If you have ever had the urge to take to the hard shoulder when stuck in a traffic jam then your time has come - though in a carefully controlled and safe manner obviously. Jackie Whitelaw reports on a new Highways Agency trial for the M42.
Should you need an excuse to go the Motor Show in Birmingham next month in company time, then the Highways Agency has come up with a good one for you. The highlight of its stand will be a computer driving simulation which will let you check your driving skills, but more critically will allow the Agency to demonstrate a new traffic management initiative designed to open up motorway hard shoulders in times of high congestion.
Armed with £40M from the Treasury Capital Modernisation Fund, the Agency is about to embark on a pilot project on 16km of the M42 south of Birmingham which, with the judicious use of new gantries, signing and emergency refuge construction, will get more productive use out of this extremely busy stretch of road, hard shoulder included.
The Motor Show simulation is your chance to try out what could become a new look for many of Britain's motorways. All the details of the pilot route from junctions 3a to 7 of the M42 - or the stretch from the M40 to the M6 if you prefer to look at it that way - have been programmed into the simulation, along with the new signing and traffic management planned, plus 200 erratically behaving vehicles.
Your challenge is to drive through following all the instructions, at the correct speeds. Succeed and you get congratulated;
fail and you find out how many points you would have lost off your licence, or the fine you could expect.
This may seem just a game, but the real experiment, headlined Active Traffic Management, is part of government's drive to tackle congestion and make better use of existing road space.
And there is a very serious message to be imparted to the drivers of Britain by the Agency:
Adapt to the M42 pilot properly and the Agency could roll the programme out in other congestion hot spots and make travelers' lives easier. Or ignore the instructions and get the whole thing scrapped.
'Driver education is vital, ' says Agency project sponsor for the M42 ATM Chris Byrne. 'Drivers have to understand they can only use the hard shoulder when specifically instructed to; not as a matter of course. The system works in Holland but TRL has told us that UK drivers are the worst in Europe at compliance.
Safety is paramount. If we find that after six months people are refusing to use the system properly we will switch it off.'
The ATM scheme has evolved out of the success of the variable speed limits in operation on the M25 between Junctions 10 and 16. There, loop sensors in the carriageway detect when traffic is slowing and reset the mandatory speed limit indicated on overhead gantries first to 60mph and then to 50mph. Speed cameras encourage drivers to observe the speed limits. And the result has been much better use of the nearside lane, ' says Byrne, spreading out the traffic and reducing the jams.
The Agency wanted to see how far this system could be pushed on other busy routes and put in a bid to trial ATM on one of eight sites. Options included sections of the M25, M60 and M6.
The M42 has all the usual problems; very heavy congestion, particularly at peak times, with 150,000 vehicles a day using the stretch. The motorway is the 'Midlands' Golden Corridor' as it connects the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham Airport and the city's business parks; but the other sites were equally congested, equally economically important.
What won the day for the M42 was that, uniquely, it is policed by a single authority - the Central Motorway Police Group (CMPG). Co-operation with the police is vital for the success of the scheme, in terms of operation, traffic management, and enforcement via the Perry Bar control room.
The ATM project team now has Inspector Keith Grima from the CMPG working with it as the scheme gears up to start.
Key elements of the ATM scheme are the construction of lightweight gantries every 500m carrying signals, variable speed limits, digital enforcement equipment and variable message signs. CCTV cameras on the gantries and Motorway Incident Detection Automatic Signalling will alert traffic managers to delays so they can make the necessary adjustments to the signing, and rapid incident response teams will be on hand 24 hours a day to clear obstructions.
The hard shoulder will be used when other lanes are blocked or when congestion is at peak with traffic reverting back to normal three lane running once it starts moving freely.
Most broken down vehicles will, TRL estimates, be able to limp to emergency refuge areas to be constructed every 500m.
Because of the wealth of information relayed to the control room by the plentiful CCTVs, drivers can be directed around accidents and out of the way of emergency vehicles on their way to deal with them.
'We are having to amend the definition of hard shoulder in the Motorway Regulations 1982 and we are hoping the correct use of ATM will be incorporated into the Highway Code, ' Byrne says.
'We also need a special statutory instrument for the variable speed limits and we are working with the Home Office to make sure that on the enforcement side, the digital camera images can be relied on in court.'
'This project precludes the need for widening and there is no land take, ' Byrne adds. But he admits that there is no room for more vehicles on the M42 ATM section, just better management of them.
'Our vision is to have all the shopping centres and key sites like the airport or NEC offering real time information to the public on conditions on the M42 so they make informed decisions as to whether to drive out on to the motorway or have another cup of coffee, ' says Byrne.
Countdown to zero
July 2004 is a date ingrained in the mind of civils workstrand leader on the M42 ATM David Arrowsmith. That is when the ATM goes live and it serves to keep the adrenalin pumping.
'This is a very interesting project, ' Arrowsmith says. 'I know everyone says that about their job, but this really is. And a big part of the challenge is the timescale.
That and the fact that although it is all straightforward stuff, we are doing the work within the highway boundary, keeping the road open and with no contraflows.
'Work is due to start on site in July 2003 so that gives us just a year to get it all done.'
Early involvement of the contractor is crucial on this project, Arrowsmith says. Its input is needed in design and buildability of the gantries, and planning the traffic management.
Birse was last week appointed from the Agency's technology framework contract list to work with managing consultant Mouchel, telematics suppliers Colas and VMS, and Peek, which is supplying the digital enforcement equipment.
'Birse's initial job is for preliminary planning and development of the work scope, ' Arrowsmith says. 'They will work with us splitting the job into packages, and depending on how well they do, they will get more work.'
Key elements of the £26M of civils investment is the design of 21 cantilever and 59 portal gantries crossing 48m spans.
'We have a functional spec only, ' says Arrowsmith, 'so the final version could be steel, concrete, carbon fibre, aluminium. . . we haven't ruled anything out.' Buildability will be the big issue. 'We want to standardise the designs and prefabricate them. When we put them up we will be into carriageway closures. But we are going for a fit and forget paint finish to keep maintenance to a minimum.'
Emergency refuge areas will look like simple lay-byes, Arrowsmith says. There will be 25m of taper in, a 30m parallel section 3.6m wide and 45m of exit taper.
Work is under way to confirm earlier reports that the hard shoulder is up to the extra traffic loading. 'And there are likely to be drainage issues to address. We will move the gullies to the back of the hard shoulder and run a simple kerb line, ' says Arrowsmith. 'But we are unsure yet what to do about inspection covers. We don't like ironwork in the wheel tracks as a rule, so risk assessment will be a big part of our final decision.'
Other works required include demolition of existing signage, power supplies, lighting columns and loop cutting in the carriageway.
Because of the timescale the contract has had to be set up as a partnership and be very flexible, Arrowsmith says.
'We don't know all the detail yet but if we had opted for a conventional tender we would have had to have the detail.'