Smart motorway on M1 actually INCREASES congestion

(Not so) smart motorway: ‘Dynamic hard shoulder’ on M1 that was meant to bring £1bn financial boost actually INCREASES congestion and will harm economy by £200m, analysis shows

  • Report studied junctions 10 to 13 on the M1 between Luton and Milton Keynes
  • Found overwhelming majority of journey times increased over first five years 
  • Average number of annual crashes causing serious injury climbed from six to 11 

A stretch of ‘smart motorway’ on the M1 which promised to boost the local economy by almost £1billion has actually increased congestion, slowed down journey times and is expected to result in a loss of more than £200million. 

The damning figures have been revealed in a previously undisclosed report made accessible following a freedom of information request by Highways Magazine. 

The report analysed junctions 10 to 13 on the M1, from December 2012 to December 2017, after the stretch of motorway had its hard shoulder turned into a ‘dynamic hard shoulder’- meaning it operates as an additional lane of traffic during peak hours. 

The update, installed between Luton and Milton Keynes in Bedfordshire, was designed to alleviate pressure and reduce journey times.

But the report admits: ‘The evaluation observed little change in journey times for road users travelling northbound in the pm peak. 

The stretch of motorway on the M1 had its hard shoulder turned into a ‘dynamic hard shoulder’- meaning it operates as an additional lane of traffic during peak hours. The update, installed between Luton and Milton Keynes in Bedfordshire, was designed to alleviate pressure and reduce journey times (Pictured: Stretch of M1 where dynamic hard shoulder was introduced) 

‘For all other time periods, in both directions journey times have increased.’ 

It added that its forecasts had been ‘over optimistic’.  

The analysis then compared the ‘observed journey times’ against a forecast of the savings they would bring over a 60-year period. 

Before the smart motorway opened, it was predicted to have a £996million benefit, but following figures from the first five years, the report warns: ‘If the scheme remained on this trajectory the monetised impact on journey times would be minus £225 million.’

In the foreword to the M1 report, Elliot Shaw, executive director for strategy and planning at National Highways, wrote: ‘The evaluation findings indicate further action is required over the scheme’s 60-year lifecycle for it to meet its appraised value-for-money objectives.’ 

The report analysed junctions 10 to 13 on the M1, from December 2012 to December 2017. Before the smart motorway opened, it was predicted to have a £996million benefit, but following figures from the first five years, the report warns: ‘If the scheme remained on this trajectory the monetised impact on journey times would be minus £225 million.’

The report showed how almost all analysed journey times increased following the opening of the smart motorway between Luton and Milton Keynes

The amount of traffic also increased on a majority of the slip roads 

While the number of accidents with minor injuries reduced, those with severe injuries increased from an average of six per year to 11

And while overall traffic accidents reduced slightly on the stretch analysed, the number of ‘severe’ crashes almost doubled from six per year to 11. 

The figures show that after the smart motorway was operational, there was an average of 15 fewer minor collisions per year, which resulted in slight injuries, but an average of five more crashes resulting in serious injuries. 

Meanwhile the average number of fatal incidents remained the same, at around one per year.   

Campaigners have long warned that removing the permanent hard shoulder could lead to an increase in serious accidents.  

Edmund King, president of the AA, said: ‘We are pleased that this further analysis of the performance of smart motorways has been made public. 

‘We believe that controlled motorways with a hard shoulder are the safest option and for other stretches, installing more emergency lay-bys on the existing network, in our view, will help improve both safety and driver confidence.’ 

BBC Panorama in January last year found that at least 38 people had died on stretches of smart motorways over a five-year period. 

Claire Mercer’s husband Jason died in Yorkshire after he was ploughed into by a lorry when his car became stranded on the M1 (pictured together)

Claire Mercer, 44, whose husband Jason was killed on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder in June 2019

The signs on some smart motorways could not be changed along parts of the M1, M4, M5 and M62 following a computer bug in April, leading an insider at National Highways to warn that ‘someone is going to get killed’ (Pictured: The scene of a crash in June 2019)

Claire Mercer, 44, has been campaigning against smart motorways ever since her husband Jason died in Yorkshire when he was ploughed into by a lorry after his car became stranded on the M1 in June 2019. 

At an inquest in January, Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said: ‘I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.’

He added: ‘I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths.’  

A month later, Doncaster coroner Nicola Mundy referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider if corporate manslaughter charges are appropriate in relation to the death of grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, who died on a different stretch of the M1 in September 2018. 

Ms Mercer said in March: ‘The message has been sent loud and clear, these roads are death traps in the way they are operated and managed.

