Out of the jam: reducing congestion on our roads - Transport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-36)

Hugh Noblett, Nich Brown and Jack Semple

29 March 2011

Q1 Chair: Good morning, gentlemen, and welcome to the Transport Select Committee. Would you please give your name and the organisation you are representing for our records? I will start at the end here.

Hugh Noblett: Hugh Noblett, Cadence Driver Development.

Nich Brown: Nich Brown, Motorcycle Action Group.

Jack Semple: Jack Semple, Road Haulage Association.

Q2 Chair: Thank you. What would you say are the main causes of congestion and how does congestion affect the members of your organisation? Who would like to start on that one?

Hugh Noblett: If I may start, possibly, it is the problems of driver behaviour and a lack of knowledge, possibly, of the Highway Code practice which is the main problem. We were on the motorway yesterday and there was a gantry sign saying "Please do not hog the middle lane", and yet almost every driver apart from us was ignoring it, which was causing problems to all other road users.

Q3 Chair: Mr Brown, would you like to tell us what you think are the main causes of congestion?

Nich Brown: In our opinion, the main cause is simply the volume of independent travel that is undertaken by vehicles that are larger than necessary for a trip. Whereas we understand that not everybody has a choice of vehicle to use, because the statistics show us that most car journeys have less than two people in the car, that is a lot of road space that is being used not necessarily for any good purpose.

It affects our members in two respects. First, with motorcycles, because they are very manoeuvrable vehicles, which take up a lot less road space and are able to use parts of the road that other vehicles are not necessarily using, it means that we are able to percolate through the traffic reasonably well. It is the higher level of risk that is caused to us through volumes of larger vehicles, especially where those larger vehicles don't have good visibility for the driver, whether it is a car with large A­pillars obscuring the view ahead or a goods vehicle where, because it has a solid trailer, it is not able to see all the way round it. Our members have to be very conscious of where they position in the road so that they can be seen.

Jack Semple: I would say it is the volume of traffic for the available road space, particularly the number of cars on the road. If you look at the 34 million vehicles, most of them are cars. It is the time when people travel, particularly again cars, and the way we have structured aspects of the economy.

Looking at the existing infrastructure, the number of accidents we have obviously has a big impact on the predictability of journeys and the amount of time on major roads that it takes for the police to clear an accident, if it is a major incident. In urban areas, in particular, there is frustration at the extent of roadworks and the congestion that that adds.

Also, we are getting more and more concerned about the local plans and the creeping reduction in available road capacity. In terms of roadworks and road maintenance, I think the deterioration of the road network condition, particularly in local roads, is storing up some real problems of congestion for the future.

Q4 Chair: Is congestion affecting UK competitiveness?

Jack Semple: From my members' point of view, undoubtedly. I don't think the congestion has deteriorated. It may even have eased slightly in the last couple of years with the recession. But, for example, just to take London, we have members who would say that a medium-sized lorry in the school holidays probably does about £100 to £120 more productive work simply because of the reduction in congestion that exists in London because of the school holidays. We don't take goods down to a baseline of no congestion, but if you factor in the major and predictable congestion, that adds fuel cost, driver cost and vehicle cost. In terms of just the road haulage industry and transport of freight, a huge amount of costs is a result of predictable congestion and it affects the cost of moving goods in the UK.

Q5 Chair: The Government have said that they are considering a lorry road user charge scheme. Are you aware of exactly what is being proposed?

Jack Semple: We have an idea.

Q6 Chair: Is there anything you can tell us about it? Do you think it will be effective?

Jack Semple: I think it will make little difference to congestion.

Q7 Chair: Did you say "a little" or "little"?

Jack Semple: Little.

Q8 Chair: "A little"?

Jack Semple: Little, if any, difference to congestion. I think it will make no discernible difference to congestion. The lorry road user charge will exist primarily to impose a charge on foreign trucks for using our roads and to make the tax difference between foreign trucks and UK trucks a little more even. I think that is the purpose of what the Government has in mind. So, in terms of congestion, it will do little. Actually, I am not sure that any form of charge would do a great deal, because the lorries are there to provide a service to business and you don't run a lorry, in London for example, unless you have good reason to do so.

