In a cold snap they used to say you could tell when you were entering Wigan borough by the lack of snow on the main roads.
While winters like the notorious one of 1962 may be largely a thing of the past, the council never underestimates the power of Arctic temperatures to cause chaos.
Throughout the winter months, highway staff constantly monitor Met Office forecasts and data from temperature sensors buried in local roads.
Gritting crews can be sent out within an hour of the order being given and decisions made can affect other council operations, such as whether it’s safe to allow heavy bin wagons out onto icy streets.
This year there’s a new system which means managers can measure the exact amount of salt being spread and where, when and at what speed it was dropped. The gritting machines ‘talk’ to the depot computers electronically in real time.
It’s a far cry from the days when experienced gritters Stephen Boon and Paul Elsey signed up. They have nearly 40 years’ experience between them and move from the day job at the highways depot whenever the call comes.
“I started gritting in 1993 using a horse and cart,” laughs Stephen, a paviour from Leigh. “Well, not exactly, but these days we’re warned well in advance of incoming bad weather and can get a pre-grit down as soon as we get the word.”
The council’s cabinet champion for the environment, Cllr David Molyneux, knows that the gritters have a huge responsibility: “We all should feel a lot of pride for the team and their work – often unseen – keeping the borough safe and motoring.”
Salting roads is only effective when it is ground into the road by other traffic, but the council always errs on the side of safety.
Just before Christmas last year, a huge blanket of snow was forecast for the north of England.
A comprehensive programme of overnight gritting was launched and Wigan awoke the next day to… wind, rain and only a hint of snow.
The salt had been washed away, but managers say that they would rather grit for 10 hours through the night than risk accidents.
In last year’s colder than average winter, the council carefully managed its stockpiles of salt and was even able to share some with other less well prepared councils.
Whilst the main routes are kept open, with some 800km of roads in the borough treated including hospital routes, the gritters can’t get around every estate or minor road. This year, discussions with passenger transport chiefs mean that for the first time, every bus route in the borough will be gritted.
Grit boxes are provided in many locations – for example on hilly roads – and to report problems or get a refill, call 01942 404364.