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Managed motorways: Refining the art

The next generation of managed motorways will make use of research into driver behaviour and information from the initial trials to refine the methodology. Jackie Whitelaw reports.

In the next few months drivers at junction 5 of the M42 will be the first in the country to try the rather Hollywood sounding experience of “Through Junction Running”.

It’s not Will Smith in a futuristic action thriller but, in simple terms, means that motorists driving on the hard shoulder as part of the managed motorway will be able to stay on the hard shoulder all the way past the junction, rather than having to either turn off, or get out into lane one.

To achieve this the engineers at the Highways Agency involved in research and producing guidance have had to work out how to make it clear to drivers what they are supposed to do, and make sure that they can do it safely.

“The issue has been how do we adapt an existing motorway for use as a managed motorway, and how do we build the case in terms of safety. We have to look at the potential new hazards. ”

Ginny Clarke, Highways Agency

“In brief, we are shortening the nosing at the junction,” says chief highways engineer Ginny Clarke, under whose remit this falls. The diagram (see below) explains how it will work. But to get to this point there has had to be a lot of research and simulation of driver behaviour in order to satisfy the Agency’s high safety standards.

It has been like that all along with the managed motorway development process. “The issue has been how do we adapt an existing motorway for use as a managed motorway, and how do we build the case in terms of safety,” Clarke says. “We have to look at the potential new hazards.”

The good news coming out of the M42 pilot is that safety is much better under a managed regime than on the normal motorway.

“Most incidents on a normal motorway are caused by poor lane discipline,” Clarke says.

Chief highways engineer Ginny Clarke

Chief highways engineer Ginny Clarke

“Drivers swapping lanes suddenly or diving across to get to a junction. What is happening with active traffic management is you get less of these incidents because drivers are operating in a more controlled environment.

“You could have thought we’d get more incidents because there is an extra lane and so more opportunity. But we’ve had a lot less and the percentage of injury accidents have dropped enormously.”

The Agency, she says, was very cautious when it set out to see if it could use the hard shoulder as an alternative to motorway widening. There are instruction gantries and emergency refuges every 500m on the M42 and the speed limit when hard shoulder running is in operation initially started at 50mph − although it is now 60mph. On the next generation of managed motorways, gantry and refuge spacing has increased to 800m as it has become apparent that people understand the system, respond to the instructions and are making it to the refuges if there is a problem with their car.

Better than convention

Even if there is a breakdown on the hard shoulder, then the gantry instructions can close the lane and direct people round the problem with plenty of notice. It’s all working much better than the conventional highway.

“But we had to be conservative to start with,” Clarke says. “We need people to have confidence in us as an operator − after all we carry one third of all traffic and two thirds of all freight. Reputation is important.”

“There are safety benefits to staying at 60mph when traffic is heavy in terms of controlling, spacing, and bunching. And there are environmental benefits too. Emissions go up as speeds get higher.”

Ginny Clarke, Highways Agency

But Clarke says the 60mph limit is unlikely to increase to 70mph: “It’s difficult to say never because we are learning all the time about how drivers operate. But there are safety benefits to staying at 60mph when traffic is heavy in terms of controlling, spacing, and bunching. And there are environmental benefits too. Emissions go up as speeds get higher.”

Clarke is looking forward to seeing the innovations that the delivery partners will bring to the next stage of the managed motorway programme. “With gantries, for instance, we’ve set the design standard but we are open to the supply chain coming forward with ideas. On the one hand we want standardisation for procurement efficiency, but on the other we want some innovation.”

Second, third and fourth tier suppliers are going to be crucial in this, she says. “The guys who design the signals and the product suppliers and manufacturers are where the innovations will be. We’ll need to see that our delivery partners have good relations with them.”

Clarke has help in the search for innovation, and for efficiency from the supply chain. In her team is divisional director for lean improvement Derek Drysdale.

“Lean simply means doing the job right and removing waste from the process,” he says. “We’ve been into continuous improvement for some time, this is the latest iteration. The Japanese call it the ‘passion for perfection’.

“I’d expect, in terms of lean, to get up to 5% year-on-year improvements, which means we can do more from the same budget, so it benefits everyone involved − the Agency and its supply chain.”