Q9 Iain Stewart: I noticed in Mr Noblett's recent evidence that one option you suggest for alleviating congestion is to improve traffic light phasing to ease flow rather than obstructing it. In urban areas, do you think that, on average, the current phasing of traffic lights does hinder and cause congestion?

Hugh Noblett: I think it does.

Q10 Iain Stewart: You think at the moment it does.

Hugh Noblett: I think it would assist traffic flow to get the light phasing right and possibly vary it, depending upon the traffic flow and the time of day. Maybe overnight deliveries might assist. Certainly, overnight deliveries might well reduce the daytime congestion, obviously with the heavy lorries. I find personally that, certainly in the rural areas, where lorries are restricted through the speed limit and the laws, you get somebody overtaking very slowly and then you get a build-up of congestion behind those lorries. Obviously, they have delivery time problems as well as delivery times in the suburban areas. I think traffic light phasing might well assist. I am not saying it is the entire answer, but I think it might help.

Q11 Paul Maynard: This is a question addressed to Mr Semple. Listening to all three witnesses so far, you have clearly been keen to point out how different modes of transport dominate or utilise road space. In the case of Mr Semple, I was interested by your statistic about how there were 35 million vehicles, of which only a small minority were HGVs. Can I just probe that a little further? Thinking of the bottlenecks on our motorway network, what proportion of traffic using a bottleneck at peak hour, in your view, would be HGV versus passenger vehicles?

Jack Semple: It depends very much on the location and the bottleneck. It is very hard to generalise on that. In some areas it will be greater than others. The industry does what it can to avoid bottlenecks, particularly on the motorway network.

But one point I would highlight is that the HGV is at work, doing its work, whereas the car driver is going to and from work, so he has a very much more period-specific movement. The truck is on the road for up to nine or even 10 hours a day doing its job, and it may be that it has no alternative but to be on the road at that time to get from one place to another.

Q12 Paul Maynard: Would you agree, though, that one of the major delays motorists find or one of the frustrations they experience is when they are travelling along, say, a three-lane motorway and there are two lorries going at 50 mph or 51 mph, one slowly overtaking the other, causing quite a long backlog very quickly on some of our high density motorways? Would you agree that that is an observable problem?

Jack Semple: I am not sure that I would describe it as a problem particularly on motorways. I think it is an issue. One of the lorries is likely to be doing 56 mph because that is the governed speed of the truck. You have a lot of long­term roadworks where the Highways Agency controls the traffic speed at about 50 mph. The traffic moves efficiently in terms of the volume of traffic moving through the roadworks and there would be an argument for saying that that is the case also on motorways without roadworks.

Having said that, to have a truck pulling out and staying running parallel when he is doing the same speed as the truck in the inside lane is not acceptable, particularly on roads such as the A14, where you have a dual carriageway. We are very strongly opposed to that. It is not acceptable for a driver to run parallel to the driver inside. Quite often, it is a foreign driver, but quite often it is also a UK driver. We are urging, and we are again going to be urging, our members to make sure that drivers don't do that. It is a small minority, most of the time, on dual carriageway roads.

Q13 Paul Maynard: How could that be stopped? Is that self­discipline?

Jack Semple: I think it is industry discipline. We have to get to the stage where it is unacceptable in the haulage industry for that to happen.

Q14 Mr Leech: How important are speed limits in increasing or decreasing congestion, and is it the speed limit or is it people's lack of adherence to the speed limit that causes the congestion?

Hugh Noblett: If I may answer this one, I think it is a variable system. In my work, the big issue is that, yes, you require speed limits to control society to a certain extent. But, of course, if you find an empty set of roadworks and you have a 50 mph zone on it, then, of course, people are going to disrespect it or ignore it. Therefore, the variable speed limits do work because they segregate traffic. But I still think it creates an awful lot of frustration because they can't see the reason for the roadworks, particularly if there is no work force around.

