I’ve had a nagging doubt about the M25 motorway for some time. I suppose the clues have been there - taking as standard a looping detour via Guildford, Aldershot and Bracknell to hit the M4 from south London just to avoid the Heathrow section is certainly a big one.
We in the Hansford household have been doing that for some time whenever the call comes to head west.
Things came to a head this Sunday while navigating our way home from a relaxing weekend in the Cotswolds. Now I am no transport planning expert. But when Google Maps instructs you to avoid a four (going on five) lane purpose built superhighway and instead route back via the M4 elevated section, Hammersmith gyratory and the narrow high streets of west London then alarm bells start to ring.
“The M25 situation is telling because it is about as well run and well maintained as any road is ever likely to be”
So what’s going on? Is it just me? Is it Google Maps going mad? Well no. There’s evidence. Evidence that something is indeed very much amiss with the M25 around Heathrow. It’s found buried in the deeper recesses of the government’s statistics “hub”, and is a table of how all Britain’s motorways and trunk roads are faring with regards to journey time reliability.
These stats show that the section from junction 12 to 11 now offers you just a 54% chance that your journey will be completed on time, down from 63% over the same period just a year previously. Or 63% in 2012, or 62% in 2011 (when the records began). And by completing the journey on time that’s not even by travelling at the national speed limit - it’s completing it in what the statisticians consider to be on time based on historical figures. That’s startling.
The easiest thing to do here would be to blame the government for failing to invest in a proper widening programme or accuse the Highways Agency and its PFI contractor Connect Plus for failing to maintain and operate such a crucial stretch of highway properly.
But that can’t be fair. That section of motorway was widened not much more than five years ago and is now five lanes wide through in the most congested section. So it’s had its fair share of investment. It’s also got full-on Smart Motorway variable speed limit control, and Connect Plus has been busting its targets on incident management, so it’s not down to operations either.
Now, everyone knows the M25 is not the only congested road in Britain. Those government stats show that there are plenty of other motorways and A-roads out there with far worse journey time reliability. But the M25 situation is telling because, with operations and maintenance run by Connect Plus as part of a £5bn-plus PFI, it is about as well run and well maintained as any road is ever likely to be. And telling because at five lanes wide it is as wide as any road in Europe is ever likely to be. But despite this concerted and prolonged investment it’s still not up to the job.
Which makes me think we’re not up to the job either. Surely we as innovative, intelligent engineers have to be able to come up with a better solution to road congestion than building more lane kilometres and putting more speed cameras on gantries.
The M25 proves such interventions just defer the problem. We need to fix it. Autonomous vehicles are that fix and we need to be getting properly ready - now.
Because it turns out my nagging doubt isn’t a nagging doubt at all - it is a pretty scary truth.
- Mark Hansford is NCE’s editor