Snow road management trip to Canada for Midlands transport chief

ON the surface, places such as Canada, Sweden and Finland might appear to have very little in common with the West Midlands. This winter, temperatures in parts of Canada will regularly reach -40 degrees Celsius, while the average February temperature in both Sweden and Finland will range from between -3 and -22. By contrast, the West Midlands is not expected to see temperatures drop below zero too often this winter, averaging between 1 and 7 degrees Celsius between December and February.

As such, winter road management is vastly different in each of these countries to the West Midlands. Canada, for example, is estimated to spend around £1 billion every year on snow removal alone. Sandwell council, in comparison, will spend approximately GBP540,000 this year on its winter highways management.

So what, if anything, could transport chiefs in the West Midlands possibly learn from these countries? "I get that all the time," says Transport for West Midlands' (TfWM) Mark Corbin, the man heading up a fact-finding trip to Canada, Sweden and Finland early next year. "People say 'but you're comparing oranges to pears'.

And my response is that, actually, processes might be different in terms of how the Canadians deal with a harsh winter. But what they do with their customers actually shouldn't be any different. "How I engage with you as a road user on the network during a period of disruption should not really be any different to Canada, Sweden or Finland.

But it is.  "A lot of countries around the world are still learning how to deal with winter conditions, like we are, but some of them are taking a different philosophy and saying 'you know what, we're going to become more courageous in the social space, because it brings value to the customer, it brings value to what we're doing'. "I don't know what I'll discover in terms of the processes themselves, and planning and what they do.

But I would like to see us become a lot more courageous around what we need to do for dialogue with people who are on the network. We've got to try and move past just putting messages on websites, or just putting messages on Facebook. "There have to be better ways of dealing with that, and I think this is an opportunity to explore that and then find out how it can be embedded within the processes that we have."

TfWM's Key Route Network Manager, Mark's journey will begin next month in Canada, where he'll visit Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg city councils to find out how they deal with winter conditions on the roads. He'll then move on to Helsinki in February, where he'll attend the Winter Road Conference, before finishing in Lulea in Sweden at the Swedish Transport Administration. "I chose Canada deliberately because, going back to the physical element of how we plan and how we deal with the actual processes of winter, the Canadians deal with a lot of very harsh winters every year," explains Mark.

"So this is all about examining how these three different city authorities - Calgary, Toronto and Winnipeg - how do they deal with their planning of winter, how do the bus operators in those regions deal with moving customers around on the network during the harsh winters. What are some of the lessons that they've learned from listening to their residents over the years?  "Then I've chosen to go to Sweden for two reasons really.

They've got the safest roads in the world there - the Swedes are quite well known for road safety, and their road philosophy. So when I'm trying to understand  what the arguments are around customer engagement and managing winter, I would like to explore a little more about road safety as well. And they're making a lot of strides on becoming a smart city in Stockholm - but what does that mean for managing winters in the future?

So I'm trying to get onto that as part of the research. "And then of course in Finland it's a similar approach. The winter road congress will be held in Finland next February, so it's an opportunity to be part of the whole global community who manage winter.

And kind of understand where's the best practice, who's doing what, and how can we lift some of that best practice and drop it in the UK." Mark says that, far from being 'underprepared' for winter each year, he believes that the UK currently has a 'mature' approach to dealing with winter conditions on its road. Where it falls down, he says, is through its communication with road users, something he wants to improve on going forward.

"Where I think there's real opportunity to gain valuable best practice from elsewhere is how do people deal with the individuals who are trapped on the network, or who haven't received a piece of information?," he says. "If you take for example Finland, they actively encourage dialogue with customers. "And I think there's a real cultural difference between how some nations tackle disruption, how they prepare to say 'actually we're going to give you this information, we're not just going to put it on the website or put it on the social media channel, we'll engage on that channel with you'.

And it takes a lot of courage to do that."

After returning from his trip, Mark says that he'll be implementing what he's learned firstly through TfWM, where he works, before moving on to sharing information with the rest of the UK.

As such, you could see some Scandinavian-style road management being rolled out in Dudley as early as 2021.

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