We’ve all been there – you’re at work and see the white stuff start to fall from the sky across Sheffield and attempt to set off home only to get stuck in traffic.
And there are four words that come to most people’s lips: “Where are the gritters?” – but Neil Suter, transport manager at Sheffield Council contractor Amey, has a very simple answer: “We’re in the same traffic jam as you.”
Neil is speaking while we’re driving around the city in one of the fleet of 14 vehicles, which the council and Amey hope will keep the city moving when winter does its worst
Neil is at the wheel of the Ice Warrior – an 18-tonne, 260bhp lorry.
All of the vehicles were named by schoolchildren in 2014. Others in the fleet include Gretta Gritta, Sammy Snow, Selwyn Salt, The Bear and Melter Skelter.
The fleet is driven by a team of 34 drivers, with 24 hours-a-day coverage. Offices in the middle of the Olive Grove depot are the control tower of the city’s gritting operation.
It sits alongside a huge garage, where the Ice Warrior and its counterparts are maintained, serviced and repaired – along with Amey’s other vehicles.
The team monitor weather forecasts, using specialist data and computer systems, and sensors under Sheffield’s road which measure surface temperatures.
And the process of gritting itself is a lot more advanced than you’d think, as Neil explained: “Our gritters use Autologic technology so all the driver has to do is drive.
“The machine has all the routes mapped and directs the driver like a sat nav and automatically controls the gritting. It can all be overidden if you need to do a blast on a particular icy spot or on a roundabout but everything is set up.”
Just before we took to the road, a delivery of salt arrived and was tipped into the giant dome at Olive Grovre. Amey said had more than 15,000 tonnes in stock to help keep more than 130 miles of the city's busiest roads clear if wintry conditions hit.
The routes are split into primary – which include main roads, those near schools and hospitals – and secondary routes, which are minor, side roads.
They cover across the city including to the Derbyshire border to the south, and Rotherham to the north east. All the routes are programmed into the Autologic machines.
Staff also constantly monitor weather forecasts but Neil said the actual decision to go out on the city’s roads was made by Sheffield Council.
Neil, who first started working on gritters in 1989, said: “When we first get a sign that the forecast is bad or get frost warnings we go out and do precautionary gritting and check the road sensors.
“The job has changed massively since I first started. When I first started it was a case of having road supervisors manually checking road conditions and temperatures.
“The gritters were all manually operated as well. We had a large level that we used to use to start and stop the gritting – it’s changed so much.”
Neil said the worst conditions were snowfall during a weekday afternoon, as it made gritting efforts difficult due to an increase in traffic.
He said: “Most of the gritting work is done overnight but when it snows during the day, everybody always says: ‘Where are the gritters?’ and the simple answer is: ‘We’re in the same traffic jam as you’.
“People will always ask about the side roads too but there’s no point in us doing them before we've got the main roads cleared.”
Melissa Wise, Amey’s project director, said although its fleet had only been on the roads on a handful of occasions, that situation could change as winter draws nearer.
She said: “We can never say never but we are as ready as we can be. All of the drivers are trained, they’ve all had refereshers of the routes and we've got all the grit.
“In total we have got more than 35 trained drivers on the contract but obviously they don’t work all at the same time. They are now all on call and will be through until the end of April.”
Ms Wise said Amey, who are responsible for the city’s highways as part of the Streets Ahead contract with Sheffield Council, had more around 2,000 grit bins across the city.
She added: “We would certainly like assistance from the community in terms of clearing the footway in front of their property and checking on elderly neighbours.