All have to live with a change in maintenance responsiveness

Published: Wednesday, 07 December 2022

OF COURSE, every boater wants any obstacle to full navigation either to be pre-empted by preventative maintenance or to be repaired as close to instantaneously as physically possible. And why not? Asks Mike Todd.

As Alan Baker indicated, in the golden age of British Waterways (remind me when that was?) repairs would be carried out overnight and the navigation re-opened by early morning.

Related to time-to -repair

As any infrastructure organisation will tell, the cost-of-repair is very much related to the time-to-repair. I bet that any of the contractors, or in-house staff, would happily agree to such speedy repairs but at the substantially increased cost of overtime working and unsociable hours payments, not to mention higher costs for travelling and the provision of higher levels of equipment.

It is a simple mathematical formula that identifies the relationship between cost and availability. In the extreme, a guaranteed immediate availability can only come at an infinite cost (and infinite quantity of equipment, people etc). At the other end, no stocks mean that a guaranteed response time would be infinite.

More realistically, every maintenance organisation has to start by agreeing the required response times, only then can a cost be agreed.

Could be afforded

In the case of the canal network, when they were at the heart of the economy, a high cost of maintenance could be afforded as 'time is money' was important and customers would want and pay for that. Today, the canals have virtually no commercial carrying (okay, it might be argued that hire companies approach that as their boats have to be back to base at an agreed time, although many cope with blockages by using road transport). For the liveaboard or leisure boater, what price can we put on time?

CaRT as a whole is under increasing budget pressure and we will all have to live with a change in the maintenance responsiveness—unless we are prepared to pay significantly more for a better provision. The creation of CaRT was explicitly intended to remove inland waterways from public subsidy. That means that either the licence fee will rise dramatically or the level of service will decline.

Of course, the management of CaRT will be expected to make the best possible use of its resources within its statutory limits (such as forced use of contractors). Almost all organisations that have gone down the route of absorbing budget reductions by using concentrators (been there, worn the T-shirt) find that there are important downsides, most notably in a limited flexibility to respond rapidly to unanticipated circumstances. (Again, the more circumstances you anticipate, the greater the cost.)

Charge horrendously for unanticipated items

And not all contractors are as good at understanding and providing the services as others. In general, contractors will offer lower average costs for a regular service but charge horrendously for 'extras', ie unanticipated items.

Every organisation has its failings and should be held to account for them but, in general, we ought perhaps to start by assuming that they are trying honestly to do their best within their restrictions. Any campaign for a better service, therefore, has to start with saying how the increased cost will be met. Each of us has to consider how much of an increase in the licence fee are we prepared to pay.