Drysdale points to the work Carillion has been doing for the Birmingham Box (see ‘Keep on running’) as the way to go for suppliers.

“Lean simply means doing the job right and removing waste from the process. The Japanese call it the ‘passion for perfection’.”

Derek Drysdale, Highways Agency

“Constructing standardised gantries in warehouses to improve speed, safety, quality and where we can measure and map the assembly process has been excellent,” he says. “And from there, they are rolled out to the motorway fully assembled and plugged in after just a 12 minute closure. What Carillion has been doing is ground breaking and we want more of it.”

The evidence in favour of investing time in lean improvement came from the M6 Carlisle to Guardsmill project, where Drysdale was major projects director.

“Again, with Carillion, we made £5M of improvements in the logistics of earthmoving for instance − less vehicle movement meant less money spent, and less carbon emissions. And on the 1,500 piles we needed, the devil was in the detail − especially the piling. A few changes to them meant the piles slotted in first time not after two or three go’s!”

Ideas for the improvements came from the workforce and that’s a critical point, Drysdale says. “This is not aimed at senior management but at the people doing the work.”

divisional director for lean improvement Derek Drysdale

Divisional director for lean improvement Derek Drysdale

However the senior management do need to be committed to innovation and improvement and the best way is to incentivise them through the contract (see ‘Take your partners’).

“Lean will be driven by strong competition in the supply chain. The challenge to suppliers is to embrace lean,” says Drysdale.

“It’s not a threat, we want you to go to continuous improvement and will work with you, and look to improve ourselves too. We are looking at our own processes, including traffic management during works for the managed motorway for instance. “And very importantly, we need to see the bosses engaged in this, supporting the workforce.”

The Agency has experienced the scenario in the past where company bosses say all the right things at bid stage but forget about it once the deal is signed. “One metaphor we use is that they know the words to the song but can’t remember the tune. On the managed motorways we all need to remember the tune.”

Going Dutch

Shoulder to shoulder with the Netherlands

Managing traffic

Managing traffic : The Agency and the Dutch extensively use traffic control centres

The Highways Agency has been walking hand in hand into the world of managed motorways with its Dutch counterpart the Rijkswaterstaat. Both England and Holland have similar traffic problems in terms of a hugely congested system and public reluctance to build more roads or even widen them.

“On an average day,” says Dutch traffic management pioneer and technical director of transportation at Grontmij in the Netherlands Frans de Haes “we have 200km to 300km of queuing. We need traffic management not to get rid of the queuing but to give people reliable journey times.”

Roadside cameras, control centres, gantries giving instruction, and controlled speed limits are the norm across the motorway network in Holland. And the Dutch were the first to try hard shoulder running, on the A27 at Utrecht.

But they have fought shy of using it intensely, opting instead for “plus lanes”, narrow lanes on the outside of the carriageway that can be opened at peak times to create capacity while at the same time reducing the speed limit for the whole motorway for safety. This creates the disconcerting sight of queues of cars waiting in this plus lane two to three minutes before it opens each morning and evening at the peak hour.

“There is a big discussion in Holland over whether we should use the hard shoulder more,” says Hubert Habib, the divisional director of transportation for Grontmij in the Netherlands, one of the companies advising the Dutch highways agency. “We are interested to see how intense use of the hard shoulder will work out in England. The philosophy in Holland has so far been that the network should be sufficient and the hard shoulder used only occasionally.”

With both countries learning from each other it is interesting to note that the Dutch are now moving to what Grontmij’s UK and Ireland director of transportation Ernst Malipaard calls “built environment management”. This involves modelling the impact of traffic management on the major routes on the smaller roads and in particular the routes into the town centres.

“The biggest problem in highways is always the last two and a half kilometres when drivers try to get into the town centre,” he says. “We realised that we needed to look at more than just the highway, but the whole area. And management of this is only possible with the technology installed for active traffic management.”

Dutch towns are now sprouting park and ride multi storeys, with drivers encouraged to use them by a plethora of slow changing traffic lights that make driving into the town centres a tedious business.

The next developments include congestion charging for Amsterdam, removal of road taxes across Holland to be replaced by a pay per km system charged direct to road users, and negotiations with in-car information system manufacturers to bring traffic management information and instructions directly into individual vehicles.

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