With the construction of new highways and expressways with state-of-the-art amenities, and the expansion of already existing road networks, the roads sector has evolved significantly over time. While this can potentially enhance the long-term prospects of the sector, it is important to devote more attention to the operations and maintenance (O&M) of these assets.
India has the second largest road network in the world, presenting a substantial opportunity for its O&M. Moreover, the escalating volume of traffic on highways calls for prompt O&M practices to prevent the deterioration of pavements.
In 2016, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs authorised the toll-operate-transfer (TOT) model. This proved to be an effective long-term strategy for ensuring efficient O&M of highways, while also generating upfront resources that can be invested in new highway projects. In the following years, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) devised a corridor rating and ranking system for performance evaluation and identification of any issues pertaining to the national highway network. Subsequently, Adani Road Transport also expanded its presence in this sector by incorporating a wholly owned subsidiary called Adani Road O&M Limited.
Smart solutions for O&M
Over the years, NHAI has consistently demonstrated a proactive approach in seeking strategies for the O&M of road assets. In line with this, network survey vehicles (NSVs) are being utilised to conduct highway mapping via LiDAR technology. Advanced survey techniques, such as employing a high resolution digital camera for comprehensive imagery, utilising a laser road profilometer, and employing other relevant technologies for measuring distress on road surfaces.
Additionally, global positioning systems (GPS) have been deployed to extract data on pavement conditions, assess asset inventory and evaluate various functional parameters including riding quality, speed, accident potential, black spots, access control status, geometrics and traffic information systems. This has contributed to the overall improvement of road assets. In 2021, the use of NSVs and drones was mandated. Furthermore, drone videography is now a common practice being carried out at regular intervals to record the development, construction and O&M of all national highways.
NHAI is also implementing the advanced traffic management system (ATMS) on national highways and expressways to manage incidents of road crashes and enforce speed limits and other regulations on highways. As of June 2023, the authority has installed around 75 advanced, high resolution cameras on the 75 km Gurugram-Nuh stretch of the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway. These cameras are strategically positioned at 1 km intervals, promoting the launch of ATMS.
Back in November 2022, in a bid to enhance operational efficiency and road safety, Cube Highways installed ATMS on the Madurai-Kanyakumari section of National Highway (NH)-7. The video incident detection system, one of the critical components of ATMS, has smart network cameras installed every 250 metres, making the 52.3 km long stretch the densest in the country. In addition, the network’s pan-tilt zoom cameras are also equipped with night vision and zoom-in zoom-out capabilities for patrolling the highway stretches.
The Sukhad Yatra App, launched in 2018 by NHAI, provides users with the ability to input information regarding road quality or report incidents such as accidents or potholes occurring on a route. Additionally, this system offers users access to up-to-date information regarding anticipated waiting times at plazas, and numerous amenities such as fuel stations, amenities located alongside the road, healthcare facilities, financial institutions and law enforcement agencies along the highways. The application can also be used to purchase FASTag and further facilitate highway user experience.
In June 2023, NHAI announced plans to improve the functionality of this application. The upgraded version is expected to have a slew of new features along with information regarding road accidents, under-construction projects and blind spots. The platform will incorporate a robust internal system for addressing and escalating highway grievances. NHAI plans to upgrade the app as a world-class unified platform with a strong built-in highway grievance redressal and escalation mechanism.
iROADS, a road asset management programme developed by TRL, is a groundbreaking tool. It is an advanced infrastructure asset management system and decision-making tool designed to cater to all infrastructure assets. Kerala’s Public Works Department (PWD) has successfully digitised a total of 31,000 km of road network by implementing iROADS. This initiative also involves the gathering and storage of inventory and condition data for all roads, bridges and culverts. The iROADS system now allows the PWD to transition to a systematic approach for road development and maintenance schemes based on traffic, road condition and climate information, paving the way for a safer and more resilient road network.
In terms of capacity augmentation, there is a focus on video-based traffic surveys with vehicle categorisation. This helps in determining when a four-lane highway should be upgraded to a six-lane or eight-lane highway. Moreover, the implementation of a reversible lane system at toll plazas during peak hours will serve as an effective measure in mitigating traffic congestion.
A number of challenges arise when implementing smart technology-based solutions for road asset maintenance. These include a substantial increase in costs compared to existing methodologies; the need for significant data storage capacity, as each kilometre of road requires at least 1 GB of space; the integration, processing and presentation of data; the requirement for high speed internet connectivity; the limited adoption of these solutions unless made mandatory; and resistance to change by many authorities.
The majority of road operators rely on outdated maintenance budgets and historical data in order to strategise and allocate funds for O&M. This fails to offer operators a comprehensive understanding of how their present expenditure on maintenance measures up to its maximum potential, as well as what other industry players are doing differently. Furthermore, the allocation of funds for the maintenance and restoration of national highways under the Union budget remains inadequate, impeding routine O&M activities.
The way forward
Despite challenges being faced, the digital roadmap for the future includes greater and better utilisation of drones, GIS mapping, satellite imagery for project planning, monitoring and implementation, smart highways equipped with smart lighting, variable LED message signage, adaptive traffic control systems (at intersections with traffic signals), speed limit enforcers, promotion of lane driving systems and wayside amenities with electric vehicle charging facilities.
Techniques apart, practices to consider during the maintenance of roads include cleaning drains before and during monsoon, as stagnant water can be a hindrance, especially to bituminous roads; building rain cuts to drain stagnant water on shoulders; timely maintenance of potholes and patch repairs; use of recycled material for overlay; use of good quality thermoplastic paint to ensure safety of users; and use of polymer modified bitumen and crumb rubber modified bitumen.
Models such as hybrid annuity and TOT necessitate the involvement of skilled players for the O&M of road assets, thus generating a demand for O&M companies. The acquisition of operational build-operate-transfer assets by private equity investors also requires O&M services. This presents numerous opportunities for specialised players, technology providers and suppliers of materials and equipment for the foreseeable future.
Based on inputs from a presentation by Saksham Agrawal, Director, Prakash Asphaltings & Toll Highways (India) Limited, at an India Infrastructure conference