In the 10 years since the Highways Agency started operating England’s strategic roads network there have been some significant changes. Jon Masters reports.
Later this year a new IT system is due to come into operation at the Highways Agency’s National Traffic Operations Centre (NTOC). The new hardware and software will give the Agency a lot more capacity for data analysis - the number crunching that is building capability for doing things such as predicting when and where road traffic incidents are likely to occur.
The switch over to a new system comes at a notable point: it is 10 years since the Agency embarked on a significant shift in the way it works, focusing on network operations, customer service and keeping traffic moving.
It was partly the debacle which resulted in abandoned vehicles and stranded motorists during severe snowstorms in 2003 that prompted the Agency to recruit teams of traffic officers and led to the 2004 Traffic Management Act granting them statutory powers to direct traffic.
The Act, which was also driven by issues of coordinating utility streetworks, came into force in October 2004, but the key date for the Agency was 26 April 2004, because it was then that the first traffic officers started working on England’s strategic road network, initially without statutory powers alongside traffic police.
Although the traffic officers are a very visible symbol of the changes that were made in 2004, Highways Agency traffic management director Simon Sheldon-Wilson says this year marks the tenth anniversary of the Agency becoming a network operator.
“Information gathering, control centres and the traffic officer service out on the road do not operate independently of one another”
Simon Sheldon-Wilson, Highways Agency
The first move towards operating rather than just building and maintaining the network arguably came in 2001 - the year it formerly established a National Traffic Control Centre (NTCC) at Quinton, west of Birmingham, under a 10-year PFI arrangement.
NTOC is essentially the same facility, but now with a different name and coordinating a wider range of services.
In 2011, a new seven-year contract for operating the Agency’s national Traffic Information Service was awarded to National Information Services (NIS), a joint venture between Thales UK and Mouchel.
The name change came with the new contract, as does the modernisation and expansion of the IT platform at NTOC. “The thing to recognise is that information gathering, control centres and the traffic officer service out on the road do not operate independently of one another. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts in terms of operating capability,” says Sheldon-Wilson.
About 1,450 of the Agency’s total staff of 3,500 work within Sheldon-Wilson’s traffic management directorate. As of June this year 1,022 were traffic officers out on the road, and 308 were based in the Agency’s seven regional control centres.
This directorate has had the task of finding cost efficiencies, while improving response times and journey time reliability.
The directorate’s budget has fallen from £140M in 2009/10 to £90M in 2014/15. “The savings have come from the change to the new NIS contract and changes to the way the traffic officers operate on the network,” Sheldon-Wilson says.
“We have cut patrol operating costs, by letting the traffic officer head count reduce naturally with retirements and by using more intelligence on where to place vehicles rather than continuously patrolling. Single man patrols are provided by those that volunteer and are appropriately qualified.”
By far the biggest part of the traffic management directorate’s budget is spent on traffic officers and control centre running costs, but investments have also been made.
“If we don’t invest to improve, then we effectively lose the benefits in traffic flow brought by capital investment in ‘smart motorways’,” Sheldon-Wilson says.
Smart motorways are the latest incarnation of what started out as “controlled motorway” on the M25, with mandatory variable speed limits set according to traffic speeds measured via detection loops.
“When we started the service in 2004 we worked closely with the police to understand what roles, responsibilities and powers the traffic officers could take on”
Simon Sheldon-Wilson, Highways Agency
Active traffic management (ATM) took this a lot further, with the introduction of hard shoulder running activated at peak times on the M42. The success of ATM led to more stretches of “managed motorway” - as it became - and the gathering of more traffic and safety data.
Smart motorways is the result: essentially operation of motorways with hard shoulder converted to be permanently used as an extra running lane during busy periods.
The Agency operates these managed and smart motorways, and trunk roads and motorways in general, from the regional control centres. NTOC deals with strategic management of the whole network across England.
The overriding priority is keeping it all moving. “There are usually about 6,000 live lane incidents every month; 93% of them are dealt with by traffic officers without the need of emergency services,” Sheldon-Wilson says. “Our focus is on responding and clearing incidents to get the network back fully as quickly as possible.
“When we started the service in 2004 we worked closely with the police to understand what roles, responsibilities and powers the traffic officers could take on.
“A national guidance framework was produced to describe the traffic officers’ role and what would remain with the police,” he adds. “By and large that remains the same, but we’ve become much better at doing what we said we would do.”Recent additions include load cells in all patrol cars to allow them to tow heavy vehicles; and patrols have been equipped with spill kits and incident screens, and flashing lights and bull horns for getting through traffic. “We are also rolling out the capability to right overturned vehicles,” Sheldon-Wilson adds.
“For the other 7% of incidents we have the NVR [national vehicle recovery] service contract. Traffic officers have statutory powers to arrange for removal or recovery of vehicles.”
The Agency has led the multi-agency Collision, Lead, Evaluate and Reopen (CLEAR) initiative on behalf of the Department for Transport, a project focused on how major incidents can be dealt with and cleared as quickly as possible.
“The information we’re gathering is giving us a lot more intelligence on what we can do to reduce incidents and clear-up time”
Simon Sheldon-Wilson, Highways Agency
“This could be about where a fire engine is positioned to allow us to get a lane open, or quicker assessment of the scene,” explains Sheldon-Wilson. “We’ve paid for about 100 laser scanners for the police to use for their investigations. This speeds up the total clear-up time by about 45 minutes.
“CLEAR is not just about the immediacy of the scene,” he adds. “It’s also about getting all agencies to think about the impacts of long road closures and diversions on other motorists and local communities and emergency services as well. The focus is on relieving those pressures.”
Other Agency initiatives involve trying to stop incidents happening in the first place. Prevention activities have included investment in Fresnel lenses to be handed out to left hand drive HGVs by police and the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA).
Around 40,000 of these blind spot visibility lenses have been given out - reducing side-swipe incidents involving left hand drive HGVs from an average of 26 to 11 per week, according to a VOSA report on a study in Kent.
The Agency has invested in observation sites for DVSA to use, and this year funded the vehicle and equipment of Operation Tramline, a three month pilot project led by Surrey Police with five other police forces, involving use of an unmarked HGV tractor unit to tackle illegal behaviour by commercial drivers.
“These are just a couple of examples of how we are trying to prevent incidents,” Sheldon-Wilson says. “The results are often very hard to measure. The amount we spend on preventative work is very small compared to responding to incidents. Given the huge costs of clearing up major accidents, particularly those involving HGVs, it can be seen that it’s worth a relatively small investment in preventative measures.”
There are some things the Agency can measure. It has eight key performance indicators for response time for different types of incident type and weight of traffic. On heavily trafficked roads, the clearance KPI is 85% cleared within 30 minutes. “We continue to achieve this,” says Sheldon-Wilson.
“We now measure average incident duration. We’re looking to understand this measure more, and what we can do to drive it down. One of the challenges we have is understanding where the next incident might occur.”
For this the Agency needs a lot of data and computing power. The new servers and software are partly about bringing the system up to date, but will also give more capacity.
NTOC currently handles about 25 terabytes of data every day, but that figure is increasing daily by 10Gb. Once upgraded to the new IT platform, it will process 38M traffic data updates per day.
“The information we’re gathering is giving us a lot more intelligence on what we can do to reduce incidents and clear-up time, such as spotting where and when there’s a high likelihood of caravans overturning and then giving owners advice,” Sheldon-Wilson says.
“There’s a lot we can do around prevention and engineering to make the network safer and more reliable.”