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16 Dec 2003 : Column 235WH—continued

Traffic Management

3.41 pm

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): Compliments of the season, Sir Nicholas. Without in any way wishing away the festive season that everyone is about to enjoy, I ask you and the Minister to look ahead to Parliament's first day back in January, when we shall debate the Traffic Management Bill, part of which will move the Highways Agency from being just a road builder and maintainer to a network operator. Highways authorities and traffic officers will patrol trunk roads and motorways, manage traffic flows and respond to incidents. That is relevant to this debate.

To put this debate in a broader context, in a speech to the Automobile Association awards ceremony on 26 February 2003, the Secretary of State spoke of the Government's commitment to investment in all modes of transport, to expanding the highways network of the country, including major investments in widening the M1 and M6, and to making better use of the existing network. It is that last commitment that brings me to the Government's plans to allow vehicles to use the hard shoulder of motorways as an extra running lane.

Motorists will already be familiar with driving on the hard shoulder, but only at certain times, such as when road works are in progress or during construction. In fact, there has been wider use of hard-shoulder running in other countries, including Australia, Germany, the Netherlands and the United States of America, but the debate is about the UK's plan to allow for the first time driving on the hard shoulder to reduce congestion on motorways. It began on 27 July 2001, with the Government's announcement of a pilot scheme, called active traffic management, on a stretch of the M42 between junction 3A, which is the M40 junction, and junction 7, which is the M6 junction. The Government then announced on 9 July this year that hard-shoulder running would be considered for other motorways.

I should like to check with the Minister whether the active traffic management scheme on the M42 will be the only pilot or whether the Government envisage a larger pilot. The Highways Agency refers to all the motorways around Birmingham as the Birmingham box. It would be interesting to know whether there will be one pilot scheme or more than one.

I raise this subject because of the concerns that have been expressed. Several of my constituents have taken the trouble to contact me to say that they are worried about the safety aspects of the proposal. Several road hauliers, both within and without my constituency, and individual members of the emergency services have expressed concerns. In addition, the RAC recently provided a written submission to the Transport Committee, in which it detailed NOP research that it had commissioned, which found that 83 per cent. of motorists think that using the hard shoulder to reduce congestion is a bad idea and 84 per cent. of them think that it would make roads less safe. In requesting this debate, I intend to investigate what is involved in the pilot and discuss the safety issues raised. I hope that the Minister and I can reassure motorists that the pilot is safe.

We should start from the premise that the UK has an excellent road safety record compared with most other countries. Too many people—about 10 a day—still die

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on our roads. Nevertheless, our roads are safer than most, and our motorways are the safest of all. It is fair to say that many people think that the system of having a hard shoulder next to the carriageway contributes to that excellent safety record, so it is understandable that any proposed changes to that system would cause motorists anxiety.

It might be helpful to establish the safety record of our motorways and the current casualty records for people on the hard shoulder. In the RAC's written submission, it is claimed that between 200 and 250 people a year die or are injured on motorway hard shoulders. However, in a written answer, the Minister said that

the figures were

Those figures do not even add up to 200 over three years. Such a disparity makes it difficult to rely on any of the figures. Does the Minister agree that it would be helpful to establish a more accurate baseline before the project begins to ensure meaningful evaluation?

The Minister's advisers have studied overseas experiences and examined the subsequent research. The pilot schemes in the Netherlands, on the A27 and A28 at Utrecht, were reported to the House of Commons in a paper that the Minister placed in the Library in March 2003. Those pilots and a third of those on the A50 at Arnhem involved permitted use of the hard shoulder at fixed, predetermined times, and vehicle detection equipment in place to check that the hard shoulder was clear of obstructions before the start of hard-shoulder running. The scheme was not run through motorway junctions, only on continuous stretches between junctions. The Dutch operators claim a reduction in journey times as a result of the pilots, and a 75 per cent. reduction in rear-end collisions.

I suggest to the Minister that motorists will have two obvious fears about the scheme. First, in the event of a breakdown or damage to a vehicle, there will be no safe refuge if the hard shoulder is used by other vehicles. Secondly, if the motorway is snarled up by a major incident and all traffic, including that on the hard shoulder, is stationary, how will emergency vehicles get to the scene of an incident? It may be a serious incident, with people trapped in vehicles, a fire raging, or toxic substances released, and it would be desperately urgent for the emergency services to get there.

I shall set out my understanding of the components of the active traffic management pilot. There should be frequent overhead gantries and signs to advise motorists when to use the hard shoulder. There should be clear signs above the motorway—the green arrow and red cross system that we are already familiar with. It is also essential to apply a reduced speed limit across all lanes of the motorway before allowing hard-shoulder running.

