15 February 2022 | Innovation | Our Work

Innovator Insights: Robert Thorn, ATM

Robert Thorn, AMAC Manager at ATM, reminisces on his time spent working in local government and how today’s highways sector differs from the one he first joined.


Q. What work experience did you have before moving into highways?

A. “Prior to moving into highways, I worked for Yorkshire Water as a Design Technician for three years, involved in the laying of district wide distributor water mains and networks into new housing estates.”


Q. What has been your career highlight up to now?

A. “After retiring from local government after 38 years, I moved into the private sector. I now use a lot of my highway experience in the application of new survey technology for highway maintenance.”


Q. What is the main way that today’s highways sector differs from the one you first joined?

A. “Technology. When I first started in highways, surveying consisted of using Theodolites, Levels and simple site tools. Very much a “hands on” environment. A lot of activities nowadays can be accomplished with a range of technologies from vehicles moving at road speed. There are huge safety benefits and increases in productivity.”


Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

A. “The Winter of 2010 into 2011. I was an Area Maintenance Manager at Northumberland Council. I think this winter was one of the worst in living memory with snow on the ground from late November until early February, with cold temperatures regularly below zero degrees. Usually UK snow is somewhat “transient” with a few days of snow followed by a thaw. That winter required seven days a week working, with staff on rotas for almost three months. There was a national salt shortage and like many other local authorities we experimented with different ways of delivering the service with reduced materials / resources, whilst still also trying to carry out some aspects of highway maintenance.”


Q. What do you think LCRIG Insight readers would be surprised to learn about you?

A. When I first started, “hi-viz” PPE for highway workers was unheard of. So, looking back, you were very much “taking your life” in your own hands whilst working on the highway. This was 1976 and perhaps some of the “Austin Powers” fashion some of us wore, made us “stand out” on the highway!

“I am perhaps the only engineer in the UK who was called to an RTC where a 68 tonne locomotive had rolled off a low loader and onto the highway, pinning a car. As the senior council officer, I had to arrange extensive road closures and 2 No heavy lift cranes to get the train back onto the loader, whilst dealing with the national media on a rather unexpected and unique event.”


Q. What do you think is the key to accelerating innovation within the roads sector?

A. “It is the development of products and services that can demonstrate improvements, increased efficiencies and more cost-effective approaches to highway maintenance and safety.”


Q. How different will the sector look in 10 years time?

A. With the introduction of autonomous vehicles on roads, the benefits of them will only be possible if road standards (and maintenance) are consistent across the entire national highway network. It is inevitable that highway maintenance standards will have to become nationally prescriptive.”


Q. What is the best way of removing barriers to innovation?

A. “Raising awareness through education and frank open discussion on advantages and disadvantages and the relevance of certain innovations in some circumstances.”


Below is an update on other innovation initiatives that the LCRIG team have been busy working on over the last few months:

Innovation in Highways

In November 2021, LCRIG published a report entitled ‘Innovation in highways’. The report highlights some interesting findings on the differing approaches between local authorities and the challenges around implementing innovation in highways.

You can access the full report here.


The LCRIG / Steve Berry ‘Think Exceptional’ Innovation fund, supported by WJ Group

Last year the first companies to receive funding as part of the LCRIG / Steve Berry Think Exceptional Innovation Fund were announced.

Connor Specialist Paving (Tac-Grid), Community Models, Fitzpatrick Advisory (DASHA), NY Highways and Liverpool John Moores University have been selected to receive a share of the £150,000 Innovation fund, facilitated by LCRIG. For more information on the Innovation fund, please click here.


Keep up to date on all LCRIG initiatives by subscribing to our weekly e-newsletter, the LCRIG Insight here.