The traffic management plan recently completed to prevent 'gridlock' on Devon and Cornwall's roads over the period of the eclipse is about to be put to the test.
Recent studies have revealed that Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday are the critical days when the vast majority of eclipse seekers will travel. Tailbacks could become so bad that police could close roads and turn travellers back. A blockade is a scenario that the traffic management partners - the Highways Agency, Devon and Cornwall Police and Devon and Cornwall County Councils - are very unwilling to contemplate in public. They claim their most effective weapon will be the intelligence of drivers to make that decision themselves.
Highways Agency South West area manager David Wright says: 'Our job is tell drivers how long the queues are and give them the opportunity to turn round. Given the opportunity to turn round from a massive tailback, some would probably take it, wouldn't they? The police will close roads and turn people round if public safety is threatened. But that might be because the South West is running out of water or simply full up.'
Wright's view that the best traffic managers are the drivers themselves is backed by Cornwall's eclipse co-ordinator Gage Williams, who says: 'Traffic is self regulating, people will simply turn around voluntarily if the tailbacks get too bad.'
The Eclipse Traffic Centre in Exeter will keep motorists informed of just how bad things are getting (NCE 15 July). A media centre has been built next door to disseminate any bad news far and wide immediately. The BBC, Sky, local radio stations and Metro networks - who do weather and traffic updates for the BBC - will be perfectly placed to report on up to the minute progress and interview key players in the control room if a major congestion story breaks on the South West's roads.
Devon County Council is encouraging drivers to tune into the airwaves by putting up 44 new signs throughout the county giving radio frequencies of both the BBC and commercial local radio stations. But if drivers ignore the real time information warning them of heavy queues as far back as the Midlands and the M25, then diversion routes onto county roads have been prepared to keep traffic moving. The prime diversion would be to reroute traffic from the A303, which is the main arterial road into Cornwall, onto the old A30 which runs parallel, but there are 40 diversion routes planned altogether, involving some of the more scenic routes in the region. Temporary diversion signs are ready to go up.
The Highways Agency's Wright says: 'We have manuals of longstanding diversion routes but there are others which have been specially developed for the eclipse.'
Work has been carried out on the seven traditional bottlenecks along the route to Cornwall to ease the traffic jams which in the past have led to traffic chaos on the August bank holiday weekend as 270,000 vehicles struggle in and out of the county. Work has included rerouting local side road traffic away from the Innis Downs Roundabout near Bodmin to ease flow for through traffic; installing a gyratory system where the A38 meets the A390 to Lostwithiel; and a creating a second lane on the M5 for cars to exit onto the A30 at Junction 31. 'There are sometimes 10 mile queues there, perhaps even more,' says Wright.
Other measures to unclog the roads include a total suspension of road maintenance for three weeks leading up to E-day and one week after, to help eclipse travellers even more.
'The only thing that might take place is night time emergency repairs,' says Wright.
Once in Cornwall, drivers will face the challenge of negotiating small country roads. The second message, after 'Come early, stay long, leave late' is: 'Try to stay in your hotel/camp site to watch the eclipse'. Cornwall County Council will not be offering park and ride facilities after underwriting a park and ride scheme for the Falmouth Tall Ships event last summer. Despite visitor numbers reaching 120,000 on one day, only 15 of the 55 park and ride buses were used.
Other plans to keep cars moving into Devon and Cornwall include:
An extra 21 trains a day to be laid on by Great Western Trains. Recent reports suggest that services are alreadly booked up for the eclipse week.
Supermarket chain Somerfield will provide up to 15 home deliveries per vehicle if local roads become too blocked up. A fleet of 350 home delivery vehicles will be equipped with the Traffic Master system to give drivers alternative routes.
The majority of road hauliers and distributors have agreed to make all deliveries at night to limit congestion during the days leading up to and after the eclipse.
Road maintenance company Cormac will be redeploying 370 recovery vehicles to act as 'minutemen' on the roads. They aim to allow no broken down vehicle to remain on the road for more than one minute.