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Corridor of power

Britain’s motorways are 50. Who better to celebrate the anniversary with than the head of the Highways Agency Graham Dalton, who reflects on their history and ponders the future with Ed Owen.

The opening of the Preston Bypass 50 years ago on 5 December 1958 marked the first stage in a programme that has seen over 3,200km of motorway built throughout the UK.

Today it is hard to envisage taking a journey of any significant distance without using a motorway, yet the entire network has been developed within the lifetime of many engineers working today. We have all seen films from the 1960s and 1970s where new motorways are pristine and virtually empty – incredible compared to today's often congested and overcrowded routes. But according to Highways Agency chief executive Graham Dalton, much of society's change over the last 50 years has been down to the motorways themselves.

"They have supported some big changes to the economy and to people's lives," he says.

"They have allowed people to follow work opportunities that they would not have otherwise have been able to; enabled recreation that people would not otherwise have been able to do; and enabled business and commerce to move around far more simply and reliably than was previously the case.

"Travel was extended to an extent that was barely foreseeable, and it stimulated huge economic growth," he says.

Dalton says the greatest triumph of the motorway is that it exists at all. "There are some Eastern European states, and even some mainstream states, such as Greece, where they are still going through a defined programme of building a network. Motorways are assets a nation decides it needs, and then goes on to build."

Here in the UK, we are at quite a different point, says Dalton. "More established states, where you have mature networks, are eking more capacity out of it and worry about maintaining them."

Empty roads have been replaced by busy roads, replaced by congested roads. Dalton's challenge is not to build, but to manage – and to do this within new constraints set by concerns for the environment.

"Looking at transport in the 21st century, there is a recognition that all modes are congested to some degree," he says. "The modes are not competing against each other, but are part of a large integrated system. "The world is recognising that transport has a substantial impact on the environment.

There is less differentiation between modes, but the simple choice to travel has some impact. "That means we are not likely to be going around carving new corridors, new routes through the countryside. We are in a world where, regardless of whether it is road or rail, we are trying to get the most out of the corridors we've got. For the motorways specifically, money is going into improvements, refinements and small scale interventions," he adds, reeling off a list of successful schemes that have all made an important impact on congestion such as Junction 4 of the M40 and the M4/A34 junction.

This is today. For tomorrow, Dalton is clear that control of traffic on motorways will increase, and the use of Active Traffic Management (ATM), or hard-shoulder running, will become the norm. As he sees it, you only use 75% of the available road – why not 100%?

"It [ATM] seems like quite a good answer," he says. "It keeps costs down, is substantially quicker to deliver, and has much lower environmental impact than widening. On the whole, just to get throughput, ATM is a bit of a no-brainer."

So should we expect ATM on some part of all motorway journeys in, say, 10 years? Geoff Hoon announced £300M will be ploughed into new ATM projects in the new year. "In a good deal less than that I hope," says Dalton. "In the next four to five years, I'm hoping that we will have certainly the most congested sections of the M1 and M6, and bits of the M3 and M4, all with installed ATM schemes.

"In five years' time, drivers will feel a distinct difference between a controlled motorway and an uncontrolled one. Measured evidence says this [ATM] makes journeys more reliable."

To jump further in the future, Dalton shifts his attention away from physical measures to technological measures to beat congestion. He explains that on a journey there is always an element of chance, and your chosen route may turn out to be a disaster. "We want to have it so the drivers do not have to play these games with themselves," he says. "Congestion is a bit of a lottery at the moment, and the objective has to be to move on from there."

To do this, faster and more reliable information will be collected, processed and fed back to drivers. But it is not just a case of the driver being warned there is a tailback ahead; Dalton wants drivers to alter their journeys before they leave home.

"The ability to get flow information before a journey is pretty good now," he says. "The next step is to get that to drivers in the vehicle, and to do this on a selective and timely basis. At the moment you get neither, except a few very localised subscription services.

"Getting the data is easy. But the question is what you do with it, and whether you charge for it. We are talking to ministers about this at the moment. We want to get the balance between providing information to everyone, and getting benefit to everyone, but leaving some scope for the private sector – like TomTom or Trafficmaster."

Dalton is less able to predict how far into the future this takes us, but he thinks it will be sooner than we expect. Beyond this, do we even need to drive our cars? Or are automatic cars just a short step away? "For how many years do we need road signs?" he questions. "You could have the kit in the car. Do you need to steer them? Look at technology now: Citröen and a few others have a lane warning device that looks at the white line and warns if the vehicle strays. There is another, on I think Mercedes, that offers adaptive cruise control."

Dalton is pragmatic, and says his job is to steer his way through a combination of factors. "The skill and challenge is for us to deliver a trunk road and motorway network that can accommodate the demands placed upon it, reflect technology and the way it changes, and reflect the demand, and reflect the variability of funds," he says.

"I think about it as any other asset – I don't get excited about bridges and blacktop. It's an important asset, it supports the economy of the country and, as long as it does, we have to manage it in the best way we can. If there is a day that comes when the world decides it doesn't need motorways any more, then that's fine."

ROAD TO SUCCESS GRAHAM DALTON’S CV

  • After completing his degree in civil engineering and after finishing his early training, Dalton joined consultant Mouchel in 1988 as a principal engineer working in the UK and abroad, including Qatar and Kuwait.

  • From 1995 to 2001, Dalton worked for Bovis Lend Lease Consulting.

  • Dalton was appointed Director, Projects for the Strategic Rail Authority in 2001 and transferred to the Department for Transport in 2005.

  • Dalton succeeded Archie Robertson, who left the Highways Agency after completing a fixed term contract.

  • Dalton is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

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