The government is considering ditching motorway widening schemes in favour of the cheaper, easier hard shoulder running.
“This is a short sighted quick fix which will come back to haunt us,” said one. “Running cars on the hard shoulder where it isn’t absolutely necessary is stupid and dangerous,” said another.
“This is exactly the sort of behaviour to be expected from the Highways Agency. For years they have forced contractors to work on hard shoulders which are too narrow to work on safely. This has caused numerous incidents. Now they expect the public to climb out of their cars into the middle lane of a motorway,” said a third.
And these views seem pretty representative, with 63% of the 920 readers voting in NCE’s online poll coming out against hard shoulder running.
But, not for the first time, the industry seems at odds with the rest of society. A Highways Agency survey of more than 1,000 motorists six months into the M42 hard shoulder running trial showed that 84% were confident about using the hard shoulder as a running lane and 60% wanted to see the system elsewhere. Only 2% said they avoided using the M42.
Industry complaints focus almost exclusively on safety – and again the Agency’s own findings dismiss these fears, as the accident rate on the trial stretch fell from 5.1 a month to 1.5 a month.
As well as the decrease in accident rate, the first six months of the trial have produced other significant benefits for motorists, the environment and the economy. Using the hard shoulder in peak periods resulted in a fall in average journey times by more than 25% on the northbound carriageway and drivers’ ability to predict their weekday journey times improved by 27%. Overall fuel consumption of motorists on the M42 fell by 4% and vehicle emissions were down by up to 10%.
Faced with this weight of evidence, it is hard to argue against government and the Highways Agency when they say they intend to re-examine widening schemes to see whether some sections of motorway are suitable for hard shoulder running. And it is a lot of schemes.
The Agency’s 2008-09 business plan, published last month, reveals that 195km of widening schemes on the M1, M25 and M62 have been shelved while hard shoulder running or “Active Traffic Management” solutions are considered.
The schemes fall into the “Options” phase in the Agency’s new Project Control Framework which replaces the Targeted Programme of Improvements (TPI). The TPI was dumped after the 2007 Nichols Review of the Agency’s approach to cost estimating and project management exposed fundamental flaws.
The new framework is built around three phases: options, development and construction. Budgets are only provided to show the cost of moving a scheme through a particular phase and schemes in the options phase are now not considered to be entered into the roads programme making them vulnerable to being replaced with cheaper alternatives.
“The Highways Agency is developing a number of projects for consideration for future entry to the roads programme,” says the business plan.
“These include schemes which were previously being considered as part of the Targeted Programme of Improvements (TPI) for conventional widening, but hard shoulder running solutions are now also being examined.” These schemes include 151km of the M1 and M62 between London and Leeds and 44km of the M25 between junctions 5 and 7 and between junctions 23 and 27.
The long list of schemes now being considered for hard shoulder running includes:
- 85km of the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester
- the M27 and M3 around Southampton
- the M4 and M5 around Bristol
- the M4 and M3 on the approaches to the M25
- sections of the M6, M60 and M62 around Manchester.
Work to extend Britain’s only operational ATM section on the M42 around the rest of the “Birmingham Box” is currently in the development phase.
Moves to replace significant sections of the M25 widening with hard shoulder running are most controversial, not least because the £5bn DBFO contract to widen and maintain the road for 30 years is about to be signed. The winning bidder may be more than a little miffed to see millions of pounds worth of conventional widening replaced with the more technology-driven hard shoulder running.
Members of consortiums which spoke to NCE this week admitted that they were aware that replacing some of the widening with hard shoulder running was an option. But they were surprised by the extent of the Agency’s thinking, which suggests that it would even have ditched the whole lot if it were possible.
“We have looked at whether hard shoulder running would offer a better solution than the proposed widening for the first two sections that will be widened [in the north west and north east],” said an Agency spokesman.
“The cost saving from adopting hard shoulder running here would be very small, and possibly zero, when account is taken of all the wider direct and indirect costs of cancelling the DBFO contract, which is at a very advanced stage.
“We are therefore proceeding with the widening of these sections as planned.
“With regard to the remaining two sections of motorway we will examine the option of adopting hard shoulder running following the Active Traffic Management (ATM) feasibility study.”
The general consensus in industry, however, was that a decision has probably already been made.
“If you look at the bigger picture there are a lot of committed schemes out there – the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail, the 2014 Commonwealth Games – all of which have to be done,” said one contractor. “It seems inevitable that with rising costs some schemes will be deferred.”
Deferred, and in all likelihood significantly changed. For it is no accident that, in the Agency’s latest business plan, chief executive Archie Robertson talks of “increasing capacity” when two years ago he was proudly boasting about “widening”.
Not when his ultimate boss, transport secretary Ruth Kelly, is a staunch convert to hard shoulder running. “The M42 trial shows that using innovative thinking to help drivers beat motorway jams really works,” she said, launching the feasibility study into more ATM.
“New traffic management techniques, like hard shoulder running and varying speed limits, offer practical and cost-effective solutions to cutting congestion and I now want to explore whether other motorways could benefit from similarly creative measures.”
The game has changed. The question is, can the industry still play it?