M3 roadworks finally end - what took so long?

M3 roadworks finally end - what took so long?

Rejoice! After two and half years, the roadworks on the M3 are about to finish!

It has outlived the Highways Agency, outlived David Cameron and almost outlived all of us, but the new smart motorway is ready to open.

What's changed?

At first glance, all that has happened is the hard shoulder has been changed to a running lane. That's it.

From a technical point of view, it was more complicated than that, but as a road user all you need to know is that where as the road did offer three lanes and a hard shoulder, now you have four lanes and a series of lay-bys. The new lane will join with the slip road at J4a, and leave with the exit for the M25, and the same on the southbound side.

As a result of this, the M3's total capacity has been increased, which is particularly important during the two rush hours.

New CCTV and electronic signs make it easier to manage problems with the road, and to provide information for traffic continuing along the motorway network, as part of a package which is patronisingly dubbed a "smart motorway".

As a road user, you need to know that there's a problem and it's not safe for you to continue, you need to get as far to the left as you can and then call for assistance. Strictly speaking you then need to call Highways England on 0300 123 5000, but if you're blocking a live lane I would go straight to the more memorable 999.

If you were able to make it to one of the new lay-bys, these still aren't much safer than blocking a live lane. When you're able to leave, you'll need to use the roadside phone to get assistance joining the carriageway.

Is this all safe?

Every study in to the subject has had some sort of political bias, so it's hard to say.

What is clear is that 90% of people stopping on the hard shoulder are doing it for silly reasons, like reading a map or answering the phone, or even having a nap. Of the remaining 10%, the vast majority are due to running out of fuel or poor vehicle maintenance, which are synonymous with sheer stupidity.

Providing a hard shoulder for all those people carries a very real danger. Vehicles at the side of the road are frequently struck by motorway traffic. Even bright yellow lorries with flashing lights get rammed by inattentive motorists on a frequent basis.

Yet even though they put so many people in danger, hard shoulders are expensive to provide. The idea of saving money, increasing road capacity and stopping people putting their lives at risk by the side of the road, does seem to tick all the right boxes.

Even so, it's understandable that people won't like the sound of it, as the new M3 is busier and narrower than other roads without a hard shoulder like the A34 or the A331.

If you're not won round by this, you can at least be assured that the electronic signs and CCTV allows any incidents to be sectioned off quickly. Again, studies in to the effectiveness of this are usually heavily biased one way or the other.

M3 roadworks

Why did it take so long to do so little?

Politics. It seems like forever ago, but in 2014 David Cameron promised his government would lead the biggest investment in the road network since Roman times. Leafy and Conservative Surrey was a great place to start.

While it made a great headline, the UK doesn't actually have enough staff to achieve such a goal. One reason why the UK's roads are so poor is that all the best highway engineers have found better jobs, owing to them previously being given no work to do.

As a result, every project which was started after the 2014 publicity stunt has been a disaster, riddled with errors and missed deadlines - exactly what you'd expect from a team who have just had their workload quadrupled with no support. This can be seen on the M6 near Stafford, M60 near Manchester, and down the road on the M3 at Black Dam and the M27 at Eastleigh.

On a personal note, I hate politicians who make gestures that sound good in the headlines but are impossible to carry out. There are loads of them around at the moment, but they have been meddling with the UK's road network since the 1970s.

As an example of the type of political meddling this road has had to tolerate, the M3 roadworks were used to test a style of not-approved-for-highway-use, patronising road sign. Remember the "be alert, my mum's at work" nonsense? That was somebody's idea to make roadworks look more friendly, rather than getting on with the job.

Not to mention the not-approved-for-highway-use 55mph speed limits.

On a non-political note, there was a lot more to this than just repainting a white line. Because the UK's roads are so old and so busy, you have to get every chance you get to rebuild them. The M3 here is over 40 years old.

While the cones were out, the opportunity was taken to effectively rip it up and build it again, with modern features such as the reinforced barriers. It would have been much quicker if they could just shut the road for two months, rip it up and build it again. As the road is so overloaded, instead they had to work around six lanes of traffic.

Why was the work done like this?

The M3 between J4a for Farnborough and J2 for the M25 has been identified as one of many overloaded roads in the country for a long time. With more growth in the region surrounding London expected, it's only going to get worse.

Although delays are annoying, it must be remembered that wherever you have congestion, you will have a lot of vehicles in a close space and therefore a lot of accidents, some of them serious.

Building new roads has been politically unfashionable for the last 30 years. Britain's cumbersome planning system and NIMBY residents make it very difficult and, more importantly, very expensive to acquire new land to widen a road properly. As a result, a trick was spotted where you stop rebuilding the hard shoulder and congratulate yourself for delivering a quick and easy project.

The current government appear to be aware of the state of the UK's roads, but don't want to be seen having an opinion on it. Recently millions of pounds were spent in to a study of what to about the traffic on the M25, which concluded that there was a traffic problem and somebody should do a study in to what to do about it. Sigh.

The other issue here is that building new roads takes a long time. The recently-opened A556 in Cheshire had been planned since the 1950s. Politicians like making cheap fixes because it means they can take the credit for the idea but they won't be around long enough to deal with the mess.

Will the new road be any better?

The capacity of the M3 has been increased. With housing growth and people who were using rat-runs returning to the M3, it's likely that the traffic on the M3 will increase too. However, even if the journey time does remain the same (which is unlikely), the road is still getting more people about than it was before, so that's a good thing.

The problem is by taking away the hard shoulder, and squeezing more vehicles in to the same-sized footprint, when things do go wrong the delays will be much worse. Given the number of motorists who never check their fuel dial, the average journey time could increase dramatically.

The next issue is that over the last 20 years, road building has changed direction constantly. There are already some politicians who say they want to build more lay-bys on smart motorways. There's no guarantee there won't be major roadworks on the M3 soon.

Even if there aren't, there is now a lot of equipment which is going to need regular maintenance.

Finally, if the UK ever does do what the Dutch did and have a very sudden explosion of appetite for widened motorways, there is going to be a huge problem. Normally, when you have major roadworks, you open the hard shoulder in exchange for closing a lane. The M3 doesn't have a hard shoulder to open.

One day the M3 will be so busy it needs widening again, and when that time comes we will have to take it back down to three lanes before we can begin. It's now a ticking timebomb. Thanks for that.

Why is there more work to do?

At the moment, the focus has been on getting the road physically open. Testing of all the electronic equipment: signs, sensors, cameras, phones - will go on for a while. People seem to forget the M3 is basically a ten-mile electricity pylon.

In addition, trees will need to be planted, subject to all the regulations tree planting carries. This sort of stuff has rightly been left to last, but it needs to be done.

Why isn't there a limit on the length of roadworks?

The fact the roadworks have stretched over such a long distance is an embarrassment. It's not so much that it delays traffic, but that miles of narrow lanes and average speed check are frustrating to drive through.

On the flip-side, this is exactly how economies of scale works. To do the work in two halves would have taken longer and be more expensive, and it would have carried the (very likely) risk that the second half would have been cancelled before the first half was finished. If you don't believe me, check out Polegate: the town with half of a bypass.

As it happens, despite all this, Cameron's government announced a limit on the length of future roadworks. What was I saying about politics before practicality?

Video: M3 J2-4a roadworks

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