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Many Members, and indeed millions of people across the country, will have heard of the Thelwall viaduct on the M6. In fact it is becoming almost as famous as the M25 in the traffic reportsalthough I must say that it is in a far more attractive part of the country, in my Cheshire constituency.
Normally, the M6 is a tremendous local asset for Warrington. It connects us directly with the national transport infrastructure and brings a lot of business and jobs. Unfortunately, however, it is currently rather a neighbourhood nuisance as well, directing much unnecessary additional traffic on to our roads.
Warrington is a prosperous town surrounded by villages. It has always been a business town. It was established by the Romans at the first crossing point on the Mersey. The Thelwall viaduct provides passage for the M6 motorway over the River Mersey and the Manchester ship canal, once two strategic arteries in their own right. Warrington is still at the centre of the north-west traffic network, with the M62 crossing to the north and the M56 to the south. The west coast main line goes through the town and there are two international airports.
The Thelwall viaduct was constructed in 1963. I understand that the Minister was very familiar with the traffic routes at that point in his youth. Some six years ago, a new viaduct was constructed alongside the existing one to double the capacity of the crossing. The old structure was subjected to extensive maintenance and improvement works in 1995 before reopening to traffic. It is used by nearly 200,000 vehicles a day.
In June 2002, a formal but routine inspection was in progress when the bridge inspector fortunately decided to look closely at one of the main bridge bearings. In essence, those are high-tensile steel rollers that are designed to cope with the natural movements of the road deck. The inspection found that one of the main roller bearings carrying the largest span of the viaduct across the ship canal had sheared. Detailed investigations were urgently carried out. They revealed other failures in the bridge bearings and the decision was correctly taken, for health and safety reasons, to close the old viaduct to all but northbound traffic running in one lane in order to carry out urgent remedial works.
Following the closure, extensive surveys were undertaken of all roller bearings, including visual and ultrasonic testing. Those confirmed that seven bearings were failing in the same way. Work was programmed to replace the bearings urgently and a date of April 2003 was given for the remedial work to be completed. My constituents were unhappy about the delay but understood the reason for it. However, continuing intensive testing found that bearings all over the bridge were failing even while the work was being carried out. While their predecessors had lasted over 35 years, those bearings were failing after only six years.
Rightly, the Highways Agency decided to delay the proposed Easter opening of the viaduct and to replace all the roller bearings in the structure. The latest estimate for reopening is now March 2005, some two years beyond the expected opening this Easter. The estimated cost of replacing the bearings is £30 million but that is not the only cost to be considered. Those extensive repairs and the consequent transport delays are causing real problems in my constituency and across the north-west for the traffic infrastructure.
There are significant delays most days at that point in the motorway network. Those are widely publicised on local and national media. Instead of enduring those delays, some drivers are diverting through the town and surrounding villages, causing traffic jams for road users, a profound nuisance and hazard to residents. The roads in the town and our many villages are simply not designed for the traffic load that they currently have to bear. I hope that the Minister recognises the serious problem that my constituents face and will continue to face until spring 2005.
Why is the disruption so significant? Apart from the obvious impact on our local environment and the road safety issues of extensive additional through traffic, an effective transport infrastructure is vital to the success of our local and regional economy. Warrington has a vibrant local economy, bringing good jobs for local people. The unemployment rate is an impressively low 1.8 per cent. We are at the centre of the north-west, with good motorway and rail networks, and we play a key part in the business and academic communities of Manchester and Liverpool. Key regional and national companies and services are based in Warrington: British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., United Utilities, the regional development agency, and the strategic health authority, among many others.
In Warrington, we intend to do everything that we can to keep that edge. Growth in the Warrington economy will outstrip national growth by more than three times by 2015. Employment has grown by 29 per cent. over the past 10 years, the second highest growth rate in the country. It is set to increase by almost four times the national rate over the next 10 years. We are working very hard and effectively to make that happen. Sites such as Omega and Birchwood Park are being developed to provide areas for further economic development that have a strategic significance right across the north-west. Warrington is a true economic success story and we are working tremendously hard in the community to make sure that that continues. We want the Minister's support to help us.
