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Closing the loop

More than 40 years in the making, the UK's largest orbital motorway box bar London's M25 opens this week. It will benefit not only Mancunian commuters and the region's commercial traffic, but also depressed city suburbs long starved of efficient communica

Golfers playing the Denton course in Greater Manchester are boasting improved scorecards, courtesy of a significantly shortened fourth hole. On roads around the golf course thousands of Mancunian motorists are about to enjoy a much quicker journey to work.

In nearby traffic-choked Aston under Lyne local businesses are gearing up for an unprecedented boost in trade as their town - long remote from the region's main highways - is instantly plugged into the nation's motorway network.

A few kilometres away, in the centre of a newly created roundabout, the Roxy Cinema has added a seventh screen to cater for an expected rush of extra customers. And just down the road, construction engineers are worrying about the welfare of a flock of Canada geese.

All these seemingly unconnected activities are being triggered by just one event: this week's opening of the region's first major highway scheme in thirty years - Manchester's outer ring road.

Conceived in the 1920s, planned in the 1940s and built - piecemeal - over the last 40 years, this 56km motorway box around the city encompasses ingredients even more diverse than the locally produced Coronation Street soap stories.

Opening of the final 17km eastern link, to seal the ring of three previously separate motorways, comes seriously late and over budget. Final construction should have been complete 18 months ago and client the Highways Agency faces a total bill for main construction of at least £300M, an increase of £80M on tender prices.

But to Manchester's travelling public, and the hundreds of civil engineers who have designed and built one of the country's most challenging sections of motorway, the traffic's takeover of their construction sites will generate not just a sigh of relief but also a feeling of unqualified success.

Over the last seven years, construction teams have carved this final section through a changing mix of rural, urban, industrial and contaminated land.

They have crossed peat bogs helped by an innovative piled concrete raft. They have built the largest earth dam in two decades and encountered unexpectedly weak ground, uncharted underground gas tanks and Grim's Ditch, a Roman fortification.

They have moved or remodelled five golf courses, endured the region's wettest weather on record and pacified teams of environmental protesters from treetop ecowarriors to Mrs Conroy and her contaminationsuited children.

And the result, the largest motorway ring road outside London's M25, is expected to bring 'incalculable' transport and economic benefits to a region already boasting both the country's densest motorway network and vast areas of run down city suburbs.

'The route and its challenges could not have been more varied, ' says Stephen Edwards, the Highways Agency's project manager for this closing easterly link.

'We have had to thread it just metres from dense housing and major factories, across an environmentally sensitive country park and through the middle of Manchester's major water storage reservoirs.'

The extent of this technical challenge, for just the final third of what is a vast motorway box right around the city, owes much to the fact that this closing section was the only one definitively planned as a ring road. All the rest started life as individual local bypasses of Manchester's outer suburbs or as short sections of motorway planned primarily for purposes other than the city's orbital ring.

Initial murmurings about an outer ring road were made in a 1926 report, long before the word motorway even entered the dictionary. Two decades later, a crucial 4.5km tract of land on the congested eastern side of the city was preserved for a future orbital road.

But it was the early 1970s before any definite plan was drawn up to form a ring of the several separate motorways dotted around Greater Manchester.

With the transpennine M62 forming the northern side of the motorway box; the M63 the western and southern arm and the M66 occupying the south eastern corner, attention focused on the eastern suburbs - an area singularly devoid of any major orbital transport corridor.

Mouchel, the HA's consultant for this eastern section, drew up seven alternative routes. But all had the same finite end points and all had to accommodate the plethora of long established, heavily trafficked routes into the city that would have to cross whichever route was chosen.

Towns like Middleton, Chadderton and Ashton under Lyne, though lacking direct motorway links, now form the hub of important east-west commuting routes into Manchester. These could tolerate only minor interference during the carving of any virgin north-south motorway over or beneath them.

The HA's design strategy was to remove from main motorway contracts as many of these crossing radial routes and other 'obstructions' as possible. The result was that over a third of the total £280M planned overall scheme cost was awarded as advance works.

Over 60% of the route is screened by environmental bunds with some £1.5M worth of landscape architecture helping to integrate the motorway into its diverse surroundings. 'And where it crosses major radial roads we have converted the interchanges into ornamental gateways for neighbouring communities, ' says Albert Bertram, partner with landscape architect Bertram Hyde.

