Drainage Contractor

Features U.K. Update
U.K. Update: Digging in the dark

Being open to unusual jobs can keep the machines running during slow periods.

May 5, 2015  By Rob Burtonshaw

Like many, I’m keenly awaiting the arrival of spring. This winter has been neither particularly snowy nor sodden for us, just a standard British winter, which makes draining land difficult. In the British Isles our weather is mild. We do not suffer from periods of extreme cold or heat and, on the whole, intense weather is something we experience only on the news. What we do have is rain and, in most places, heavy clay soils. These conditions are not good when combined with heavy drainage machines and over wintering crops. Our workload dwindles over the winter and each year we scratch around trying to find work that we can do. To begin with, this reduced pace makes a welcome change from the frantic pressures of the post-harvest rush, but by the time February arrives it is a drag on morale –and on the bank account. While I’m quite busy sending out estimates and drumming up work for next week, the guys are doing bits and pieces and painting our kit, none of which turns a profit. The only answer I can find, (and please correct me if you can) is to be flexible and try to say “Yes” to any opportunity that comes your way. This can lead us to places we have not been to before. That’s what happened to us this winter.

Birmingham International Airport is one of the busiest in Britain and, as part of an expansion program, the runway has been lengthened. This is a major undertaking, as the A45 (one of the primary routes in and out of Britain’s second largest city) had to be re-routed. The work has taken over a year and has cost millions of pounds. One problem, tiny in terms of the size of the entire project, has been land drainage. The low laying ground beside the runway has standing water on it, and whilst this has not caused a problem yet, a flooded runway cannot be left untended, so we were asked to install some land drains. Of course, this is our bread and butter. The job itself was very standard fare; however, the location was certainly not.

For some pretty obvious reasons we could not work beside the runway when planes were landing, so we undertook the first night work in the company’s 75-year history. The only time planes don’t land or take off is in the dead of night, meaning the working hours were from 11:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. We fitted lights on our machinery and floodlights provided enough light to work by. That was the easy part. Such a short working shift limited what could be done in a day and the job took twice as long as it would have if it had been completed in daylight hours. Rather reassuringly, security was tight and we had to pass through a strict security procedure each night. Health and safety was of paramount importance and involved numerous inspections, pre-work briefings and regulations. The drainage machine and other plant items could not be left on-site, so everything was taken off-site to a compound nearby via the airport’s main runway and taxi. After we finished working, the runway and surrounding area had to be swept for any debris, mud, overlooked tools and the like. No chances were taken, nor could there be.

This contract may have been the most unusual job we have ever undertaken, but it is not the only time we have laid drains in curious places. Just last year we drained the elephant enclosure for a zoo! We have no choice. To survive, grow and develop the business, we have to be flexible. I suspect that most fellow contractors reading this will have similar stories of working in strange places far from our natural home of farmers’ fields. Like us, you probably say, “Yes, of course we can,” and then wonder how the hell to do the job, but without an attitude like that, I doubt if we would be in business. Such an approach is at its heart positive, and a positive outlook is more valuable than anything else.


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