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Shouldering the burden

Active traffic management, Clients - Six out of 10 motorists want motorway hard shoulders used at peak times to cut congestion. Will they get their way? Mark Hansford reports

The Highways Agency is playing down suggestions that, six months into a trial of hard shoulder running on a 16km stretch of the M42 in the West Midlands, it has stumbled on to a solution to the problem of providing extra road capacity at politically acceptable cost.

Yet already a small army is lining up in support of the initiative.

The National Audit Office (NAO) - one of the Agency's fiercest critics of late - is amazed it has taken them so long. The influential and vociferous Freight Transport Lobby describes hard shoulder running as 'vital' and the ICE has withdrawn its initial view that using hard shoulders as motorway lanes is 'akin to putting hospital beds in corridors.

But most importantly of all, motorists like it.

Realistically, with the cutbacks expected in chancellor Gordon Brown's summer Comprehensive Spending Review, will the Agency have any choice in the matter?

Especially when Active Traffic Management (ATM) comes in at a fifth of the cost of conventional widening. It is already under extreme pressure to cut the costs of its capital programme - hard shoulder running could be the easy answer.

Early evidence from the M42 certainly supports the view that ATM works: peak delays are down, capacity is up and motorists have bought into the idea (News last week). The word on the street is that the remainder of the 'Birmingham Box' - made up of the M5, M42 and M6 - will follow soon.

And the Agency cannot deny that studies have been carried out into possible future extensions. Mott MacDonald examined converting the M6 into hard shoulder running between junctions four and 10 as part of last year's Eddington Transport Study - with positive results.

It found that at a cost of £850M to £1bn it would deliver a benefit to cost ratio of 1.83 or, in other words, for every pound spent on the project there is a return in terms of travel-time benefits of 83p, over and above the pound spent. Widening such a hemmedin section of motorway would cost vastly more.

All stretches of motorway where peak flows around urban centres cause short-lived chronic congestion are believed to be under consideration.

Strong candidates would have to include the M1 in Yorkshire, where plans for a £1.3bn widening north of junction 30 up to junction 42 are out for public consultation.

So what is the Agency waiting for? It has already incurred the wrath of the NAO for the slow introduction of an initiative long established in continental Europe.

Highways authorities in the Netherlands and Germany have used hard shoulder running since 1996 and 1999 respectively and are looking to expand.

The Netherlands has identified it as a priority area for improvement and is spending £305M installing a further 480km covering 10% of its network.

Back in the UK the Agency's chief concern is over safety. It wants a thorough three-year evaluation before it is rolled out elsewhere. And its view is supported by the AA, RAC and Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety, which all have concerns over access for emergency vehicles.

Yet research in the Netherlands and Germany found that accident rates have fallen where such measures have been implemented alongside reduced speed limits. In the Netherlands the accident rate has halved on those stretches of motorway where hard shoulder running and lower speed limits have been introduced.

The slower speed limit could be significant. The Agency's early fi ures show that the 50mph speed limit has cut average speeds over the length of the ATM trial, and it is a moot point whether such a reduction would wash with motorists over a longer stretch. London to Manchester at 50mph all the way? It hardly sounds like progress.

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