The Highways Agency is hoping the nation's drivers make an informed choice not to travel to Cornwall in the hours leading up to the total eclipse of the sun on 11 August.
Grandiose schemes, such as setting up a one-way system around Devon and Cornwall or limiting the numbers of cars entering the area, have been shunned. Instead, the Agency has put its faith in a public information campaign (see News) backed by upgraded real time information relayed to drivers.
If the message not to travel just before E-day hits home, the Agency will only have its usual summer congestion problems to deal with. But if people make a sudden decision to get in their cars and head west, the Agency is relying on enhanced real time travel facilities to stop drivers causing the greatest traffic jam in the country's history.
Devon County Council's traffic control room at Exeter has been colonised by Agency consultants as part of a joint venture to upgrade facilities. Six new closed circuit television cameras will improve monitoring of cars heading towards Penzance and Lizard Point on the tip of Cornwall's toe. Five new cameras posted in the Avon and Somerset area will relay pictures of traffic approaching from Bristol and the M5.
Three new traffic counters installed on the M5 and A303 approaching the South West will relay up to the minute traffic volumes back to the control centre. Advance warnings of traffic build up will be given on variable message signs as far away as the Midlands and the M25.
'Drivers will know at a very early stage if there is not enough capacity on the South West's roads on eclipse day,' said Highways Agency South West area manager David Wright.
If the public heeds the warning not to travel at peak period, the Agency claims that the network will have plenty of off peak capacity. An exercise carried out with local authorities along key routes in the region found that over 24 hours on a summer Saturday, the South West's roads had space for an extra 315,000 vehicles between Exeter and Plymouth, 215,000 between Plymouth and Bodmin, and 112,000 west of Bodmin.
Vehicles would need to spread out evenly over a 24 hour period for the spare capacity to be realised. The Agency's toolkit liaison officer Malcom Wilkinson says: 'The challenge for us is to use these findings and put out the message that there is capacity if people travel off peak.'
Estimates of numbers converging on the region range from 500,000 to 4M people. The Agency has limited its spending to £500,000 on the basis that 'we can't afford to pump millions of pounds of the public's money into something which may never happen'. Now it has to hope that it doesn't.