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Boys from the black stuff

Vrooom! Watching cars drive by is a peculiarly British occupation - the French tell chauvinistic jokes about it.

Tuning into this national quirk, Granada Television has spent three months busily filming on the motorways of Lancashire. This Saturday, Britons everywhere will be able to cruise the highways on a virtual road trip without leaving their living rooms.

Motorway Lives, a series of eight half-hour episodes, will not be about 'technical things', says Granada. Nor is screening timed to promote topical discussion about integrated transport. Rather, the series is a new permutation in the popular fly on the wall genre and will focus on the to-and-fro of human traffic.

Programmes tail three police patrols operating from the Charnock Richards post near Wigan. Inspector Peter Stass, who co-ordinated patrol-camera crew liaison, says: 'The public doesn't have a clue as to what goes on outside the little bubble of their cars.'

A successful short series screened on the Granada network six months ago showed people the traffic cop's reality - a mix of danger, tragedy, long hours and banality.

This time, the series is aimed at a larger audience, and the cast is bigger. The series shows the view from the squad car, but also from a travelling entertainer's van and from the coned-off roadworks.

The series marks the 40th anniversary of Britain's first motorway, the Preston bypass. It was built in 1958 by Tarmac and by happy chance a resurfacing job on what is now the M6, sought out by Granada for added dramatic content, is being carried out by Tarmac. The project is heavily featured in episode two and there are updates on this and other work between junctions 22 and 33 in subsequent episodes.

Stass notes that the four-lane stretch carries 120,000-150,000 vehicles per day and is one of the busiest sections of motorway in the country. Because the M55 joins it north of Preston and the M61 and M65 connect to the south, the bypass effectively carries two motorways' worth of traffic. As traffic volumes swelled with the start of this year's holiday season, roadworks meant closure of all but one lane on the north-bound carriageway and the establishment of a contra-flow system. Roadworks typically increase the accident rate by 50%, the inspector says.

On the camera crew's first night of filming an articulated truck ploughed through the cone cordon and overturned, the trailer bursting into flames. It wiped out the central reservation. Three weeks ago another capsized lorry blocked two lanes of the road from five in the morning to 1.30pm.

Speed cameras were set up to calm racing motorists, and high visibility patrols have been cruising the five mile contraflow. But since June more than 60,000 drivers have exceed the maximum limit, Stass reports. Meanwhile, trucks with long and heavy loads plying to and from the site require escorts.

Tarmac project manager Mike Oaks describes the job featured in Motorway Lives as an example of 'hybrid motorway management'. It makes sense to carry out as much different work as possible at a time to minimise disruption. And because the bypass section is so busy, Tarmac has worked with two gangs, day and night. 'Night working is gaining impetus. Whether or not you use it is dependent on location,' he says.

Granada has shot over 100 hours of footage for the programme and Highways Agency liaison officer Nigel Ellis expects the edited version to be a 'warts and all' portrait of the Highways Agency/Tarmac operation. How they will come out of their brush with the world of real-life soap they can not tell: 'We're as curious as anyone else how the programmes will reflect on the agency,' he comments.

In the last three months Alfred McAlpine has also been strengthening piers and bridge decks on other parts of the motorway in Lancashire. Access requires lane closures. 'We have regular meetings with the contractor and maintenance agent [Lancashire County Council],' says Stass. 'We aim to keep both workers and drivers safe.' But police resources are severely stretched by roadworks.

Ellis says the section under repair was worn out. Resurfacing took place in 'terrible weather. They could hardly have picked worse weather'. As well as making for dangerous driving conditions, constant downpours have slowed progress: 'you can't lay hot asphalt in torrential rain'.

Oaks says the works, including bridge painting and street furniture replacement have not been unusual, though. 'To us it's a medium size job. It takes in a service area, which makes it a little different.' The slip- roads were closed for two nights, forcing drivers to hold full bladders. But, other than the lower than normal accident rate, 'it's run of the mill stuff'.

Granada finished filming last weekend. There is still three weeks' resurfacing work to be done on the M6, but in line with Agency stipulations the road had to be cleared for holiday traffic. Perhaps they finished filming too soon. Work will not be complete until after Blackpool's illuminations are switched on. John Pennington, Lancashire County Council manager for the region's motorway network, says that this event will generate 'vast traffic flows'. The overlap could have made interesting viewing.

The first episode of Motorway Lives goes out on the ITV network this Saturday at 8.30pm.

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