Layers of cable and pipe are going on-line in a computerised roadworks register. Vanessa Spedding reports
It is symptomatic of how disorganised the process of digging holes in Britain's roads is that nobody has more than the vaguest idea of how often our highways are dug up. Best estimates suggest water, gas, electricity, phone and cable television companies dig between two million and four million holes a year. What makes the process so uncertain is that there are so many different companies doing the digging, and so many different authorities giving them permission to do so.

Information technology is about to come to the rescue. Following the passage of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991, the Department of Transport is trying to reduce the time that holes spend unfilled, to make sure roadworks do not occur on "sensitive" roads at busy times and to improve health and safety standards. To ensure it meets objectives, the department is setting up a single computerised register of roadworks. But it is not civil servants who will be doing the work. The DoT is subcontracting the entire project to the private sector.

The aim is to provide an up-to-date source of information on all aspects of roadworks nationwide - where they are, who is responsible for them, when they will start and finish, results of inspections, and so on. It must be accessible (for reference and updates) to all those involved in roadworks, and will require a huge computer network.

The job of commissioning the new system is being managed by KPMG, the consultants. Richard Goodwin, project manager for KPMG, says: "It was like having 500 clients simultaneously, all of which must be linked up to the register when it comes on-line. They include all the highway authorities and utility offices nationwide, many of which operate differently and have different needs."

The idea is to prevent classic mistakes - like the electricity company digging up a stretch of road the day after the water people finish filling in their own hole - by encouraging a co-ordinated and planned approach. The result should be fewer holes, quicker digging and reduced traffic jams. In future, the system might also keep the emergency services informed about upcoming roadworks so they can plan faster routes, and warn blind people about new holes in their path.

There are no plans to make the information directly available to the public, even though they have a legal right to receive up-to-date information on roadworks from the Highway Authority. Mr Goodwin thinks a filtered version of the information may even make its way onto the Internet if it seems economical and useful.

The tender for the £28m contract to implement KPMG's design has been won by Digital Equipment, which started work last September. Its task is to build and finance the services, and, once the system is in place (due July 1996), to manage it for a further seven years, by which time it will have recovered its investment. Digital will provide the hardware (a cluster of four Alpha servers with 100 gigabytes of storage) and sub- contract the 2,000-client telecoms infrastructure to Mercury Communications, and the software to Logica. Neil Connor, accounts manager for the project, does not predict significant job creation or losses among the user organisations.

As well as helping to build the system, Mercury will also be using it. Trevor Torr, of Mercury's engineering department, believes most of the register's potential users are already familiar with computer technology and that it will speed up rather than hinder their job. Laborious administrative tasks will be eased - notices to dig will be submitted on-line (instead of by fax or hand-written chit), and the National Street Gazetteer, a crucial guide to the roads of Britain from an engineer's point of view, normally issued on paper, will be up-to-date and accessible on-line.

The project is a fine example of the Government's private finance initiative in operation. Since it is to be almost entirely self-funding, the Department of Transport has decreed not only that highway authorities and utilities must use the system, but that they must also pay for it.

Although the system was originally called for by these users, there is some doubt as to whether the cost has been distributed fairly. The benefit to the highways authorities is likely to be more pronounced than to the utilities. Yet for the first two years, Digital's bill will be split exactly between the two. Mr Torr does not think, however, that this cost will filter down to the consumer or the road user: he believes that most of it will be offset by savings in post, stationery, time and efficiency the new system will bring.