Feature: The unseen work on our motorways

Project manager David Pilsworth with an impact.
Project manager David Pilsworth with an impact.

Tailbacks, speed cameras and miles upon miles of coned-off motorway carriageway is enough to make even the most mild-mannered motorist lose his cool.

And, if there’s not a worker to be seen when they crawl slowly past the construction site, then this feeling of frustration is compounded many times over.

The Highways Agency, sensitive to the criticism levelled at them by beleaguered motorists, has gone on the offensive to try and give some insight into what is actually taking place as it constructs the latest in a UK-wide project of smart motorways.

And so, a couple of weeks ago, I found myself, clad in a high viz suit, boots, safety glasses, hard hat and gloves, at the side of the M1 somewhere between junctions 39-42, while Highways Agency project manager David Pilsworth attempted to explain the strategy behind the ongoing work.

He told me that smart motorway is the new name for what used to be referred to as a managed motorway. Put simply it is a way to make full use of new technology to manage congestion and improve journey time by controlling speeds and using the hard shoulder. This can be designated as a ‘live lane’ either at times of peak demand or as a permanent new lane with additional emergency refuge areas.

Pilot schemes carried out on short sections of the M42 and M6 have shown encouraging results with a halving of accidents and a marked improvement in journey times.

David said: “We know that our work does cause disruption and we try to keep that to a minimum wherever we can. But we also want to encourage the public to play their part in making our job so much safer and reducing their stress levels. We are trying to do a difficult job out there and try to keep traffic moving.”

This section of the M1 carries around 40 million vehicles every year and at peak times congestion can be nightmarish.

David said: “Our aim by creating the smart motorway is to reduce that congestion and make the motorway safer by use of signs and signals and by enforcing speed limits if necessary.”

He, and other members of the Highways Department are aware that much of the criticism levelled at them by motorists concerns a perceived lack of progress.

Daytime ‘on the ground’ construction accounts for around 50 per cent of the work seen by road users. The other half may involve night time installations, testing technology or building embankments.

So far the workers on the M1 J39 to J42 smart motorway scheme have placed 1,100 soil nails, resurfaced more than 200,000 square metres, laid more than 1.5 miles of ducting for cables, removed 6,000 tonnes of earth and brought in more than 1,500 tonnes of new material.

For the past 15 weeks, work has been carried out to strengthen the existing embankment so traffic can run close to the edge.

“The original banking is fine for what it is doing now – three lanes of traffic and a hard shoulder – but we need to add on an emergency refuge area so motorists in trouble have somewhere to pull over,” said David.

For this to happen, in this area alone, 700 soil nails up to 20m long have been fired into the banking to bolt the new material to the existing embankment. These nails are then capped off, covered in coconut matting and finally topped off with soil. Once the motorway is open in autumn 2015 these refuges (David doesn’t like to call them lay-bys as they conjure up images of rest areas and picnic sites) will provide a safe haven for any motorist who has need of mechanical or medical aid. They will be monitored by CCTV camera and will be equipped with a phone.

“We prefer motorists to use the phone in the refuge rather than their own mobile phone as we can pinpoint where they are far easier,” said David. Despite costing £120m, converting a hard shoulder into a live lane is a far more cost-effective solution to congestion than widening a motorway and installing a new lane.

The last traditional widening scheme took place in 2010 between junction 25 and 28 of the M1 in Nottinghamshire.

The cost of making it into a four-lane motorway with a discontinuous hard shoulder totalled a cool £341m.

Of course, in such a high risk environment safety of both the public and the construction workers is paramount.

David urged motorists to make sure their vehicle was fit to go on the motorway before they set off on their journey.

But if the worst happens and a vehicle does break down in the roadworks, a team will be sent out to assist. In such cases they are usually equipped with an impact protection vehicle which is positioned behind the stranded motorist to act as a cushion in the case of a collision.

It’s a massive machine and can be seen up to 1km away but still, motorists have been known to drive into it.

“There have been reports of vehicles crashing into it at 50mph and the driver has been able to walk away,” David said. “It’s a very tight construction site and in order to create a safe working area we’ve had to alter the layout of the road and make three narrow lanes which is why we need to keep the speed down to 50mph. We’re asking motorists to not only respect our road workers but the safety measures that we put in.

“We want to make the public aware that a safe working environment results in less stress for our workforce; while smooth journeys through road works mean a less stressful journey for those using our network.

“By working collaboratively with us, the public can help achieve an environment that is a stress free as possible. This can be achieved by showing respect to road workers, and observing the speed limits put in place to keep them and our work force safe.”