Efforts to relieve congestion on England's motorways undergo a step change this April, when uniformed Highways Agency traffic officers take on police duties. Mark Hansford finds out what it will mean, kicking off NCE's highways special.
Only chancellor Gordon Brown can know whether this summer's comprehensive spending review will see vital roads schemes axed as transport spending is diverted into health, education and the crumbling railways.
But one thing is certain to all - making the best of what we have remains the best and fastest way of relieving congestion. And with incidents responsible for 25% of all congestion on the Highways Agency network, improving the management of these incidents is an obvious move.
'Over the last six months, every day there has been a carriageway closed somewhere on the network as the result of an incident, ' says Highways Agency national traffic director David York.
'And when it's a fatal accident, the average time for clearance is five hours. Research has shown that if you close a carriageway on key routes like the M6 or M25, the cost to the nation is £250,000/h.
That's a lot of time and a lot of public money wasted.'
This explains why the Highways Agency is so passionately excited about its new traffic manager role: 'This is the biggest change the Agency has seen since it was formed 10 years ago, ' states York.
'We are becoming an operational organisation 24-7, and that is something no one at the Agency has seen before.'
Taking centre stage in the new role will be a 1,200 strong force of uniformed Highways Agency traffic officers, who will patrol Britain's motorways 24 hours a day. When an accident occurs, traffic officers will be on the scene to work with the police to clear the road as quickly as possible.
'Our officers will be totally focused on keeping traffic flowing, ' says York.
Support for the patrolling officers will come in three ways.
First, they will be directed by seven regional control centres staffed jointly by the Agency and police, who receive roadside calls and operate variable message signs.
'The key reasons for any failure, as in anything in life, are communication and boundary issues. At present, there are 30 police traffic control centres. We are going down to seven, ' says York. 'This will significantly reduce the boundary issues.'
Second, the traffic officers will themselves direct the Agency's managing agent contractors (MACs), whose roles have been evolving over the last year so that they can provide the necessary support.
The MACs provide the Agency with an army of rapid response teams to do the physical clearance work, equipped with an army of 120 incident support vehicles (ISV).
Much has been made of the Agency's recent move to stop contractors branding the ISVs with their own liveries (NCE 7 August 2003). But these ISVs will soon be under an intense public spotlight, and the Agency is determined that the public sees a united effort.
Backing up the whole process is the National Traffic Control Centre in Birmingham. This opened in December and its key role is to provide better information to road users (see box).
But the real focus is on the officers themselves. The issue is already causing controversy with the Traffic Management Bill, the enabling legislation that would give the Agency's officers the powers they need to carry out the role, getting a rough ride through the House of Commons.
At its second reading last month, 128 ministers voted to scrap the plans as fears were raised that they were being rushed through too fast, the officers would lack sufficient training and that vital police work would be compromised.
This is not so, explains York.
'The success of this new role depends on our partnership with the police. But it is obvious that the police would rather offload traffic management and concentrate on crime.
'The transfer of responsibility for traffic management will not in any way change the need for the police to do at-scene investigations. The decision on whether the police need to turn up or not will be a police decision taken from the regional centres, ' says York.
He believes it will quickly become clear what kind of incidents the police will need to be involved in, and for minor shunts the traffic officers and MACs will come into their own.
'The MACs are very interested and excited, ' says York. 'Quick clearance will be a driver and it will change the gear.'
But even on larger incidents, where a police presence is essential, York still sees a benefit in having a traffic officer on the scene.
'The police will have an additional resource - they will have people thinking about vehicle recovery. Now, there will be no time wasted. If you can just shave 30 minutes off a five hour closure, that's a big improvement.'
The Agency has set a 5% reduction in incident related congestion as its first target.
'And I think that's modest, ' says York. 'Accurate VMS will be a big factor, but we are confident we can do that.'
So what changes will the public see on 1 April, when the Agency's officers are due to roll out of their depots for the first time?
Well, probably not many, for two good reasons.
The bill has yet to be approved by parliament, and second, the Agency has opted to phase roll out on a regional basis.
Only the Midlands will go live in April, and even then it will be a steady transition. 'Liveried Highways Agency traffic officers will patrol the network, but they will have limited powers, ' says York. 'Until the bill becomes an Act they can't close off traffic lanes and can't direct traffic. So there will probably be a six month transition.'
Other regions - North West, South and East - will follow in April 2005. The remaining regions - South West, East Midlands and North East - follow later in 2005.
Information super highway
The opening of the National Traffic Control Centre (NTCC) in Birmingham marked the end of a lengthy project that will offer a step change in the quality and quantity of information the Highways Agency can provide to its customers.
Hundreds of new loop detectors and cameras have been installed nationally so that for the first time the Agency can collect real-time traffic flow information across the entire motorway network.
Which, of course, means the Agency can provide real-time advice.
This begins this month when real-time advice that at present is only available to the media for traffic and travel bulletins becomes available to all on the Agency website.
All very well before you set off, but what about updating motorists already in their cars? Well, that's covered too.
'Part of the project was to install strategic variable message signs (VMS) across the entire motorway network at key decision points such as M25 junctions with the M1, M4 and M40, ' says York.
If there are problems on the M1, the signs will direct motorists onto the M40 instead. 'So motorists will get long distance, strategic advice, ' adds York.
'The single biggest criticism of the motorway network we get is lack of info, ' says York. 'One of the real opportunities that comes from the NTCC and the regional control centres is that we can start to concentrate on getting the VMS accurate and putting useful information on them.'
York has scoured the globe for best practice and is keen to adopt the Australian approach, where VMS give real-time estimated travel times. This could even be followed up with the Japanese approach, where a 'roads timetable' is published annually giving predicted travel times along routes according to the time of travel.
And there are even thoughts of a Highways Agency radio station which would kick in and interrupt programmes when there is an incident to report.
'It all starts to become possible, and that's the big change, ' says York. 'We're moving from simply providing the asset to becoming a service provider, and its pretty exciting stuff.'