We have a classic example on the A46, up in the Midlands, where obviously they are doing the transport. People are trying to do as much work as they can to get the traffic to flow better, but you still have a safety issue up there. Yet, if it is empty at 3 o'clock in the morning, you still have a speed limit imposed. Certainly, on the motorways, it does work in places.

Q15 Mr Leech: I wasn't specifically thinking about variable speed limits on motorways. I was thinking about 20 mph zones as opposed to 30 mph zones and people going in and out of the different speed limits or between 30 mph and 40 mph.

Hugh Noblett: I think it comes down to human behaviour and the attitude towards them. The attitude is one of the hardest things I am dealing with as an individual coach with our company. I think it is getting the attitude changed, which is a monumental task.

Q16 Mr Leech: What I think you are saying is that people moving from a 20 mph zone to a 30 mph zone, or the other way round, should not have any impact on congestion as such.

Hugh Noblett: Exactly.

Q17 Mr Leech: Does anyone else have a view on that?

Nich Brown: Speed limits are meant to be appropriate to the place that they are governing. 20 mph zones, if they are done correctly, by definition, are areas where vehicular traffic is being discouraged anyway. So congestion within those areas should not be an issue if the local authority has set the speed limit right and set its usage policy right.

Similarly, with other urban speed limits, it is a question of what the available road space is very often, because our towns were not built for large volumes of vehicle traffic. They were built for horse and cart and foot. With smaller modes of travel like bicycles and motorcycles, there is less of an issue. The larger vehicles tend to spend a lot of time stationary, which obviously wastes a lot of fuel and doesn't get anybody anywhere very quickly.

But I agree with Hugh that this is very much down to driver behaviour and it is as much about choosing the right mode of transport for a journey or even deciding whether that journey is necessary at that particular point in time. But, as we have more and more vehicles on the road, unless we build more and more roads, there will be more and more problems. Even if we do build more and more roads, all that does is to encourage more traffic to go on them. I think that is fairly well proven.

Jack Semple: The one area of congestion as far as trucks are concerned that is avoidable is when you get a good A road and lorries are limited to 40 mph. That causes unnecessary delay for the transport industry and a lot of frustration for following drivers, but apart from that I wouldn't disagree.

Q18 Mr Leech: Can I ask what your definition of a good A road is?

Jack Semple: If you look at roads such as the A1 or the A9, and there are a number of link roads in Somerset, for example, where you have a speed limit for trucks that was designed for a different age, where commercial vehicles were completely different. The trunking agreement at one time up to Liverpool on the M6 was 28 mph for a lorry because that was the employer­driver agreement. We have moved on from that, and there are a lot of roads where a 50 mph limit would be much more appropriate and safer.

Q19 Mr Leech: Can I just ask why you think it would be safer?

Jack Semple: Because drivers get very frustrated following a 40 mph lorry on an A road.

Q20 Mr Leech: You think that slow lorries encourage bad behaviour from other motorists.

Jack Semple: I think there is an argument there. The Conservative Party, in opposition, made the point that they were concerned that there was a road safety risk in lorries doing an unnecessarily slow speed—much slower than other vehicles on the road.

Hugh Noblett: Can I come in on this one and support Jack? I know him personally outside, but that doesn't matter. We have a gentleman who drives a lorry for a well­known company next door to us. One of his biggest issues, in fact, is the lack of knowledge of the British Highway Code, and the lack of ability to read English in a basic form is one of the problems as well. They can't read road signs either—bridges etc. We are coming down to probably the fundamentals.

Nich Brown: I think another issue is the setting of rural speed limits on single carriageways. A lot of those carriageways have now been limited to 50 mph. A lot of trucks, because they are governed to a maximum of 56 mph, if they are carrying a heavy load, and because the kind of roads they are on very often have steep inclines on them, can't necessarily achieve the maximum speed. You generally end up, then, with a lot of cars behind those vehicles that can't move forward. That creates a tailback and a lot of frustration.