Smart motorways have claimed at least 38 lives over five years: Here’s what you need to know

What is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways involve a range of methods to manage traffic flow, most controversially using the hard shoulder as a live running lane. 

Refuges where drivers can stop are placed every mile or so. Variable speed limits are also used.

How many are there?

Motorways with sections where the hard shoulder has been removed include the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62. The smart network stretches to around 500 miles in England, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025.

There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorways’ on seven different motorways 

What are the benefits?

Smart motorways are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.

But are they safe?

Concerns have been raised about incidents where stopped vehicles are hit from behind. Highways England has insisted smart motorways are ‘at least as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced’. 

But a survey of drivers by the RAC found 70 per cent felt removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromised safety.

How many have died?

BBC Panorama in January last year found that at least 38 people had died on stretches of smart motorways over the previous five years.

What do officials say?

An ‘evidence stocktake’ published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last March stated that the risk of a collision between moving vehicles is lower on smart motorways than conventional motorways. 

But the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle was found to be higher when the hard shoulder was removed. 

An 18-point action plan included more refuges for emergencies and faster rollout of a radar-based system to spot stranded vehicles.

Are smart motorways used in other European countries?

The vast majority of motorway-style roads in Europe have a permanent emergency lane.

‘Two coroners have now highlighted the dangers within the past couple of months.

‘Now statistics are further proving the case but now we need action. Every future death involving stationary vehicles on roads which were previously hard shoulders will be blood on the hands of the people running our roads.’

Smart motorways have long been controversial because their hard shoulder is either scrapped permanently – known as ‘all-lane running’ – or operates as an additional part-time lane of traffic during peak hours – a ‘dynamic hard shoulder’.

As a result, broken down vehicles can become stranded in a live lane of traffic.

There are plans for about 800 miles of smart motorway by 2025, up from just under 500 miles currently. 

But the number of deaths recorded on such roads has surged year-on-year, with 15 recorded in 2019, compared with 11 in 2018 and five in 2017. 

A total of four coroners have now raised questions over safety following fatal collisions.  

Mr Shaw, who wrote the foreword to the M1 analysis, said yesterday that its findings were being addressed as part of work to move all smart motorways to all-lane running, which he said should produce the promised benefits.

 He said: ‘The evaluation findings indicate further action is required over the scheme’s 60- year lifecycle for it to meet its appraised value for money objectives. 

‘We are addressing this. We are upgrading all dynamic hard shoulder motorways to all lane running by March 2025. 

‘Work to convert this section is due to start next year and be complete by March 2024. 

‘This will provide a more consistent experience for drivers and help to unlock journey saving benefits and achieve its long-term objectives.”  

It comes after a whistleblower last month claimed staff operating England’s smart motorways were ‘petrified’ of road users being killed following a string of computer crashes.  

Three system failures in April meant that across hundreds of miles of motorway, the digital signs which inform drivers of speed limits or lane closures were left ‘unusable’.  

The signs, also called gantries, could not be changed along parts of the M1, M4, M5 and M62, leading an insider at National Highways to warn that ‘someone is going to get killed.’ 

The whistleblower told the Telegraph: ‘We have had enough. 

‘The system keeps breaking down, meaning we can’t control our signs and signals on motorways, including smart motorways, in the North East, South West and Yorkshire. 

‘One day, we could not access signs and signals for up to seven hours. So, there was information telling drivers lanes were closed when they were actually open, and speed limits were in place when they actually were not.

‘Control room staff are petrified because it feels like the whole system is a ticking time bomb. 

‘Some will quit and others will go off sick because we feel we can’t keep people on the network safe. The system is broken.’ 

Dynac, the computer system controlling the signs and gantries on the smart motorways, has been dubbed ‘Die Now’ by staff over fears that further system failures could cause fatal traffic accidents. 

‘We call it Die Now because we are worried someone is going to get killed,’ the source said.     

According to a Freedom of Information request, two control centres covering Yorkshire, the North East and South West of England were hit by a computer ‘bug’ and server problem disabling digital control of signs for a total of eight hours. 

This rendered the Dynac software ‘unusable.’    

The Austrian-made programme, however, did not fail – only the high-tech systems running alongside it, the Government insisted. 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was promising fellow MPs in the House of Commons that he would make smart motorways safer with additional technology – all the while the control rooms operating parts of the network were tackling system crashes.   

Across hundreds of miles, staff were unable to control signs and signals which are designed to save lives. 

Documents show that a ‘bug’ in a firewall and a communications system failure destroyed all control of the smart motorway network.  

An alert was sent out at 12.04pm on April 19 by the North East operations manager, warning of a ‘Dynac crash’, meaning ‘no users can get signs’. 

