Lights! Sound! But precious little action

Work started on this road in 1972 - it is unknown if it is finished...
Work started on this road in 1972 - it is unknown if it is finished...

By Phil Weir

The accelerating advance of technology is a wonderful thing to ponder upon.

One minute, it’s 1903 and Orville Wright is gnawing nervously on the fringe of his luxuriant ‘tache, bracing his rib cage against the interior of his thermal tweed waistcoat and saying a prayer aboard The Flyer at Kittyhawk as he precariously launches the human race into the era of powered flight...and brief years later, in 1969, man is setting foot on the moon. And now a Mars landing looks likely.

The same heady pace has accompanied the development of automobiles, architecture, engineering, medicine, fast food, you name it (don’t name art), over roughly the same period, and so it continues up to the present day.

For instance, in the last 70 years, we have seen computers shrink from the size of a warehouse to a wristwatch, with their power increasing inversely to this massive contraction in proportion.

Even on our roads, where, a century ago, repairs were carried out by masses of men armed with mere picks and shovels, there have been huge leaps forward in the equipment wielded by the navvy – pneumatic drills, power diggers, and even mighty vehicles which can dig up a road and re-tarmac it in a oner. Not to mention, on a personal level, other things that have put the navvy in the gravy – the hard hat, high-vis jacket, vacuum flask and plastic lunch box.

Which leaves me with one big question. With all these breakthroughs in the science of digging a hole in a road, why the chuffin’ Hades does it take eons between the start and the finish of every street excavation, little or large – especially those that take place at crucial junctions, require traffic lights to fortify them from all sides, and cause the maximum of chaos during their interminable duration?

Let’s face it. Tony Robinson and his TV Time Team buddies can trowel-up an ancient civilisation or two over a single weekend, and still have their dig locale reconstituted to Eden-like conditions by 8am, Monday.

But replace a kerb? Put a new lid on a sewer? Sink a length of cable? Re-tar a stretch of pavement? Surely, these days, such works can be carried out in a jiffy or, at a push, a trice.

Eh, nope. We drivers always seem to end up ‘doing time’, sentenced to a fortnight, four weeks, eight weeks, or more, stuck at a standstill behind other stationary cars, seeing red at distant traffic lights ahead and lost in a combi-cloud of idling exhaust fug and anger-induced ear-steam. If navvies had been put in charge of D-Day it would have been D-Month!

So why has modern technology not trimmed chunks of time off the duration of roadworks? The answer is navvy mentality, I reckon.

What I mean is, whereas most people would look at a large hole in the road and ask how wide is it or how deep is it, huddled street excavation technicians look at a hole in the road (probably dug by themselves with no great haste) and wonder how long is it? For what span of time can I make this hole last? When should I fill it in and how long should I take to fill it in?

This ingrained approach by all road-miners to a hole is, I hypothesise, a result of the time that might lie from one hole to the next for them – between the ending of one job and the beginning of another, and the resultant downtime and loss of income between holes. In other words, a navvy’s bank balance is only as healthy as his current hole is long-lasting. And I fear we won’t be saying tar-tar to the classic Roadworks Where Time Stood Still, for a while.

If the resources of NASA were solely devoted for a 100 years into transforming the tech of road-digging, it would not add one iota to the speed at which they who delve deliver.

If time-travelling time-and-motion boffins were to compare the work-speed of a navvy from 1914 with one from 2014 – or 2014BC – I bet you wouldn’t be able to feed a fibre-optic cable between the stats.

In fact, now I come to think of it, maybe that’s why aliens haven’t arrived at Earth yet.

It’s because, at this very moment, out on all the space lanes, in all the galaxies in the universe and multiple parallel others, flying saucers are stood frustratingly immobile at traffic lights, waiting forever for ‘green’, while interstellar navvies move like snails, making mysterious repairs to the fabric of time and space.