3.49 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.59 pm

On resuming—

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Mr. Kidney : I understand that the components of the pilot will also include effective monitoring equipment, a constantly staffed control centre and, most importantly, a new network of emergency refuge areas adjacent to the existing hard shoulder. That is my understanding of how the scheme will operate. At times of heavy congestion—I have seen suggestions that on weekdays that will be two and a half hours during the morning and four hours during the evening—the green arrows above the hard shoulder will indicate that it may be used as a running lane.

The green arrows will be switched on only after the control centre staff have satisfied themselves that the hard shoulder is clear of obstructions and that a lower speed limit for all traffic has been set. The staff at the control centre would then have the benefit of CCTV cameras and a closely spaced inductive loop to detect rapidly any incident on the motorway. In the event of a breakdown or damage, the vehicle would have to make it to the nearest emergency refuge area.

In addition to the CCTV cameras and the induction loop, every emergency refuge area would have an emergency telephone. The control centre, by one means or more, would be alerted to the incident. I believe that a recovery vehicle would be dispatched and a decision would be made whether to close the hard shoulder in the vicinity of the emergency refuge area for safety reasons. In any event, if a recovery vehicle were to come along to assist a vehicle in exiting an emergency refuge area, signs would be operated to close that part of the hard shoulder, as it would clearly be dangerous to emerge into moving traffic from a standing start. In a major incident, I understand that the control centre staff would close off all the hard shoulder in order to allow access to the site for emergency vehicles.

Will the Minister confirm whether my understandings are correct and whether he wants to make any alterations or additions? Could he answer some queries to allay motorists' fears? Clearly, when traffic is running in more than one lane, it will not be easy to get to one of the emergency refuge areas. How frequent will they be alongside the motorway? Will they be big enough for the biggest heavy goods vehicles and their recovery vehicles to fit into without protruding on to the hard shoulder? Will they be clearly indicated for people who might need them? Will entry to an emergency refuge area be detected automatically by control centre staff? Will all the areas have an emergency telephone?

I want also to ask about the legal status of the hard shoulder signs. Will they be advisory or mandatory? The highway code tells us at paragraph 238:

The law that backs that up is the Motorways Traffic (England and Wales) Regulations 1982. Will a new offence of driving on a hard shoulder when the sign says not to do so be created? If so, what will be the punishment for doing that?

What does the Minister think about the issue of non-compliance by motorists? I understand that the Netherlands' experience was that 40 drivers an hour drove on the hard shoulder when they were instructed not to. That amounts to one every one and a half minutes. Does the Minister think that that rate of non-

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compliance in the pilot scheme would be dangerous? Will the pilot scheme apply not to motorway junctions, but only to continuous stretches of motorway between junctions?

I take it that the control centre technology will be tried and tested, and available in sufficient quantity for staff to be alerted immediately, so that they can respond immediately to problems. Is that correct? Will a recovery vehicle be dispatched in the event of an incident, and if so where from? Will it come from somewhere nearby? Crucially, are such services from the Highways Agency free? Organisations such as the RAC are concerned about the motorist's choice of recovery operator.

Is it correct that in serious incidents control centre staff will be clearly instructed to clear all the hard shoulder of running traffic? The question must arise of whether there will be room in the carriageway for those vehicles, assuming that a major incident has already caused a backlog of traffic. In such an event, will emergency vehicles come from the opposite carriageway? If so, will traffic running on the hard shoulder on that side of the motorway be stopped? Communication between the emergency services and the control centre staff is clearly crucial in such situations. How closely will they communicate?

Consultation is a great concern, so I should be grateful to the Minister if he mentioned what consultation has taken place so far and what will take place in the future. Groups such as the emergency services, the Health and Safety Executive, other road safety organisations, motoring organisations and road hauliers all have a keen interest in the subject. Does the Minister agree that it will be important nearer the time to ensure that individual motorists are well aware of what is going to happen?

Most helpfully, the Minister handed me a new leaflet about the pilot scheme at the start of the debate, which I am sure would help many of the public to understand what is involved. Will he confirm a start date for the first pilot? Will there be a special rule about the number of lanes that heavy goods vehicles may use? I have asked that before in a parliamentary question. At the moment, on a three-lane motorway, they may not use the outside lane for overtaking. If the hard shoulder is in use, are heavy goods vehicles restricted to two lanes or three lanes? Is he aware that the RAC, which I have already mentioned several times, is still steadfastly opposed to the pilot? It says that there is a safety hazard for motorists and those working on the hard shoulder.