The trouble with fixed speed limits is that they are a very blunt instrument, whether we are talking about congestion or safety. A local authority setting a 50 mph limit on a rural single carriageway is working to a set of criteria. Local people may agree or disagree with how they have interpreted those criteria. But, ultimately, what we have there is a speed limit that has been set for a set of circumstances that won't always prevail. You get a lot of frustrated traffic that can't move forward because the speed limit is a blanket speed limit and it is actually perfectly safe to exceed the speed that has now been set in some circumstances. But, of course, because it is a fixed speed limit—

Q21 Chair: So it is the fixed nature of that.

Nich Brown: It is the fixed nature. We don't have the technology yet to allow for changing circumstances.

Q22 Kwasi Kwarteng: There are quite a lot of problems and we all recognise those, but, apart from road pricing, which is an obvious route, are there any simple solutions that you think the Government have overlooked that you have found in your experience? Is there any low hanging fruit, as it were, in regard to this situation?

Nich Brown: For motorcycles, we have something that is high on our agenda, which is access to bus lanes. When I was working in local government, I was one of the officer team that allowed access to bus lanes in Bristol. That experiment was proven to be a success. Motorcycles have continued to use bus lanes in Bristol now since the early 1990s.

The difficulty is that the numbers involved in proving the safety case for that are so low that a lot of the experiments come out as statistically uncertain. But there have been a number of experiments since and there have not been major catastrophes. There has been an awful lot of opposition to it, and there is an awful lot of resistance, at political and officer level in some local authorities. Our feeling is that, if motorcycles were allowed access to bus lanes, and that was the common practice and people were trained to expect it and to use them properly, that would make a big difference in urban congestion for our users.

The other thing that we would say, to pick up a point that has been made before, is that a lot of people travel at the same time for the same purpose because of school or for work. If we have a more flexible approach to where we work and when we start and finish work, that can take a lot of stress off the roads at particular times of day.

Jack Semple: I agree with that last point. The RHA also wants greater access to priority lanes, high occupancy vehicle lanes, bus lanes, whatever. In that context, you should look at an HGV as a freight bus. There is not an alternative; it is generally well loaded; it is not a single-occupancy vehicle. This is a case that is gaining some influence in local government and we have had some success with that on the basis that it improves movement of HGVs, doesn't particularly impact on buses and slightly improves movement of cars as well.

The underlying principle is that we should make more use of available space. The most glaring example is the M6 toll, where we have built this swathe of tarmac through the countryside to relieve congestion on the M6 and it is grossly unused. We have put one proposal in our paper to pump-prime the movement of lorries over there. If there is a major incident between 4 and 11, I think it is, on the M6, why not have an agreement with the operator of the M6 toll, open up the tolls and move the cars along there on some shadow tolling agreement?

Q23 Chair: How often does that happen?

Jack Semple: It doesn't happen at all at the moment.

Q24 Chair: How often is there an incident in the situation where you would like this?

Jack Semple: There is congestion quite frequently, but I think every other week there is a major incident.

Could I make two other very brief points? I think there is a lot of work that can be done by road authorities and the Highways Agency in improving the efficiency and the speed with which they undertake repairs, taking on board the fact that when they are closing a road or part of a road there is a major impact on the economy—and on pollution, for that matter.

We have had examples on the A303 where we have persuaded the Highways Agency to change a closure at Willoughby Edge from six to eight weeks down to two weeks. There was a closure on the A38 last night at a place called Edithmead that was supposed to run for five nights. We objected and they are doing the work in one night. A lot of work can be done like that. We are encouraged with the response we are starting to get from the Highways Agency, but more could be done by the HA and, I believe, also by local road authorities around the country.

Finally, with regard to the police, we understand that there needs to be a proper investigation when there is an accident, but there needs to be a much clearer idea about the impact that an extended closure has. We would be interested to see what the benefit is that the judicial system and society gets from a major closure against doing the job more quickly, which appears to happen elsewhere in Europe.

