The Department for Transport has today (1 April 2020) formally announced that one of its most ambitious projects for decades has reached a ‘crucial milestone.’ What has been dubbed ‘Project Stud’ will involve the replacement of all the road studs – better known as cat’s eyes – in the country’s roads with modern fibre-optic lights that will, a spokesperson claimed, make them ‘robustly fit for 21st-century purpose.’
We started by asking the DfT how many cat’s eyes there were.”That was our first problem,” the Department’s Reflective Co-ordinator April Guckloch told us. “The size of the ‘cat’s-eye universe’ was unknown. No one had ever counted them before. Why would they? We spent a year or so trying to do this and then saw that there were problems with the integrity of the data. We revised the accuracy parameters but then realised that local councils were adding new ones without telling us. Eventually, we looked it up on Wikipedia.”
It appears there are currently around 350 million road studs: roughly five per person, as Ms Guckloch pointed out. She has been engaged on the project since 2006 and has been involved in all its aspects, including identifying suppliers and contractors.
“We’ve been engaging closely with our consultants FCK on these questions for over a decade,” she told me. “We like to think that we’ve been every bit as unstinting in buying in high-cost private-sector skills as has HS2. And here are the results.” She patted a 2,400-page document on her desk.
We suggested that some of FCK’s conclusions must have made painful reading for the DfT’s Reflective team.
“Well, yes and no,” Ms Gucklock admitted. “To be honest, mainly ‘yes’. Several interesting lessons have been learned from the Coronavirus crisis. One is that although the government is quite good at glib sound-bites and grand-sounding gestures, when it comes to anything involving procuring, ordering, delivering and generally managing detail it’s absolutely useless.” The report confirmed this, saying that ‘if a project involves a deadline, a budget or a supply chain the government should immediately hand it over to experts like Amazon or the Army.’
Was this one of the routes being considered for the new-look cat’s eyes?
“Well, we like to think we’ve gone one better than that,” she said. “Amazon and the Army are obviously quite busy at present so we’ve decided to use crowd-procurement. As well as producing a ‘downward-focussed supply model’ it also taps into the vast number of volunteers who have been mobilised as a result of Covid-19. As people are now stuck at home it will also give them something to do. And all at no cost to the taxpayer. It’s win-win. Win-win-win, actually.”
As the government has not been able to find anyone to manufacture or install the new devices – and has been strongly advised not even to attempt to do so – the plan is to send every household in the country the specifications for building and installing the cat’s eyes, five per family member, using re-cycled and ‘found’ materials. We asked if the DfT was worried that there might be dangerous variations in standards as a result.
“It can’t be any worse than what happens at the moment,” she said. “Whatever the government asks for, if it remembers to ask for it all, the private sector ends up producing what it wants, when it wants, regardless. We end up footing the bill for something that generally doesn’t work and about which everyone complains. We’ve learned our lesson – this is super-micro-outsourcing, people-power reflecting the new ‘can-do’ spirit of the age.
“As for safety, people will be installing them in their own streets. We think this will produce what we call an ‘immediate-consequence safety aspiration.’ After all, you’d not want a cat’s eye outside your house to have a jagged piece of metal sticking out of it, would you?”
Nor is the DfT worried about compliance and enforcement. “The Coronavirus Emergency bill will give the government sweeping powers,” she explained, “and we’ve got mandatory cat’s-eye installation added into that.”
I asked her what the maximum penalty for failing to make and install the devices would be. “Currently, it’s five years,” she said. “I think that will focus the mind, don’t you?”
She then rebuffed suggestions that, as suggested in some newspapers, criminals might install ‘copy-cat cat’s eye’s to lure motorists off the highways. “Our legal people are all over that as well. There are some perfectly good statutes dating back to the 16th century to combat highwaymen and ‘diverse badde men abroad on the King’s Highway’ that have never been repealed. Anyone who falls foul of those could be in for a very nasty shock.”
We asked her about the problems of removing the old cat’s eyes and installing the new ones. “We’re still looking into that,” she admitted. “For instance, we’ll be advising that people doing the motorways should be young and fit as with all that traffic you’ve got to move pretty sharpish. Older people will be assigned quieter roads.”
An earlier design brief, leaked in June 2017, suggested that the new eyes would incorporate chargeable technology powered by the compressive force of car tyres passing over them: was this part of the current proposals? “This might be a step too far at this stage,” she conceded, adding that the vision of the entire country powered from this energy source (as suggested in July 2017 by junior DfT minister, since removed from his post) was still “some way off.”
Finally, as every aspect of the implementation was untried, we asked her what the government would be providing in the way of instructions and advice. “We’re leaving that to the market,” Ms Guckloch said. “Sooner or later someone will work out how to do it properly – and when that happens, they’re sure to make a video and put it on YouTube.”