Creating a sustainable journey

Downer’s Stuart Billing talks to Roads & Infrastructure Magazine about how the company’s unique philosophy is helping it set new benchmarks in sustainable road network solutions.On paper, patching a road pavement seems to be a straightforward task. A pavement maintenance crew heads out to the site, repairs the issue and moves on to the next job.

However, the question arises: is this the most efficient use of resources and is it ensuring a safer, more reliable journey for the public?

Because something has been done the same way for a long period doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best value for money solution out there.

As Stuart Billing, Downer General Manager – Road Network Management, asserts: “There are a lot of companies which can patch a road, but these days it’s about knowing more about the road and its role in the transportation task.”

Where this issue has occurred, why it has occurred, what kind of pavement is it, what is its history, what type of traffic does it carry are all important facets that can prove beneficial in improving road maintenance workflows and achieving the best outcomes. Digitising that information and making it accessible to asset managers is a key driver in ensuring the quality outcome occurs.

Asset managers with this information at the ready place themselves in a unique position where they can optimise the performance of the road network and provide the most efficient methodology to maintain it so that it is safe and reliable.

Downer is one such organisation leading the charge in this area.

“We operate in an environment where there is pressure on funding for road maintenance, and a reported growth in the backlog of necessary work”, says Mr. Billing. “Consequently, we have to be sure that the available resources are used wisely to give the best outcome.

“In our business, the successful solution is the one which maintains safe driving conditions, facilitates efficient and reliable travel, is sustainable, and which minimises the long term cost of asset ownership.”

Context is key here. Road constructors, for instance, can typically control the materials and processes to use for the project. “However, the decision has already been made as to what to construct, where to construct it, and when” says Mr. Billing. “But, for asset managers like ourselves, the outcomes are less clear and our decision making is more about optimum resource allocation.”

In recent years Downer has changed the way it thinks about road maintenance. It has embraced the philosophy of road agencies and local government to focus on the needs of road users and stakeholders, and not to maintain the roads for the sake of maintenance itself.

Ultimately, this changed the way the company approaches its role within the market and evolved its core company philosophy.

“Our new philosophy is focused on the needs of our customers. In the case of road network management, we look to our customer and focus our attention on being a trusted advisor and partner to them in providing services to their customers. This led us to think about how different parts of our business can contribute to better road outcomes and standards of service to the community,” says Mr. Billing.

Rather than being a business organised around internal skillsets, Downer has merged facets of its business in order to better achieve the best value for money outcomes for its customers while minimising the impact on the road network and travelling public.

“We’ve combined our on-road electrical services with our road maintenance services,” explains Mr. Billing.

Downer’s on-road electrical services team deals with the likes of variable message signs, lighting infrastructure, traffic signals and other electrical road assets, while its road maintenance services business has traditionally dealt with the maintenance of pavements, bridges, roadsides, drainage and delineation.

“We’ve combined these capabilities to allow us to take a more holistic view of the operation and maintenance of the road network, and to optimise the use of technology and information in managing a road system, as distinct from maintaining road assets,” says Mr. Billing.

“With modern technology and emerging smart road systems we are able to better understand how the network is operating, where the maintenance needs are and how we can combine multiple activities to maximise efficiency, and most importantly reduce the impact on road users of road closures.”

Mr. Billing agrees that it ties into the recurring mantra within the road construction space, ‘doing more with less’.

“We can improve efficiency by combining activities and becoming more productive and hence extract maximum value out of every maintenance dollar. At the same time we are reducing the impact on road users, increasing road reliability by reducing delays, and improving safety by minimising the exposure to changed road conditions. Determining the right treatment, at the right location and the right time is a core part of this regime,” he says, adding that once more decisive decision making is introduced, so too can more effective maintenance models be implemented.

Mr. Billing says achieving the best outcomes for the customer and the community is becoming more complex yet exciting, with new technology in the road maintenance and asset management space changing every day, adding a new dimension to what it does.

“Data and information on the road network is more freely available with new technology around intelligent transport (ITS) systems and the Internet of Things,” he says.

“We’re moving into a new space where we’re talking with large transport companies about installing road sensors on vehicles to collect road condition and performance information in real time. In the future we may be able to operate in a continuum of road information and be less reliant on periodic snapshots of the system which are often less than reliable or timely.”

For example, Downer is implementing its whole corridor approach to network asset management as part of a major road lighting upgrade being undertaken in Victoria by the company for VicRoads.

