Thursday, August 31, 2006

Some of the United Kingdom‘s most heavily congested motorways are to have their hard shoulders converted into new lanes during busy periods, if a pilot scheme proves successful.

The idea is to create an extra lane at a fraction of the cost of widening the roads. The hard shoulders can be converted in less than 2 years as opposed to the 10 needed to add a new lane. A similar scheme has been running in the Netherlands for over 10 years and has resulted in a decline in accidents.

The pilot scheme will be in operation on an 11 mile (17 km) strip of the M42 (south-east of Birmingham) from September, and may be extended to include parts of the M5 and M6. The pilot project has cost approximately £100 million as opposed to 5 times that amount estimated cost for adding a new lane.

The conversion involves building lightweight gantries across the motorways to control the use of the new ‘lanes’. Sensors will detect when congestion is forming and inform a control centre. Digital signs on the gantries will then notify drivers they may use the hard shoulder. New refuge laybys, complete with emergency telephones, will also be built at 500 m intervals for broken down vehicles to stop. CCTV cameras will be added to the gantries to help spot stopped vehicles.

Whilst the hard shoulder is in use, speed limits will be reduced to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h), a reduced speed is reported by the Times to improve journey times in busy periods as it deters lane hopping.

The Highways Agency, who are responsible for the new idea, said: “We get a big increase in capacity for a fifth of the cost and there is no environmental penalty because we do not have to extend the land boundaries of the motorway. It’s all about making best use of the available space.”

However there has been criticism of the scheme, with some saying that the loss of the hard shoulder will hinder emergency services – who use the hard shoulder to reach accidents on motorways. In 2005, ambulance bosses criticised drivers using the hard shoulder when paramedics were delayed in reaching an accident on the A127 in Essex. There are fears that accidents during busy period will be completely inaccessible once the hard shoulders are used in this way.

The AA Motoring Trust also expressed concerns, saying that the new scheme may confuse drivers and that a more consistent approach is needed (on other motorways the Highways agency is adding in the extra lanes).