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11.12 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) on securing the debate and on the way in which she prosecuted her case with brevity and precision. As always, she speaks up for her constituents. She even took us back to Roman times, and I always enjoy the little history lessons that we get on these occasions. She referred to a time about a year or so after the viaduct opened. I recall travelling across it in the heady days of my youth in my old pre-war Austin 10. Sadly, in those days the motorway finished just north of the viaduct and my journey to Aberdeen continued on somewhat narrower roads—although given that my car would barely do more than 40 mph, that did not matter a great deal.

I know that this matter is of great importance to my hon. Friend and those who live and work in her constituency. Her constituents are understandably concerned about the impact of prolonged work on the Thelwall viaduct and the associated traffic restrictions on business and travel in the area. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are worried not only about the possible impact on the region and the north-west economy, but about the impact on the major north-south transport corridor in the west of the country.

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The Thelwall viaduct is in fact made up of two viaducts. One takes northbound traffic and the other takes southbound traffic. It is 1.5 km long and carries the M6 Motorway over the Manchester ship canal, the River Mersey and Warrington road. It is one of the busiest sections of the motorway in the north-west of England and typically carries between 150,000 and 160,000 vehicles a day.

Good motorway connections are of major importance to business, and the proximity of the M6 to my hon. Friend's constituency is a major benefit to its local business. My hon. Friend will be aware that it was announced recently that a route management strategy for the M6, from junction 20 at Warrington to the Scottish border, is being drawn up to cover the next 10 years. That includes the section of motorway carried by the Thelwall viaduct. The study is aimed at identifying the best means of managing the motorway to relieve congestion, improve safety, protect the environment, provide better travel information and make the best use of the road network.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, Warrington is well served by the motorway network. As the network stops 40 miles from my constituency, I would be happy to have the coverage that she enjoys. I am aware that the network has contributed to the town's attractiveness to developers. In addition to the M6, the M56 to the south of town and the M62 to the north also serve Warrington. The town has direct access to the motorway network at six junctions. Although benefiting the town, that also contributes to localised difficulties on the strategic motorway corridor because traffic makes short distance local journeys between junctions.

My hon. Friend is aware that a new junction 8 has recently been provided on the M62 at Warrington, with associated widening of the motorway, funded by English Partnerships. That gives much improved access to the nearby Gemini retail and business park, and will provide direct access to the forthcoming Omega business retail and leisure project, which over its life is estimated to bring 12,000 jobs to the region. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes those developments in the north, which I believe will have widespread benefits. Indeed, in addition to those opportunities in the north, I understand that a number of further major proposals are being promoted in the wider Warrington area.

I need to provide some background to the present situation at the Thelwall viaduct. The original crossing of the ship canal was opened as two viaducts in 1963. In the mid-1990s, in response to very significant increases in traffic, a new viaduct was constructed alongside the original structures. The original viaducts were then refurbished to form one, which carried four lanes of northbound traffic while the new viaduct carried four lanes of southbound traffic.

In July last year, the refurbished viaduct was partially closed to traffic after a routine inspection on behalf of the Highways Agency, which is responsible for the management, maintenance, operation and improvement of the trunk road and motorway network, that revealed a problem with one of the viaduct's large roller bearings. Those are substantial beasts and are nearly the size of the Dispatch Box. They are also expensive and have to be replaced. The agency has a

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thorough maintenance regime by which it monitors the condition of all its bridges and the discovery of the Thelwall problem resulted from that process.

Bridge bearings are designed to cater for the bridge deck movement caused by traffic loads and changes in temperature. On the Thelwall viaduct, that movement is allowed for in part by the use of 136 steel cylindrical roller bearings. It was one of the largest of those that was found to have failed. Temporary supports were immediately installed and traffic restrictions were put in place. Those restrictions have remained while investigations and remedial work, which will not have been apparent to drivers, have continued beneath the viaduct.

Originally, the Highways Agency announced its intention to reopen the viaduct by Christmas. At that time, it was thought that only four of the largest bearings needed to be replaced. However, a comprehensive inspection revealed that 10 other bearings had failed. The agency revised its reopening date to Easter 2003 to enable the additional 10 bearings to be replaced. I know that it will be of little consolation to my hon. Friend, but all those repairs were completed by the advertised date.