Awful toll of roads where drivers who break down have no escape 

NARGIS BEGUM

The grandmother, 62, died after her broken down car was hit on the M1 in South Yorkshire in 2018.

Mrs Begum was being driven by husband Mohammed Bashir, 67. They left their Nissan Qashqai to wait for help but another car hit the vehicle, sending it into her.

A pre-inquest review hearing in December was told that warning signs on the motorway had not been activated in time to stop drivers entering the lane where the couple had broken down.

A coroner is considering referring Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service in what would be a landmark case.

DEV NARAN

The eight-year-old was killed on the M6 in Birmingham in 2018 after his family’s car became stranded on a hard shoulder being used as a live lane.

At the inquest into the youngster’s death, coroner Emma Brown expressed concerns about the ‘risk to life from the loss of the hard shoulder’.

After the inquest his mother Meera, from Leicester, said that without changes, she believes smart motorways ‘still continue to pose threats to lives on a daily basis’.

SEVIM AND AYSE USTUN

Sevim Ustun, 49, and mother-in-law Ayse Ustun, 68, died after their family car broke down on the M25 in Essex in 2018 and was struck by a lorry.

Overhead gantry signs did not close the lane or warn of a broken down vehicle. A ten-year-old girl also suffered life-changing injuries. Police were urged to prosecute Highways England for corporate manslaughter.

DEREK JACOBS

The retired engineer, 83, was killed after pulling up when his car had tyre problems on the M1 in north Derbyshire in 2019.

His Volkswagen Crafter van came to a halt in the first lane of the motorway, formerly the hard shoulder. It was hit by a Ford Ka, which was then struck by a coach.

His widow Sally said: ‘If there had been a hard shoulder, my husband would still be alive.’

Emergency services were roped in to patrol smart motorway sections on the M1 and M62 to look out for any incidents – while staff not working that day were offered overtime pay and asked to come in and monitor the hundreds of CCTV cameras in the hope of spotting incidents manually. 

By 3.10pm the issue was resolved. The culprit was later found to be caused by a glitch in the National Roads Telecommunications Services – a system  connecting 30,000 roadside technology units to National Highways’ seven regional operation centres. 

That crash happened the day before Mr Shapps endorsed the extension of smart motorways.   

Hours after his announcement, at around 12.30am on April 21, traffic managers in Yorkshire and the North East were being ‘automatically logged out of Dynac’, making them incapable of controlling signals. 

They were able to log back in within 20 minutes but the signs remained unchangeable from before the system failure – forcing the operation centres to use manual patrols and to monitor CCTVs.   

The manager later wrote: ‘There isn’t full confidence that the system won’t failover again.’ 

It happened once more across the North East and South West at 10.23am the next morning – and lasted for five hours.

The manager wrote: ‘Dynac was running very slow and all operators suffered an uncommanded close of the application. We have no ability to set, clear or amend signals at this time.’

A ‘sensitive’ crisis management report from April 22 shows operators saying: ‘Slowdowns were… rendering the system unusable… and the application crashed… [it] is not restarting correctly… there is currently no signalling capability.’ 

The manager added: ‘The underlying fault has been traced to a bug in the primary firewall. This is currently replaced by a secondary firewall which seems to be working satisfactorily.’

One controller wrote how the crash had ‘impacts on customer and traffic officer safety in not being able to set signs and signals to protect live lane incidents’.

He said the ‘major incident’ created ‘increased pressure on the regional operations centre and on road resources to react effectively to incidents on the network’.

Another report warned that the inability to change the brightness of motorway signs could dazzle drivers at night or be to faint to see during the daytime.   

National Highways – previously Highways England before a £7 million rebranding project – said the Dynac system was not at fault, but the systems and servers surrounding it.   

A spokesman said ‘well-rehearsed’ contingency plans were successfully carried out ‘to ensure the safety of all road users.’   

She added: ‘National Highways recognises the pressures our employees are under performing vital tasks, which is why support systems and a range of 24/7 employee assistance options are available to them’. 

‘England’s motorways are among the safest roads in the world, designed to be so even without the use of technology, while our traffic management systems provide an extra layer of support for road users, using a range of measures including CCTV and variable speed limits to keep traffic flowing safely’.

Jim McMahon, shadow Secretary of State for transport, said: ‘It is staggering that the Transport Secretary continued to insist smart motorways are safer than conventional ones while such dangerous incidents were apparently unfolding.

‘The Government has completely failed to take action to avert further tragedy – despite pleas from those who have lost loved ones and despite the smart motorway death toll reaching a record high recently. Ministers must give assurances that this will not happen again.’  

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