In particular, we want to ensure that the town's success is not endangered by the traffic disruption caused by work on the Thelwall viaduct. Warrington and the north-west have traded very successfully on location and easy access when attracting new investors. This approach is obviously at risk when potential investors see trouble on this crucial part of the transport network.
Warrington and the surrounding area is the distribution base for many regional companies. Thousands of workers are employed in this sector in Warrington and very many thousands in the north-west as a whole. There is a vital freight route from Eire to Europe via the M62 upon which the vitality of the Liverpool port depends. We cannot afford that to be
Warrington's economy is forecast to grow by nearly 4 per cent. between 2000 and 2005, compared with the UK predicted level of 2.5 per cent. We need a speedy resolution to the issue. We do not want our local economy to lose, an outcome that I am sure the Minister will agree is not acceptable.
Public safety is absolutely paramount, and I understand and welcome the preventive action taken to protect the travelling public. I have had a number of discussions with Cheshire police about the road works and the resources that it has allocated to improve road safety. The motorway police have coped well with 10 months of road works so far, but a further two years work will place a considerable strain on them. I hope that that point is understood and acknowledged by my hon. Friend.
I should also point out that the safety of roads in the centre of Warrington and the villages around it is being compromised by the extra traffic that is trying to avoid the motorway. Substantial amounts of time, effort and money are being spent on coping with that at the expense of planned improvements in safety elsewhere in my constituency.
I would like the Minister to answer some specific questions. Will he assure me that the work on the viaduct will be completed as swiftly as is compatible with public safety? The work must take place as speedily as possible with whatever resources are needed to make sure that that can happen. Can he confirm that all necessary financial and professional resources are being deployed to resolve the present engineering problems in the shortest possible time? Will he confirm that the full inspection of the whole structure has now been carried out and that no further works with a similar need for traffic restrictions will extend our current deadline for completion and the reopening of the viaduct to traffic?
The bridge bearings that failed were only six years old with a life expectancy of substantially more than that. Can the Minister confirm what action is being taken to determine the reasons for the failure? How will he ensure that the current renovations will have a respectable life expectancy?
Warrington was designated as a centre of excellence following the submission and acceptance of its local transport plan in August 2000. The problems resulting from restrictions on the viaduct now make the delivery of the plan extremely difficult at a critical period. Can the Minister assure me that the effect of the repairs to the Thelwall viaduct will be taken into consideration when Warrington's performance against the plan is reviewed by his Department? Will he make additional resources available to allow Warrington to continue to make essential progress on transport improvements for the people of Warrington?
I know that the officers of the Highways Agency have worked effectively with Warrington borough council to look for ways to reduce traffic congestion in our local community. What will the Minister do to develop and extend the support that they provide for the duration of the traffic disturbances? Will he further confirm his support for the closest possible liaison between the council and the Highways Agency to ensure that traffic
We want to keep long-distance drivers travelling on the M6 motorway, not on our town centre and village roads. Of course, if they would like to savour the delights of my constituency, to call into one of the many top-class shopping outlets, to have a meal at one of our excellent restaurants or to stay in one of our friendly hotels, they will be extremely welcome to break their journey with us. However, we must discourage people from rat running through our roads just to avoid the inconvenience and minor delay of motorway repairs. That does not make motorists' journeys any quicker and causes great inconvenience for local people.
I ask the Minister to do two key things. First, will he focus the attention of the specialists carrying out the remedial worksthe metallurgists, engineers and structural peopleon resolving the issues as safely and efficiently as possible in the shortest possible time? Will he take a personal interest in ensuring that that actually happens? Secondly, will he make additional resources available to help Warrington to tackle the problems caused by two and a half years of disruptions, diversions and delays? May we have resources to bring forward a local package of safety and transport improvements to run in parallel with the work on the viaduct? Many improvements are already planned and would help to compensate for the impact of the displaced traffic.
The north-west is an important part of the national economy and Warrington is right at the heart of the north-west. My constituents hope that the Minister will give them the comfort that they need and the action that they are looking for.