The Highways Agency has enlisted the help of leading experts who have worked with it to find a solution that would allow traffic to return to normal as quickly as possible. Laboratory testing and investigations into the failed bearings is now substantially complete. Those findings have confirmed that there is a very high probability that all remaining roller bearings are deteriorating and likely to suffer similar failure. In the interests of public safety and to maintain the integrity of the structure, the Highways Agency concluded that it could not fully reopen the viaduct as intended.

The agency is moving ahead as quickly as is feasible while ensuring that all the problems are identified and properly addressed. I assure my hon. Friend that a full inspection of the whole structure has been carried out and that ongoing monitoring of the structure is in place. I am confident that all the necessary works are now being identified. As I said, expert assistance has been enlisted in the interests of finding the long-term solution as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend is of course right to point out that the life expectancy of the roller bearings in the refurbished structure should substantially exceed six years. Detailed technical investigations are under way to determine the reasons for the failures. At this point, I should acknowledge that the cost of the remedial work is likely to be substantial. I do not wish to put a figure on that at this stage or to say anything further on that aspect, given that the question of liability for the failures that have occurred is likely to be decided through litigation and the courts. Nevertheless, funds will be available to the Highways Agency to carry out the necessary remedial work.

Let me deal with the expected duration of the remedial work and the duration and extent of traffic management measures. Last July, when the problem was first identified, as a safety measure traffic was restricted to a single lane on the northbound viaduct. That allowed traffic to leave the motorway for

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Warrington at junction 21, with three narrow lanes for traffic in each direction on the new viaduct using a contraflow system with a 40 mph speed restriction. It has been necessary to retain those traffic management arrangements, for safety reasons. The Highways Agency is doing all it can to limit delays on the motorway by means of advance warning signs on all the approaches. Unfortunately, however, there is no convenient diversion using the motorway network. Diverting traffic along the M62, M60, M56 and A556 would add some 15 miles to the journey, and parts of that route are already at full capacity during peak periods. The agency is continuing to monitor traffic patterns closely and will keep all possible diversion routes under review.

The agency is aware of the concerns about the effects that restrictions on the viaduct are having on the community of Warrington and on local businesses, and is working closely with those affected and those with an interest, in particular Warrington borough council, to identify the scale of the impact. I believe that one of the council's main concerns is that visitors to Warrington are being deterred, believing that there is continual queuing on the M6 when in fact, for some periods outside peak hours, that is not so. To address that, the Highways Agency is considering the possibility of using variable message signs on the motorway in a more flexible manner, to respond more quickly to changing circumstances.

I fully understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend about the level of traffic that is currently diverting on to the local road network to the west of the M6. It is recognised that the current restrictions are leading to additional traffic in Warrington and therefore to increased congestion in the town. The Highways Agency is collecting traffic count information and working closely with the council to quantify the problems and identify possible mitigation measures on the network. I understand that a useful and productive meeting recently took place between the agency and the council at which these issues were explored. I welcome my hon. Friend's acknowledgement of the support given locally by the Highways Agency, and I have asked the agency to continue that approach in working with the council to assist the local community.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of the impact of the continuing effects of the traffic restrictions on the council's delivery of its local transport plan, I would expect the council to explain any difficulties when submitting its third annual progress report in July. I will consider any request that it makes for additional resources at that time. I hope that my hon. Friend finds that assurance helpful.

The duration of the works required to repair the viaduct will become clearer over the next few months. I understand that estimates of up to two years have appeared in the local press, and it is true that at this stage the Highways Agency considers that it might take until March 2005 to complete all the work. I have therefore asked the agency to investigate the possibility of phasing the work to secure early release of additional traffic lanes on the viaduct carrying the

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northbound traffic. It is not yet clear whether that can be achieved, but I will write to my hon. Friend when those investigations are complete.

Since the problem arose last summer, the Highways Agency has been providing regular progress reports to Ministers. My right hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have both taken a personal interest in the case, as have I, so my hon. Friend can be assured that 100 per cent. of the transport team are on her case. I think that she can be assured that everything possible is being done to bring this matter to a conclusion in as short a time as possible and with the minimum amount of disruption.

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In addition to writing to my hon. Friend, I have asked the Highways Agency to ensure that it keeps her informed of any further significant developments so that she may continue to represent and inform her constituents.

This has been a useful debate on an extremely important strategic part of our motorway network. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which she has represented her constituents and wider regional interests and probably some wider national interests.

Question put and agreed to.

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