuse to bid, or submit silly bids, then they must be operating a cartel, which is unlawful. All a UK council has to do is phone Rol Normandie or one of the other French engineering firms, and get them to do the work. As we have seen with electricity and gas provided in London by Electricité de France, and rubbish collection, street cleaning and much else carried out by Véolia, the robber companies in the UK cannot compete on price or quality.
UK authorities are utterly in the hands of the contractors, across the board. I once saw McDonalds take a cleared site, erect one of their dreadful food shops and open for business, in three weeks. At the same time, the council contracted to build a similar size set of basic offices beside a school. Six months later it still didn’t have a roof.
In France, contractors seem to be more honest, the public sector more competent, more determined to get value for money, and actively supervise and manage the projects.  Part of this might be because funding comes from several sources in most cases.
You will see signs at the start of most works showing that the project was financed by any combination of the European Union, the state, the region(s), the department(s), the town(s). Taxpayers see where their money is going (the signs often show the amounts from each source), and how they are benefiting from larger sources. In general, the French citizen knows what happens to his or her taxes, and what they get for them, and for that reason do not have the ludicrous uproar about tax and spending that permeates British politics.
However, as an example of something weirdly French, I once saw a very bizarre method of managing the road works in the south. Driving from Nîmes to Arles, in August, in the heat, there was a traffic holdup. As we crept forward we eventually came to the cause of the delay: line painting. This was being carried out as follows.
On either side of the road was workman, joined by a string tied to the left foot of the right hand man, and the right foot of the left man. There was a piece of cloth tied exactly in the middle of the string. The two me simultaneously took four steps forward and stopped. Behind them came another man with a machine like a slightly more sophisticated line marker on sports grounds. The machine stopped at the central piece of rag, the men walked forward another four paces, and the machine put down a metre dash of white paint. It then moved on to the string, and so on.
Every four of five dashes, the string was allowed to touch the ground, and some cars allowed to pass. Clearly easier and quicker than measuring, but just a bit, well, quaint.

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