Behind the scenes at West Sussex’s gritting depot

Take a look behind the scenes at one of West Sussex’s three gritting depots, and find out how the team keeps our streets ice-free.

If you get stuck behind a gritter in your car, you certainly know about it.

But these often-misunderstood gentle giants of the highways are the county’s front line of defence against snow and ice.

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Before news of the U-turn on gritting route cuts had been announced, West Sussex County Council invited me to its Clapham depot to find out more about how the service worked in an attempt to allay the public’s fears.

Richard Speller, winter service manager for West Sussex Highways, at the Clapham depot talking about gritters and gritting the roads

It is one of three across West Sussex – the others being in Drayton, outside Chichester, and Hickstead, Mid Sussex – which are home to 8,000 tonnes of salt at the beginning of winter and 18 gritters that can store nine tonnes and spray 40g of the mineral per square metre.

In a corner of the depot is a 3,000-tonne mountain of red salt, mined in Cheshire and Cleveland, Northumberland, and ground down to 6mm-wide granules ready for spraying on the road surface, to lower the freezing temperature of the water.

Explaining how this process worked was Richard Speller, the winter service manager since 2005.

He said: “The winter service has a genuine effect on people’s lives.

Richard Speller, winter service manager for West Sussex Highways, at the Clapham depot talks about gritting the roads. Pictured: one of the gritters

“It keeps the fabric of society working and moving.”

The 56-year-old said that in the last ten years, the weather patterns had changed ‘significantly’, with ‘far more intense, short-run storms’.

He said: “In 2009, we had our first snow event for ten years. Since then, we have had five notable snow events.”

One of these was the ‘Beast from the East’, which pummelled the UK with polar conditions in February last year.

There are eight weather stations across the county, with sensors embedded in the road surface to measure its temperature – the key piece of information for the gritting team.

The county is divided into three districts – two north of the South Downs, one south – and three forecasts are generated.

If the temperature is expected to go below freezing, a decision has to be made to send out the gritters; ideally by 2pm that day, so staff can be summoned to the depots or sent home to rest before going out in the night.

In severe conditions, as much as 200 tonnes of salt can be used a night by the drivers, who work in pairs and learn specific three-hour, 90-mile routes by heart.

In the worst cases, grit will be mixed with the salt – but it is used sparingly, as it does not wash away.

Richard said the toughest situation he could remember was in 2010, when they resorted to this. He said: “The mines were struggling to produce enough salt, so we got it from Portugal and brought it into Shoreham Port. It was a nerve-racking time where we thought we would run out.”

To lessen the environmental impact of the salt washing away into nearby fields and water courses, the council has invested in drainage networks to cut road surface water – the material that eventually freezes and causes the issue.

His goal for the future? ‘To balance a reasonable service with the resources they have’, Richard said.

He went on to say: “This job would be easy if we had infinite resources, but unfortunately we don’t.”

A common misconception is that gritters are only used in the winter: in fact, one or two are used for diesel and chemical spills on the road, or to treat melted surfaces in the height of summer.

Richard’s message to drivers was to still be safe on the roads: “It is delaying the freezing process, but it won’t change the laws of physics.”