After learning lessons from the Beast from the East, Transport Scotland’s Unimog can handle anything the weather throws at it

The UK has always been subject to variable weather – normally mild days of rain or sun are interrupted by the occasional harsh blizzards and storms. For Transport Scotland, these provide the ultimate test for its response and maintenance vehicles.

The Mercedes-Benz Unimog has proven itself capable of dealing with a variety of challenges. With a rugged, durable chassis that can keep working in almost any environment, the Unimog boasts the versatility to perform its duties, rain or shine.

FACTS spoke with Iain McDonald, Transport Scotland’s Network Resilience Manager about how the group uses its Unimog.

Transport Scotland brought two Unimogs on to its winter fleet in 2017. “We brought the Unimogs in following the disruptive weather event where we had snow on the M80 in February 2017,” Iain said.

One Unimog U5023, which features a longer wheelbase than other models, was custom-fitted with a remote-controlled crane and specialist pump for use as a relief vehicle, while a second Unimog U530 was fitted with a plough and gritter and used as a winter patrol vehicle, “but with a lot more capability and robustness and power behind it,” Iain noted.

This season, a Unimog was brought in for use during high level snow and flooding events, such as 2018’s Beast from the East snowstorm. “We take delivery at the start of each winter season, so this will be the third winter season we have taken a Unimog.”

No job too big

Unimog bodies come with four pins at the rear of the chassis, which can be removed to swap equipment. This allows the operator to attach a variety of tools to the Unimog to allow it to perform almost any task necessary.

“The Unimog can adapt from doing conventional activities that a normal gritter truck would do,” Ian said. “It can easily go off-road across rough terrain such as slopes, fields and potentially even flooded areas because it has all its operational functions placed high up to keep them above water. It is built with a lot more protection on the body, which makes it more robust when it is actually in these areas.”

The Unimog uses a semi-automatic gearbox – this makes it suitable for harsh environments and municipal work as the driver can pay attention to the road and equipment rather than changing gears. Their high visibility cabs also increase a driver’s awareness of their environment, even in heavy rain or snow.

Their flexible frames and high ground clearance makes them suitable for off-road work, but as trucks they can legally drive on motorways, adding to their flexibility.

It is their adaptability that is key to the Unimogs’ success, and what makes them such a valuable addition to Transport Scotland’s fleet. “We can use them during the summer,” Iain said. “We have a crane fitted to it that we can use all year round as a response vehicle with lifting capability, as well as the ability to carry high capacity pumps for the rapid response function.

“It can also be fitted up with grass cutting machinery and various other adaptations – Unimog have a vast variety of attachments that can go on the vehicle. One of the ones that we are actually looking at currently is adapting it with road-rail plant capability with our operational partners Network Rail. This means it can adapt from driving off-road onto a railway and then drop the rail guide. Then it can go up and down the track to deal with rail situations as well, lifting trees and dealing with flooding in these areas as well.

“There are very few other vehicles that we could use to cut grass that can also work as a disaster or flood relief vehicle, or a crane, or that can also drive on to the rail network, or that you can also stick a plough on the front and put specialised de-icing material on the back and carry out a wide range of activity,” Iain said.

Future proof

It addition to their adaptability, Unimogs are long-lasting vehicles. They have a minimum lifespan of 15-20 years.

“Although the units obviously do have longevity built within them, ours remains in almost new condition,” Iain said. “We test them almost to destruction to make sure they are capable of performing all the training, drilling and exercises. But we have used it for three years and it has remained in new condition.”

This hardiness is vital for a vehicle that is on the frontlines of the most serious weather events the UK is likely to suffer from. Moving a fallen tree in a blizzard is no time for wear and tear to compromise performance.

Just as important, however, is for Transport Scotland to ensure that they are well prepared for any future bad weather. “We are currently preparing for the next major snowstorm,” Iain noted. “We have an embedded Met office advisor who sits within the team and we are looking at forecasts at the moment. That is the kind of preparation that we are constantly taking and making sure that the plans we have in place with our operating companies is capable of dealing with these.”

Ultimately, after working across the last three winter seasons, and the Beast from the East, the Unimogs have been put to the test. “They have met our expectations,” Iain said. “We spend a lot of time ensuring we have correct resources and vehicles for events such as flooding, storms, etc. The equipment is fit for purpose should these instances occur – it is really about planning for the worst and hoping for the best and the Unimog is certainly capable of responding in the manner that we expect.”

For more information: www.transport.gov.scot