As a journalist, you tend to learn a little about a lot if things ... and now I can add potholes to my list.
In my ‘Letter from the Editor’ column a couple of weeks ago, I sounded off about the state of Falkirk’s roads ... and suggested a ‘‘dod of cement’’ was all that was needed to solve the problem.
No sooner had the paper hit the streets than I got a message to call Robert McMaster, head of roads and design at Falkirk Council.
I expected a bit of an ear-bashing for having a pop at his department and was ready to defend my view, but the conversation was good-natured and ended with an invitation to join those responsible for repairing the potholes dotted across the district for a quickfire lesson.
And so it was that last Thursday morning I headed along to Bute Street in Falkirk to meet up with Robert and roads manager Raymond Smith.
I soon discover that there’s much more to potholes than I first realised.
Raymond explains that, when someone picks up the phone to report a problem, it’s only the start of the process.
Each pothole first has to be assessed and prioritised to ensure that those presenting a real danger are tackled first.
Even then it’s not a simple matter of sending a crew out to carry out the repairs.
With up to 300 potholes on the list at any one time, a route has to be worked out to ensure as many as possible can be targeted in a day.
Throw in other complications such as different types of road surfaces and the need to avoid key routes during busy times and you get some idea of the headaches facing those charged with organising schedules.
After my quick chat with Robert and Raymond, I link up with a team of three – foreman Thomas McCallum and HGV roadmen Gary Henderson and Steven Burke – who are about to start a shift that could see them tackle up to 20 potholes.
I’m there for the first two and, as we get to work, I’m quickly made aware that a ‘‘dod of cement’’ wouldn’t do the job. Cement, it seems, isn’t flexible or quick-drying enough so it’s asphalt that’s being kept heated ready to carry out the repairs.
First on the list is a small patch in the quiet residential street.
Raymond suspects that the surface may have been weakened when cables where laid underneated the road but the area around the pothole is sound enough so this will be a ‘permanent’ repair which should last 15-20 years.
The team get to work drilling out a neat square patch around the affected area, sealing the surface and then covering it with asphalt.
That’s where I come it, helping to ensure an even spread, but I defer to the professionals to make sure the level is right. Too high and there will be a bump in the road; too low and there will be dip.
They get it spot on and, after some stones are scattered on to match the existing surface and the roller does its work, it just a matter to sealing the edges and the road is as good as news.
Slightly further along the street, it’s immediately obvious that we’re not going to get such a good job.
The offending pothole is in the middle of a junction that is suffering badly from wear and tear. Start trying to cut out a patch there and the surrounding surface will crumble so it’s just a matter of filling it as best they can.
It’s a quick fix that will make the road safe but it may only last a few months and eventually the whole area will need replaced. The chances are that it will already feature on the council’s schedule but, as it not a high priority area, it may take a couple of years for it to work its way up the list.
Notes taken and pictures posed for, my work is done but the crew is already on its way to the next job.
‘‘It’s just like painting the Forth Bridge,’’ says Robert,’’ we’ll never finish.’’