On one of the most complex sections, the 9km between the River Medlock and Middleton, three major road crossings plus rail and canal tunnels were packaged as a separate £50M advance contract awarded to a Miller/ Kier joint venture. Elsewhere several large drains, a 2km diversion of Manchester's main water supply aqueduct from the Lake District's Haweswater and a new 27km pipeline bringing additional supplies from Derbyshire, were all completed ahead of the main works.

This left three major motorway contracts. Where the northernmost end of the new link ties into the existing M62 motorway network, a 2km dead end length of what was the M66 when completed in the 1970s was widened by Costain and a new interchange formed.

From this interchange, the two virgin motorway contracts, one let to Balfour Beatty, the other to an Amec/Alfred McAlpine joint venture, have shoehorned the generally four lane road 15km southward to link into the existing M66 at Denton.

At outline planning stage in the 1970s, the expectation was that this eastern gap would be sealed and the link open by the early 1990s. But there were setbacks from the outset.

Route complexity demanded two lengthy public inquiries.

These, plus a national moratorium on new road building just before the 1997 general election, delayed the final contract start by about a year.

Once under way, a combination of those all too common delaying factors - bad weather and unexpected ground conditions - caused more hold ups.

Ever-wet Manchester offered its worst summers on record and played havoc with muckshifting.

And the generally glacial till ground yielded less suitable fill material than expected for the vast earth dam needed at Audenshaw reservoir.

Early completion of overbridges fullfilled the equally important aim of using, from the outset, the motorway trace itself as the main site haul road. This minimised the effects of some 6Mm 3of earthworks on surrounding local roads, freeing them from several hundred thousand environmentally damaging lorry movements.

Even so, contract delays, ranging from four months on Balfour Beatty's Contract 3 to 15 months on the advance crossings and 18 months on Amec/McAlpine's Contract 1, triggered critical questioning by MPs in the House of Commons and considerably increased the link's outturn price tag.

Widening the existing M66 (Contract 4) ended up £11M over its £19M tender. The advance works (Contract 2) will outturn some £30M above its £50M bid figure. And the most delayed job, Contract 1 which included the new dam at Audenshaw, is expected to be some £40M above the £101M tender.

But despite this roughly £80M additional price tag, Edwards stresses that the end result is a ring road of 'immense value' to Manchester and the North West .

'Considering the complexity of this final link, I think overall it has gone quite well, ' he says.

'And with all these challenges now behind us, the complete motorway box will not only ease serious congestion and dramatically improve commuter journeys, it will also trigger economic regeneration in several of Manchester's most deprived areas.'

Edwards points to at least four multi-million pound business parks planned or already being built close to the new motorway route. And his HA colleague, area manager Neil Hewitt, in charge of the overall ring road, expects 'substantial ' reduction in traffic on some of the city's key radial routes.

'The road will immediately attract on average over 80,000 vehicles a day and several existing radial routes should experience up to 30% traffic reduction.'

Hewitt estimates, adding cautiously: 'It will not be the total answer to the region's traffic problems, but should ease even the motorway network to the west of the city where 9km long peak hour jams are common.'

But for construction rather than traffic engineers, the new ring road leaves another important message: the success for the Highways Agency of its design and build tendering policy over standard 'confrontational' ICE 5 contract forms.

Noticeably bottom in the project's league table of cost and time overruns is Balfour Beatty's Contact 3; the only one awarded on a design and build basis. All four contracts were planned as conventional ICE 5 deals, and three were awarded on this basis. But the delayed start of Contract 3 coincided with the HA's policy decision to move to design and build tendering. And the contract became the agency's first to be tendered with two envelope bidding, one outlining quality, the other price.

Edwards claims that the notably successful D&B contract can be compared with the ICE 5 tendered Contract 1 which faced 'generally similar challenges' but which overran nearly 50% on both time and cost.

'The combination of D&B with partnering really did allow us all to work as one team and solve problems together, ' he maintains. 'But the ICE 5 contract conditions lend themselves to confrontation and both sides tended to argue their own corner, with the contractor waiting for us to make decisions.'

Other participants in this contract disagree, claiming that the requirement to built a large earth dam, as well as a road, make comparisons inappropriate.

The bald results are interesting though. Contract 1 ended up 18 months late, with up to £40M extra on the client's bill. Contract 3 was delayed just four months and, being D&B, cost the client negligibly more.

Balfour Beatty is tight-lipped over the price of its own problems, though these are reliably put at around £5M extra.

'The success to us of the D&B contract undoubtedly minimised overall delays and has helped the project recover lost time, ' Edwards concludes. 'Had it been awarded under ICE 5 we could easily have been waiting up to another year for Manchester's ring road to open.'

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