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Spaced out

Highways - Wide open spaces mean that when it comes to building roads the French do not mess about. John McKenna reports on the A28.

The north western corner of France is an area whose people are used to speed. It is home to the Le Mans 24 hour circuit, where racing cars reach speeds of 320km/hr.

The region can now claim another high-speed landmark, with a 125km dual carriageway road about to open that has taken just two years to complete.

The A28 from Rouen to Alleçon will serve traffic travelling from northern France down to the Loire Valley, easing congestion on the current single lane national highway 138.

'A very high proportion of traffic on this badly congested road is heavy goods vehicles going down to Spain, ' says Capita Symonds associate director Martin Beckett. 'This makes it a dangerous road, so the A28 had strong support from the public as it would increase safety and cut congestion.' Consultant Capita Symonds was brought into the project as technical advisor to Financial Security Assurance UK, the guarantor for the bonds funding 50% of the project. The other half is coming from the French government.

The French government ordered a concession for the construction of the £407M scheme as the final section of a trans-European motorway.

Despite the public backing, the French set-up for a concession was fundamental in delivering a road that is 80km longer than the M6 toll road, but delivered in two thirds of the time and £493M cheaper, says Beckett.

'This project differed from our UK experience because Alis (the concession firm) was responsible for acquiring all the land, whereas in the UK it is usually the state that purchases the land, ' says Beckett.

This meant that Alis could bring in its contractor, Bouyges Construction, from day one, allowing it to carry out direct consultations with local authorities and utility companies.

It also meant that although Alis was forced to make some compulsory land purchases, the contractor could still plan sections of the road where land had yet to be acquired.

The French government's approach to route planning also made life easier for Alis and Bouyges - it does not set an exact line for the road, but allows a 300m wide corridor within which it can be built.

'The French countryside is much more open and less populated and less constrained by existing roads than the UK, ' says Beckett. 'We only had to build 85 bridges over the road for existing minor roads to cross it. That's less than one crossing per kilometre, but in the UK you'd probably have one every 500m.' But having more spacedoes not mean the project was without problems: in the middle of 2003 France's archaeologists went on strike, en masse, delaying the completion of archaeological studies until the end of that year.

Despite this delay, however, the road is due to open on 27 October, two months ahead of schedule.

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