RALPH Freeman's article (1st August) was recently brought to my attention, and it made interesting reading so I thought I would respond from up here in Ivory Towers where the buck stops, writes Vince Moran, Operations Director, Canal & River Trust.
It was really good to read that our local teams are working effectively and undertaking the Planned Preventative Maintenance on lock gates and paddles that we expect them to deliver. The Central Shires team are not alone in this as I witnessed last week when I boated part of the Macclesfield, where it was a very similar picture with well-maintained paddle gear and easy to operate gates—on the Bosley Flight for example.
It was also pleasing to read that 'Defra rash' temporary fencing has reduced, and I am sure this is because our local teams have been required for the last couple of years to focus on fixing the higher priority safety and customer service defects. Last year over 8,000 such defects were identified and repaired at a cost of around £6m, and this year we are planning to fix another 6,000 together, of course, with the urgent repairs which inevitably arise across the network.
Our focus on assessing the condition of lock gates to a national, consistent standard together with regular Planned Preventative Maintenance is also paying off, as lock gates are being better maintained and they are lasting longer, bringing benefits all round.
I was a bit disappointed the article created the impression that local waterway teams have little influence over works that move into our Major Works category. All our local operational and regional/national technical teams have the same aim, and that is to do the best they can for the waterways with the money we have available. It may not look it from outside, but we do try and operate like one big team.
The challenge comes in deciding the right priorities; differing views often exist, and communicating the reasons why one thing took priority over another isn't always easy to get across to everyone involved.
Not enough money
For many years there just has not been enough money available to do everything the waterways deserve, and that's why we have had to be very clear that higher risk assets (like reservoirs, embankments, culverts etc) must take priority. To help us make the right priority decisions, we divide all waterway assets (some prefer to call them liabilities I know) into two main categories with about 10,000 in the higher risk area (which we call Principal Assets) and 15,000 (such as waterway walls, towpaths, boundary walls etc) classed as lower risk (known as Non-Principal Assets).
We grade the higher risk assets on their condition and most importantly, the likely consequences resulting from their failure. Only a few years ago around 30% of these higher risk assets were in the worst two grade categories and the risk of major incidents and significant closures were significant. Now after focusing on the repair of these highest risk assets for a few years, we are down to about 16% in the two worst grades, which is a much more secure position for the network overall.
We now have a much more stable level of funding following transfer to the Canal & River Trust, and we can start to plan more confidently for the future. The greater certainty on funding and the improvement to the higher risk asset conditions means we will be able to allocate more money to dredging and other activities that we have had to class as lower risk.
We are already planning for more dredging, particularly after 2015 when the Government Contract payments increase and we are looking at a national programme on lock grouting to deal with the sorts of issues around locks which Ralph identified, plus much more. We have not been ignoring these sorts of things but they have had to take lower priority for some time.
All this planning has to be flexible because our wonderful 200 year old network can take us by surprise at times, and we have to be able to move money to where it is needed quickly in the best interest of the waterways as a whole.
Contact local manager
Ralph suggested that there is a lack of a clear structure to raise issues about maintenance. If any boater, or anyone else, has any issue on maintenance which they want to raise all they have to do is contact the local waterway manager. Our local teams are responsible for deciding local priorities (urgent defect repair, Planned Preventative Maintenance etc) and just as importantly identifying larger projects which our regional engineering teams can prioritise for repair.
I have massively summarised our approach to maintenance and asset management, and could have written pages and pages as there is much more to Asset Management than I have been able to cover in this short note. Is everything perfect? Of course not. Is the waterway network we care for in a reasonably functional condition? I absolutely believe so. Are things likely to improve in the future given the opportunities created by the Canal & River Trust? Absolutely.