I hope that the Minister will appreciate that I am not speaking in opposition; indeed, if the measures provide a better way to manage the network, the pilot is a responsible way to proceed before ensuring a more general application of such practices. Clearly, there are safety issues, and some people have concerns about the scheme. I hope that the Minister welcomes this opportunity to make public reassurances about, and explanations of, the scheme, as do I.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (in the Chair): I call the Minister to respond to this interesting debate.

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4.6 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson) : Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I hope that my contribution does not make the debate less interesting.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) on the way that he presented his argument and commend him on his excellent record on matters of road safety. He always speaks with great authority on the subject, both in and out of the House, and is well respected for his views, so it is a pleasure to respond to the debate. I will answer as many of his points as possible in the time available.

I know that the issue is important to my hon. Friend's constituents, but I think that he spoke for the much wider audience of those involved with the pilot that he mentioned in the west midlands and those from outside the area who will use the roads in that area. He rightly pointed out that this country has an enviable road safety record. I think that I am right in saying that we have probably the best record in the world, given the number of miles travelled and the number of people who travel on our roads. Our motorways have an extremely good record, even in the context of the general good record in this country.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss this innovative and exciting project that we have embarked on in the west midlands. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I feel that the active traffic management pilot project could provide significant benefits for road users and the nation as a whole. It would contribute to our policy of removing some of the bottlenecks on our roads and to the improvements that we are making. Importantly, the project would enable us to make better use of the road network, and help us to see what additional capacity we can safely squeeze out of it.

I assure my hon. Friend at the outset that safety has always been, and will continue to be, the top priority in managing traffic for any project. As part of the active traffic management pilot, we are developing a wide-ranging safety strategy to ensure that the concept develops with safety at the forefront of what we do. The ongoing safety work is facilitated by our commitment to sustaining our long-lasting and fulfilling partnership with the police service and the emergency services, who are all too often on the front line of incident management on our motorway and trunk road network. Those services' commitment to the pilot project, and in particular that of the central motorway police group responsible for that section of network, has been instrumental in ensuring the successful progress of the work.

I am aware that my hon. Friend has concerns about how we will deal with the management of incidents on the hard shoulder when it is being used by traffic, and I assure him that the issues that he has properly raised today are being given the fullest attention. The emergency services deal with emergency access every day when they attend incidents on high-speed trunk roads, which do not have hard shoulders. Sometimes, access is through road works or on motorways with gaps in their hard shoulders. In such circumstances, the emergency services will seek to establish whether any traffic can pass the incident. If not, the approach may be at the next available junction.

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The active traffic management pilot will provide more traffic cameras. I stress that those cameras will not enforce speed limits, but will send information back to the Highways Agency, which will help the emergency services to monitor the situation, to take decisions using the enhanced detection method, and to speed up their reaction to any major incident on that particular stretch of road.

In the past few years, we have become increasingly aware that we need to make better use of our road space. We have made strong advances in technology to support our roads management, and we have successfully implemented several innovative traffic management measures throughout the country. For example, the controlled motorway section of the M25, which has operated successfully for several years, has shown that managing speed limits in response to the prevailing traffic conditions has created a safer and more comfortable driving environment.

As my hon. Friend said, we have paid close attention to our overseas partners' development of the active traffic management concept. In particular, we have forged close partnerships with the Dutch, who have operated a similar system for several years. Their extensive experience has proved that such innovative projects can significantly benefit road users. They have reported consistent reductions in the number of serious accidents by using the hard shoulder, owing mainly to a reduction in queuing and congestion following the introduction of the system.

My hon. Friend may be interested to know why we chose the M42 on which to pilot the project. As I am sure he will know from his journey to and from the House, the M42 regularly suffers from congestion, especially in peak periods. Accident rates are higher on certain parts of it than on other parts of the national motorway network. It is also a route of strategic national significance, as it forms part of a key cross-country route and provides direct access to the national exhibition centre, Birmingham international airport and Birmingham international station.

My hon. Friend asked whether this is the first pilot. Yes, it is, but a second is being developed in south-west Yorkshire. We will examine the experience of those pilots to see how they can be rolled out in other parts of the country, although he will be the first to appreciate that there will be limitations on where they can be rolled out on our motorway network, because the hard shoulder is not consistent in certain parts of it, as he knows. There are breaks in the hard shoulder on much of our motorway network, and it would therefore be inappropriate to use the system on parts of it.

