Not so very long ago, primitive tracks joined up ancient Britain through post-Ice Age forests. Today, change is in the fast lane. Highways Agency is now Highways England, an autonomous state-owned company driving a £15 billion road-building programme with technology at its core. Jon Herbert reports.
Hard to believe, perhaps, how muddy forest trails used by the news-carrying troubadours of old England could have led to today’s six-lane motorways and high-speed trunk roads. However, England’s highway system is changing again in a drive to make it more efficient and accountable.
The Highways Agency, created as an executive agency in 1994, is coming to terms with its biggest shake-up in 20 years. In April 2015, it became Highways England, an autonomous state-owned company which is responsible for delivering a £15 billion road-building programme.
The change means that some 3500 staff are no longer civil servants. As of 1 April 2015, they have been employees of Highways England, which is described as a government-owned contractor-operated company. A further 600 staff members will be recruited in the year ahead.
The radical reorganisation was set in motion as a coalition government plan; the incoming Conservative Government has promised an interim national budget to consolidate its election victory. However, one of the key implications of the radical highways change is a new long-term emphasis on national road transport strategic planning made possible by being at arm’s length from political interference.
The move is designed to free up some schemes that have been in a bottleneck for years, substituting fast-moving traffic on open roads for pollution caused by frustrated jams.
The shake-up also means that for the first time, road building will have a fixed five-year funding settlement. Crucially, the ability to make long-term procurement and staffing decisions should save some £2.6 billion over the next decade, the Department for Transport estimates.
At the same time, the reorganisation is not a prologue to full privatisation of the UK road network, according to outgoing Highways Agency chief executive, Graham Dalton. He points out that some 90% of the current £3 billion annual road-building and maintenance budget is already delivered by private sector contractors. Disposing of the Government’s share would need Parliament’s approval.
Unofficially tagged as Network Road, the reorganisation first proposed in 2013 was passed earlier this year as part of the Infrastructure Bill. It will be regulated by the government-sponsored lobby group, the Office of Rail Regulation and Passenger Focus.
According to Mr Dalton, who leaves his post in June, independence is necessary to raise market confidence ahead of a construction programme that will see the modernisation of more than 4300 miles of motorway and trunk roads.
A central aim is to iron out a history of stop-go funding. Following drastic cutbacks in 2010, finances have been largely restored, however, with £11 billion allocated for 2015 to 2020. Good news for contractors and supply chains!
In December 2014, the £15 billion “Road investment strategy” for 2015 to 2020 was announced by the coalition government to increase the capacity and condition of England’s roads by the close of the decade. It included more than 100 new road schemes, with 84 that were labelled as brand new.
With 90% of national transport taking place on the roads, the plan should see 1300 miles of new lanes added to the system.
More than just more of “the black stuff”
However, simply laying more tarmac is not the key aim. Using the road system more intelligently to cut journey times and fraying tempers is. This will also reduce unnecessary emissions and wasted fuel and energy.
Some £.5 billion is earmarked to add extra lanes on key motorways, turning them into “smart motorways” to improve connectivity between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Yorkshire. This will be supported by better traffic monitoring and variable speed limits.
Planners will also have to adapt to new technologies. An example quoted is a complaint from an Audi driver that motorway white lines were not clear enough to be detected by his vehicle’s electronic warning system, which should bleep if he strays out of his lane.
Serious consideration is also being given to an innovative charging system for electric cars that would actually run under the motorways.
Commercial technology developments are affecting policy too and the prospect of road tolls in particular. Tolls are seen to have two goals. The first is to raise revenue around specific infrastructure schemes — new bridges and tunnels — and this is likely to continue, although it is sometimes controversial.
However, the second aim is to control demand. The smooth introduction and adoption by the public of intelligent IT systems, such as Google Maps, which drivers use routinely now to avoid congestion, is doing that task effectively. This is expected to limit new tolling.
Meanwhile, the continuous development of safer cars, plus the greater use of concrete barriers to reduce traffic crossing into other lanes, will be part of the national campaign to reduce road deaths.
Road fatalities rising
Unfortunately, having fallen significantly over five years, road deaths have surged upwards over three consecutive quarters from 2014 into 2015.
The Department for Transport confirmed in February a sharp rise in the number of people killed or seriously injured (KSI) in traffic accidents. The first six months of 2014 saw a 4% rise to 24,580; the most recent figures when released are expected to be even worse.
Road safety activists have linked the upwards surge to austerity measures, which have cut road police numbers by 12% across the UK. Some regions have reduced traffic officer numbers by 40%, according to road safety watchdog, Brake.
Accidents involving motor traffic increased by 2%; the overall casualty rate per vehicle rose by 3% when compared with the same period in 2013.
The Police Federation has warned that its members are “frustrated and dismayed”. Police Federation’s lead on traffic, Jayne Willetts, is reported to have commented that “Police officers are absolutely frustrated by the rise in fatalities because, at the end of the day, we need more officers in marked cars acting as a deterrent.”
She added, “We welcome hi-tech developments, including the emerging smart motorway network, but the increasing reliance on automated technology and cameras cannot compensate for the decline in traffic police, who are the most effective way of combating dangerous drivers, drink drivers and people using mobile phones while driving.”
However, intelligent traffic information is now a fundamental feature of England’s motorway system and one that is expected to expand, with benefits for safety, journey times and environmental impacts.
The National Information Service based in Birmingham already collects real-time traffic data from more than 10,000 fixed points on motorways, including electronic loops laid within the road surface and automatic number plate recognition cameras. Unmarked vehicles are used too.
A further 2000 CCTV cameras, 300 weather stations, 4600 electronic signs and 16,000 roadside “matrix” traffic information signals feed into the system, which also uses social media channels such as Twitter.
Projects on the list
Key schemes in the new building programme are due to include £2 billion spent on upgrades for the A303 and A338 to the southwest. This will take dual-carriageway from London to within 15 miles of Land’s End. Similarly, the A1 will be dual carriageway from London to within 25 miles of the Scottish border.
As part of the Northern Powerhouse initiative, smart motorways will run from Manchester to Leeds, with links to Sheffield. Twelve projects will improve Port of Liverpool access as a major international trade gateway.
Severe congestion is also due to be tackled at Arundel, Worthing and Lewes in the south east, and on the A47 in Norfolk.
One-third of the M25’s junctions will the upgraded to improve traffic flow.
The M42 east of Birmingham will also be improved to increase connectivity to Birmingham airport, the NEC, local enterprise zones and in readiness for the new High Speed 2 (HS2) interchange station if that remains on track.
Last updated on 22/06/2015