Currently reading: Potty Patrol: How JCB is speeding up pothole repair
Fixing potholes is a vital job, but it’s time-consuming and tough for the crews doing it – so JCB has automated the process. we watch its new machine in action

After 21 years repairing roads, Mick has had enough of dragging heavy jackhammers from the backs of trucks, lugging them to a potholed patch of road and then breaking up iron-hard asphalt for hours on end. “I’m lucky I don’t have white finger by now,” he tells me. He’s referring to Raynaud’s disease, a localised restriction in blood flow caused by, among other things, vibration such as that generated by a jackhammer.

When this is the cause, it’s known as hand-arm vibration syndrome. It can develop within just six months of doing this job and there’s no cure. It’s one of the biggest issues facing the Health and Safety Executive, the body charged with policing safety at work, with contractors routinely paying out large sums of compensation to affected workers.

Mick invites me to try out the jackhammer he has been using. It’s a traditional-looking thing with a two-stroke motor perched on top. This makes it top-heavy and, I suspect, even more of a chore to use. Anyway, I give it a go, if only for the amusement of Mick and his colleagues in the road gang. Positioning it accurately is the hard bit, accomplished by lifting it slightly and manoeuvring it with my leg. After a minute or so, I’ve only succeeded in drilling too wide and deep a hole, which the guys will have to patch. And my fingers are tingling.

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Mick takes the hammer and shows me how it should be done. However, there’s a twist to his demonstration, since he’s actually competing to drill the road with a mechanised jackhammer wielded by one of the newest weapons in the war against potholes: the JCB Pothole Pro.

Naturally, the Pothole Pro wins, its 600mm-wide cutting head (or cropping tool) neatly and effortlessly slicing through the road in moments to a consistent, predetermined depth. Still, a runner-up prize goes to Mick, who puts on a good show – although I would like to see what he’s like after a couple of hours of jackhammering…

From a distance, the new machine could be confused with one of JCB’s traditional wheeled backhoe loaders – except that in place of a large shovel and bucket, it has, on one side of the cab, what looks like a huge shoe brush mounted on the tip of an extending arm; and on the other side, a large metal box incorporating vicious-looking metal teeth on a spinning drum, called the planer.

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As its name suggests, its job is to fix potholes. The operator rotates the cab so that both sets of tools are on the same side. First, the metal teeth of the 600mm-wide planer claw through the broken road surface, breaking it into loose chippings while water is sprayed to suppress dust. The multitool at the end of the extending arm then rotates a few degrees to bring into play the powerful cropping tool, which tidies up the edges of the hole. Finally, the brush, which is part of the same multitool, sweeps the debris into an integrated collection bucket for disposal in a waiting truck (the chippings can be recycled). Pothole now cut, cropped and cleaned, the reinstatement crew can set to work filling and sealing it with bitumen.

JCB says that, unlike other pothole repair solutions, the one provided by the Pothole Pro is permanent. In highways terms, this means around five years. I’ve seen other solutions, most recently a modified truck designed by Archway Roadmaster that blows compressed air at the pothole to clear away debris before spraying a mix of bitumen and aggregate into it via a long ‘proboscis’ that extends over the cab. The firm calls this ‘spray-injection patching’. It’s intended for potholes that have recently formed and can be nipped in the bud.

Whether new or long-formed, potholes are a national problem. The Asphalt Industry Alliance reckons repairing all of them over the next 10 years will cost £10 billion. The RAC has reported that in the first three months of this year, it received almost 5000 call-outs to vehicles with wheels or suspension damaged by potholes – three times the number it received in the last three months of 2020. Last year, councils paid motorists more than £8 million in compensation for damaged cars. And the Institute of Advanced Motorists says 75% of drivers consider potholes to be a bigger issue than they were three years ago – one that exceeds driver distraction and congestion. In their defence, councils say they fixed 1.7 million potholes last year, an increase of 200,000 on 2019, at a cost of £93.6m. Last year, the government pledged to give them £2.5bn over five years to repair potholes.

7 Evans with jackhammer

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Away from the squillions, the fact is that to repair a pothole using a two-man crew wielding jackhammers and shovels and driving a 7.5-tonne truck to carry the waste chippings and fresh asphalt typically costs £60. All being well, the crew will manage to repair around 12 potholes per day – a fraction of the 10,000 that the average council repairs every year, in addition to the backlog of 20,000 that they would like to.

“It’s not a young man’s game,” says Mick, himself no longer a young man. That’s why he welcomes the Pothole Pro’s ability to do the hard work of cutting, cropping and cleaning the pothole so that he and his crewmates need only fill and seal it to make a permanent fix. The cost? About £29 per pothole, according to JCB – a figure validated by Stokeon-Trent City Council, which has just bought one of the machines.

“I’ve been urging the council to get one,” says James Harper, the council’s highways team manager, from his seat in the Pothole Pro’s cab (he has just completed a two-week course on operating it). “Not only can it repair a pothole in less than a quarter of the time and for half the price, but it can also travel at up to 25mph to the next job without requiring a low-loader, meaning we can get more work out of it.”

The repair crews love it. As the ones traditionally doing the hard work, they’re in the front line for abuse from passing motorists. That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? What if I were to set Mick onto them with his jackhammer to see how they like it?


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Peter Cavellini 18 July 2021

Scrao@, I don't, I think there out there with limited resources and time trying to make an effective repair, but they know with what they've been given that the job is like maintenance on the Forth Bridge, by the time you reach the end, you start again at the beginning, well, that's the opinion, whether it's correct or not, I don't know,and, by the law of averages, there will be some road maintenance crews feel under valued.

scrap 17 July 2021

I can well believe motorists give pothole repair crews abuse. That's because a lot of people are absolute ****s.

RPrior 17 July 2021

Well done Baron Bamford

Your vision has made the world a more fully functioning place.

There is much that you could teach Jeremy Clarkson - & encourage him to invest in your tractors - 4220 & 8330 Fastrac models.  Much better the the Italian Job he currently runs,