The issues that I believe are of the greatest immediate concern to my hon. Friend relate mainly to the use of the hard shoulder as a running lane. I stress that the hard shoulder will be opened only if it is safe to do so and, even then, only under carefully controlled conditions. Trained active traffic management operators will take the decision to open the hard shoulder, which will not be opened during bad weather. When the hard shoulder is open, all traffic will be subject to a mandatory speed limit of 50 mph, or less if appropriate, to improve safety, and will be able to use the hard shoulder only between traffic junctions, not through them.

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When the speed limit on the carriageway is reduced, a red cross will be shown if the hard shoulder is closed to traffic. If it is open, the speed symbol will be used to indicate the speed limit that has been set. Green arrows will not be used. In the event of a breakdown, there will be safe refuges called emergency refuge areas, spaced at approximately 500 m intervals. I am sure that, as he drives along the M42, my hon. Friend has noticed those being constructed. The hard shoulder will be opened to prevent the onset of congestion and may also be used during incidents as appropriate once the emergency services have reached the scene.

We shall use the latest enforcement technology to ensure that drivers adhere to the speed limits that we set and to ensure that we minimise any abuse of the hard shoulder outside the times of operation. I stress that for most of the day, the hard shoulder will remain a conventional hard shoulder as we all understand that term.

I think that my hon. Friend said that there would be no safe refuges. Of course, emergency refuge areas, which will be similar to lay-bys, are being provided along the length of the scheme to give a safer area for vehicles in an emergency. Even when the hard shoulder is closed to use, those refuges will be a huge advantage. As my hon. Friend said, when motorists pull up on the hard shoulder in an emergency now, the likelihood of being hit by another vehicle from behind is, alas, very high. That is why we advise people to get out of their cars and get behind the barrier. The refuges, notwithstanding any policy decision that we take about hard shoulder running, will substantially enhance safety on the motorways where they are placed.

The refuges will be available at all times, not just when the hard shoulder is open, and will be equipped with detection technology and emergency telephones to alert control centre operators as to the presence of a vehicle. A dedicated team of people will work on the system to see who is in the refuges. They will look specifically on this stretch of motorway to see what is happening and alert the police or, later, traffic officers to go and give assistance as necessary.

As part of the project, we are providing improved incident detection techniques and technologies. That includes comprehensive CCTV coverage to allow monitoring of traffic conditions, more sensors in the road to speed up the detection of traffic queues, and more message signs and lane signals to give better information and instruction to drivers. I am sure that my hon. Friend has seen the variable message signs that have been fitted to this stretch of road. Those detection technologies will be used by operators before opening the hard shoulder to ensure that it is safe to do so. They will be able to see whether something is blocking the hard shoulder.

The signs and signals provided over each lane of the carriageway will be spaced at much more frequent intervals than is the case on other motorways in the

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network. As soon as an incident occurs, an operator, using the signs, can close the affected lanes to protect those involved in the incident, and warn road users before they reach the incident. The closed lane can then be used by the emergency services to secure access.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be interested to hear that we have consulted on our proposals for the M42. In addition to the good partnership that we enjoy with the local police, we have discussed the project at length with the other emergency services in the area and are now drawing up detailed operational plans and agreements with them for the operation of the scheme.

We are also about to embark on a wide-ranging consultation exercise on the changes that need to be made to the road traffic regulations for the project to be implemented. That exercise will include more than 100 consultees who may have an interest in the project and our proposals. In addition, we have been talking to vehicle recovery operators and transport and maintenance organisations about the detailed development of our proposals.

A key aim of the project has been to ensure that the signs and signals that we provide are as intuitive as possible to ensure that road users can use the scheme with care and confidence. My hon. Friend will know that we have held a number of local exhibitions on our proposals for the M42, as well as appearing at national events such as the motor show.

We shall continue to raise awareness of the project among the public as we move to the start of operations. My hon. Friend asked about that. We may be able to give better guidance on it later in the year. There is some ongoing work. We want to be assured that all the safety precautions are in place first. Once that is the case, we can make an announcement.

My hon. Friend also asked whether emergency vehicles would approach in the opposite lane in some instances. Yes, that will still be possible on occasion, but of course if the other carriageway is closed, it is a total closure. We could not have emergency vehicles approaching the wrong way down a stretch of motorway, with other traffic still trying to use the hard shoulder and so on. It would be a total closure, as now, removing part of the central barrier and gaining access. That will be no different from the system that applies now.

My hon. Friend will, I hope, be reassured to hear that we are not implementing our proposed traffic management measures all at once. We will be taking a phased approach during the next few years to allow road users to build understanding and confidence in what we are doing and the Highways Agency to learn from the experience. Once the measures are implemented, we will benefit not only from less congestion but from safer roads. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to outline some details of the proposal.

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