Q25 Kwasi Kwarteng: Just following up on what you were saying about Europe, have we had any successes in this area in the last 20 or 30 years or are there things that we were bad at that we are now good at? Has there been any improvement in any aspect of this problem?

Chair: Have there been any improvements?

Jack Semple: With regard to the movement through major roadworks and improved traffic flow, I have the impression that major roadworks are managed better than they were. Local street works, my members tell me, are still a major cause of inefficiency, and they feel things could be managed better.

Nich Brown: I would agree with the point that was made about the major roadworks.

Q26 Chair: Mr Brown, can you give us any examples of where things have been done better?

Nich Brown: Yes. I think it comes down to the way that the Highways Agency manages the approach to major roadworks. It is very heavily engineered now. There are a lot of cones, there is a lot of advance warning and the traffic flow is managed much better than it was.

What you find, conversely, is that, on more local roads, especially where you have two lanes running into one, we still have this problem of behaviour where vehicle users will see a sign saying that the road is about to narrow 800 metres ahead and immediately everybody gets into the lane that they know they will be allowed to use, instead of filtering alternately when they get towards where the obstruction is. There is definitely a road user behaviour issue there. It would be completely inappropriate to try to use those heavy engineering methods that the Highways Agency are able to use on the trunk roads. There are a number of human behavioural educational aspects to this about people thinking about how they use the available road space.

Q27 Chair: At the moment I am just trying to focus on examples of where things have actually been done better—the achievements on that system.

Nich Brown: I think anywhere on the trunk road system where there are planned major roadworks, things work better now than they did.

Q28 Chair: Mr Noblett, can you give any examples of where things have improved?

Hugh Noblett: I still believe it comes down to individual behaviour in terms of how we are dealing with—

Q29 Chair: Is there an example you can give us of where things have improved?

Hugh Noblett: Pardon?

Chair: I am looking for examples of where the situation has improved.

Hugh Noblett: A typical example would be where you get this rather greedy or selfish behaviour where you might well get a business driver, who will come down the outside—

Chair: But where is it improving? Can you give examples of where it has improved?

Jack Semple: The managed motorway programme has been put in without a huge amount of disruption.

Q30 Jim Dobbin: My constituency has the M62 going right through the middle of it and I have some very large distribution parks—one in particular. Heavy goods vehicle congestion has been the bane of my life over the past number of years because the heavy goods vehicles always leave the motorway at the wrong junction and they end up going through the local community every two minutes over a period of 24 hours. Even when the Highways Agency put up massive signs saying, "Do not use junction 19. Use junction 18", which will avoid the local communities, they never did that. We had to put weight restrictions on and chicane the route to the distribution park. How do you resolve a situation like that? Utilities have just moved in to lay some new lines and they have had to lift the chicane and it is back as bad as ever again. How do you get that co­operation from drivers?

Jack Semple: Forgive me, I am unfamiliar with that specific instance and I would like to follow up with it. Was there any communication through a freight quality partnership or through the users of the industrial park?

Jim Dobbin: Yes, that was attempted.

Jack Semple: I would be interested to see how successful that was and what the process was. Normally, we would suggest that you negotiate with the shippers and receivers of the goods, as well as with the hauliers, as to what route to follow. Could I follow up as to what happened in your example, where the process worked and the extent to which it didn't work and might it work better?

Q31 Jim Dobbin: Just to follow that through, don't you think a solution to this would be to get more freight off the roads? Do we need more interchanges?

Jack Semple: There are no more trucks than there were. In fact, there are fewer trucks than there were 20, 40, 50 years ago, despite the fact that the economy and the population have grown and so on. There are tensions, inevitably, and it is a question of managing those tensions as best we can. The distribution park on the one hand is providing employment and is ensuring that the people in that area and elsewhere get food and clothes to wear, and we need the vehicles to deliver.

