Innovation: Big Brother to put curb on roadworks: National database should minimise disruptions by utilities

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The Independent Online
THE means for those who dig 5 million holes in our roads each year to synchronise their activities are finally at hand.

A pounds 30m contract to set up a national roadworks database was awarded to Digital Equipment this month. The company has a strong incentive to get the register up and running quickly: rather than buying the system, the Department of Transport has given the company a seven- year franchise to provide the service, with the users bearing the bulk of the cost.

The system design will be subcontracted by Digital to Logica, the software firm. The aim of the register is to reduce the disruption, inconvenience and cost of digging up the road by helping highway authorities, (usually the local authority), to monitor and co-ordinate roadworks.

It will help utilities share costs and avoid damaging each other's pipes or cables. It will also provide a single source of information for the police and emergency services.

Steven Norris, local transport minister, said it was 'excellent news for both local residents and businesses, because for the first time there will be consistent monitoring of street works and access to a database of information on where those works will be and their duration'.

The Roads and Street Works Act, which came into effect in 1993, obliges utilities to notify the highway authorities of their digging plans. At present, this process is a faxed paper chase with no central co- ordination. The utilities also have informal arrangements with each other.

Before the register, which will based at Digital's office in Newbury, begins operating, the users will register their areas of interest. For companies such as British Gas and BT, these will cover most of England and Wales (Scotland is not part of the project), whereas the water companies are limited to a region, plus any pipelines they may have from reservoirs.

When the register is in operation, companies will be required to notify it at least four weeks before digging begins. For emergency works, the register must be notified within two hours of work beginning.

The computer will pass the notification on immediately to all with a registered interest. The highway authorities have the right to refuse permission for work to go ahead if, for instance, there are already works planned in adjacent streets or if a street has recently suffered disruption. The register will also give highway authorities the evidence they need to chase companies that do not reinstate the road properly when works are completed, or to fine them if the work takes longer than stated.

All communication to and from the central computer, expected to exceed 70 million messages a year, will be handled by Mercury. Most of the 7,000 users will have personal computers to dial up the register, but it will be possible to receive information by fax, telex or pager. Logica will design the software so that information from the database can be fed straight into a user's works management systems. Users will be billed according to their level of use. Organisations such as the AA and RAC, which provide traffic information, will also be able to use the database.

The first stage of the project involves compiling a national gazetteer of street names and geographical identifications for those without names. Trials are planned to take place between March and August next year, and the service will be fully operational by July 1996. Digital will still own the hardware when its franchise runs out in 2003, but the Department of Transport will own the application software - which means it could transfer the service contract.

This method of financing foreshadows the Department of Transport's plans to build new roads by letting the private sector pay for construction and get its money back in tolls. And other government departments are considering bids for computer systems where the successful bidder will pay for the system and win a contract to run the service for a fixed time.

(Photograph omitted)