Beginning in 2017, 8500 streetlights across the Melbourne road network will be upgraded. Mr. Billing asserts this is one of the largest smart lighting rollouts across the state.

“We’re installing LED lights with smart controls across the VicRoads metropolitan public lighting network,” he says. “The system will hold information about the asset, and includes knockdown sensors so that if a lighting pole is hit, we know instantly, and it allows us to respond quicker.” Should a light fail, the asset manager will also know immediately so repairs can be programmed.

“We’re also planning to put sensors on a number of static road assets so that eventually they all become part of a comprehensive data system for the entire road corridor,” says Mr. Billing. “A lot of road assets have been static. Now it’s about making them smart.

“The ability to analyse and deal with maintenance needs through data enables us to understand the performance of the different assets on the network in greater detail than ever before. This facilitates improved decision making.”

With that concept in mind, the goal of achieving safer and more reliable journeys for the road user is another step closer.

As industry continues to develop and deploy new technology, asset managers will increasingly gain the ability to assess which road infrastructure assets require maintenance and when. In short, Downer’s approach will optimise decision making processes and allow prioritisation and scheduling of maintenance activity to maximise the benefit of road maintenance investment and minimise its impact and footprint on the road network and the public.

The availability of information then helps Downer to better understand its customers’ road systems and to work with them to find solutions which provide suitable, sustainable outcomes for them and their customer.

Mr. Billing says keeping up with technology can be a challenge, especially as ITS technology and developments in sensor and data collection can quickly become obsolete.

“For us, we need to keep innovating because it’s the way the world is going. We can’t just stick to being good at doing roadwork. In today’s world we need to be smarter and be agile in data-led decision making,” he says. Like Mr. Billing asserted earlier, “we can patch a road, but these days it’s about knowing more about the value we create from planning works to deliver the right outcomes with minimal disruptions.”

Part of how Downer is embracing its new philosophy and creating a safer, more reliable road network is through its engagement with the public and communities affected by network activities.

“We are very conscious of the impacts of road maintenance on people and businesses who rely on a safe and reliable road transport system to go about their lives. Over the years our thinking has gone from planning for productivity to how we can implement things to create value for our customers and improve the performance of the transport network.

“A big factor for us is keeping the public informed of what we are doing, why we are doing it and the impacts it might have on them,” explains Mr. Billing.

Mr. Billing says that advancements in stakeholder engagement platforms, such as those through the internet, enable the community to get their points of view across more easily, and gives asset managers better ways to connect with them. Sometimes, direct community engagement is the best way for Downer in creating safer and more reliable journeys for road users.

A good example of this is the work that Downer has been doing in an alliance with VicRoads in the north east of the state – a partnership that began in 2010. Mr. Billing says that community engagement has helped the alliance team listen to the stakeholders and use their input to make more informed decisions on the regional road network.

“About 12 months ago we started the community panel engagement process with VicRoads as part of the alliance. It includes the involvement of people from freight companies, bus companies, local community groups, etcetera.

“The people in these panels are from a diverse stakeholder group and VicRoads wants their perspective and views about how it can provide best value. That’s certainly had an impact on our decision making,” explains Mr. Billing.

Notwithstanding the shifting focus on planning and community engagement, the ability to adapt materials and processes to maintenance needs remains critical. Through its research and development team, Downer continues to invest in developing and applying practical pavement technology that can contribute to sustainable journeys.

“I sit on Downer’s Road Services research and development board and I’ve been involved in setting challenges for our R&D team which focus on issues that our customers are having and areas where they want to see improvement,” explains Mr. Billing.

Sustainability is now a primary factor in our product development focus. By incorporating repurposed materials, such as used tyres, glass and printer toner, into its asphalt and spray seal products Downer is increasingly able to reduce the use of virgin materials and prolong the economic value of materials that would have historically gone to landfill.

Downer recently introduced its latest benchmark in sustainability and innovation for Australian roads – Tonerseal – a world-first toner and rubber modified spray seal binder.

Despite the progress companies such as Downer are making in creating safe, efficient, reliable and sustainable journeys, Mr. Billing surmises that industry as a whole needs to keep pace with technological advancements to deliver the best possible outcomes for the community.

“We are pleased that road authorities are working with industry to modernise specifications to keep pace with technology and to encourage the industry to continue innovating. By working together, we can deliver more sustainable, more cost effective and better performing products which contribute to safe, efficient, reliable and sustainable journeys.”

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