Even were you to move substantially larger volumes by rail—and there is always a degree to which one goes by one mode or the other—you would build in substantial cost. You still have to deliver the last mile, where the people are, by truck. You can shadow the motorway network by rail, but at the end of the day you have to take the goods to and from the rail-head.

Q32 Iain Stewart: In looking at a whole range of options for behavioural change and for management change, I am just trying to put it all in context. What overall reduction in congestion or, looking at it another way, what increase in road capacity are we looking at attaining here? The reason I am asking is this. Can we solve congestion on our roads just by all these measures in the round, or do we also have to look at additional road capacity?

Nich Brown: I think it very much depends on what your definition of congestion is. For most people the definition of congestion is, "I can't move as fast as I want to." But, looking at it more objectively, there are definitely geographical locations and times of day where the traffic is practically gridlocked or moving much more slowly than is optimal. We can identify ways in which we can move people and goods around more intelligently, but it is probably unlikely that you will ever get to a stage where everybody is entirely happy that the road ahead of them is clear.

Jack Semple: I would say that we do need more road capacity. We need to ensure that the capacity that we have is managed more effectively than it is at the moment, but I think we do need more capacity. A number of the measures that are identified in the Department for Transport's paper in January are good ideas. We have always thought we need a fresh approach to working, to what generates the traffic. But the concern of a lot of industry going forward, if George Osborne is successful, as he said last week, in bringing back manufacturing—and you might add the process industry—to the country, is that, in terms of lorries, for example, we are going to be seeing more demand for transport although we will be reducing global carbon emissions, because we will be producing more locally and, hopefully, in a green manner.

Long term, it is very difficult to see a reduction in demand for transport, but we have to work for that. No Government seems to want to have substantial improvement in road capacity, but I think we need some improvement and we need better management of what we have.

Q33 Chair: You see that as the solution to congestion on the roads: more capacity and better management is required.

Jack Semple: More capacity, better management, and better management of the reason why people travel. For example, there is less traffic on a Friday; everybody notices that now. There is less travel on a Friday because more people are working at home. If we can have a more intelligent use of the roads, that has to be an important step forward, given that most vehicles on the roads are cars with one person in.

Q34 Paul Maynard: What benefits do you think have been brought to improving traffic management by the gradual proliferation of Highways Agency traffic officers on the roads?

Hugh Noblett: Coming back to driver behaviour, which is my forte, you have to change the attitude of the individual motorist. Locally, we find very large lorries having great difficulties. They block the roads up; they have a job to do; they have deliveries to do and they have to follow on to the next delivery. So you still get congestion even in a minor way.

Q35 Paul Maynard: What benefit have Highways Agency traffic officers brought to the roads?

Jack Semple: Our members have no great problems with the traffic officers. They encourage the police to call the recovery operator promptly in the case of an accident, which is always useful. We have suggested to the Highways Agency, and we have had a positive response to this, that they look at, say, the top half dozen incidents involving trucks on the motorway network each week and produce a report about what has caused it so that truck operators and motorists can see what the problem is and perhaps the traffic officers can assist with that.

Q36 Paul Maynard: You mentioned earlier the issue of post-accident road management. I was just wondering whether you can give us any examples of how they manage them better in Europe. Am I right in thinking that, in Germany, they prioritise much more highly the reopening of the road rather than the judicial investigative aspects?

Jack Semple: That is my understanding. There was an awful accident on the M25 a week or two ago, for example, when a car transporter went over the road. But the M25 was closed for the best part of a day. The question is what the net cost-benefit analysis is of that. My understanding is that that wouldn't happen in Germany and I think they have a very robust approach to the judicial process in Germany.

Hugh Noblett: May I return to the roadworks problem? This is slightly out of my remit, but I believe that rolling roadworks is now law in France, and maybe in Europe. Instead of blocking off five or 10 miles of roadworks where nothing appears to be being repaired, in Europe, you get one piece of road blocked and then it goes on to the next one. That is also another reason probably for reducing the congestion. Rolling roadworks, I believe, is the law overseas.

Chair: Thank you very much, gentlemen, for coming and answering our questions.

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