Meet the team behind Leeds Council's snow and ice gritters covering more than 800 miles every year in freezing temperatures

With Leeds right in the middle of its winter weather plan and temperatures having fallen to near freezing this week, gritters have taken to 800 miles of the city’s roads to make sure that we can keep moving.

By Emma Ryan
Sunday, 16th January 2022, 12:58 pm

The Yorkshire Evening Post went behind the scenes with the council’s highways team, as they prepared for a “precautionary grit”, to see just how they keep the country’s third largest city on the right track - and dispel some myths.

A "precautionary grit" will see 30 gritter trucks cover 800 miles of the city’s road network in three hour shifts. On average they will do 30 miles each per stint and are laden with eight tonnes of grit each.

Chris Clarke, the council’s highways maintenance manager, said: “Every-time we go on a precautionary grit, that takes place in advance of any weather event based on the forecast, we have got 30 trucks out. For a normal winter there are 90 staff involved, if we start getting into snow and ploughs we can be up to 120 staff. I don’t think people realise how big an operation it is.

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Chris Clarke, is the Leeds City Council's Highway Maintenance Manager and is overseeing the council's winter gritting plan.

“We concentrate on roads that link areas together, blue light routes, A roads, and main distributor roads through estates. Cul-de-sacs and side streets we can’t do, or, where we can’t get gritters on. We have to be realistic about what we can do.”

With the nature of winters changing - each year is different and presents different challenges, he added.

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He explained that salt doesn’t work unless there is traffic going over to crush it to create the brine. When it snows heavily at night, even though a road is gritted, the snow will often still settle due to less traffic activating the grit salt which often leads to difficulties for morning commutes, and complaints.

A gritting truck is loaded with eight tonnes of grit ahead of a routine grit run which will see it cover 30 miles worth of the city's road network in a three hour shift.

Mr Clarke explained: “People wake up and see everything white over. We get complaints saying “why wait until the last minute”, “you knew this was coming”.

“Our planning for winter starts in April. It is never off the council radar. We are six months planning and six months doing it - it is winter all year round for us.”

Each year the council has 24,000 tonnes in stock and on average uses 13,500 of them. However, last year due to a “long and cold winter”, it needed to draft in extra (supplied by a mine in Cheshire or Cleveland Potash at Boulby Mine just north of Staithes) as they used 26,000 tonnes

So, how does the council decide when and where to grit?

Thirty gritters will cover 800 miles of the city’s road network in three hour shifts. On average they will do 30 miles each per stint and are laden with eight tonnes of grit each.

Leeds City Council uses a forecast that is specific to the city and uses data from two weather stations, sited at the coldest locations possible - one near Leeds Bradford airport and one on the A64 near Whinmoor. Every five minutes, non-stop from October to April, the weather stations distribute information which is collected by one company and received by another which then collates data and determines a forecast

“We have a contract with a weather forecaster where they send us information from the start of October to the end of April”, explains Mr Clarke.

“We have people monitoring every day throughout that period and through the night if necessary. Rotas are set up from the beginning of October so drivers know when they are on from that six month period and when they are on stand-by - but we make the decisions on the day.”

The council’s highways teams check the forecasts three times a day - at 5am, 11am and 5 or 6pm but generally makes a decision on gritting requirements using the 11am reading, as between then and tea-time, the weather is less changeable.

Chris Clarke has been working on the city's roads for 39 years. He says planning for winter starts in April and it is never off the council radar."

Drivers and dangers

Despite the dangers of ending up in a ditch (it has happened from time to time says Mr Clarke who has been in the job for 39 years), gritter drivers are proud to do the job they do. They do it outside of their contracted hours as volunteers, and on top of their day job as road workers for the council.

He said: “Drivers enjoy being able to contribute to the winter effort - they take pride in what they do. They do road works during the day and volunteer to work out of hours to cover the gritting, they are not contracted to.

“It is hard work when you are getting up at silly o’clock for six months when it is minus five. It can be draining so we have to make sure we manage their hours.”

However, despite rigorous planning and rotas and forecasts - there are some things you can’t control - and the weather is just that.

Mr Clarke added: “It is the weather. It does what it does, when it does. It is not unheard of to get a phone call from a forecaster to say temperatures are dropping further than we thought and it is freezing and we have to ring people in the middle of the night telling them we need them within the hour.”

Coun Helen Hayden, Leeds City Council’s executive member for infrastructure and climate, added: “Our gritting teams are true unsung heroes and when bad weather hits, its them that are out there at all hours of the day and night working in incredibly tough conditions to literally keep the city moving.

“For most of us, all we’ll ever see of them is a wagon out treating the roads in the cold, ice and snow. But there’s also an incredible amount of work going on behind the scenes and in our communities each and every year to make sure the city’s prepared, informed and braced to face the worst of winter.

“It’s great to see their efforts being highlighted and for the important role they play to be given some much-deserved recognition.”

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