Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 29, 2023

Forty Years of Belfast’s A12 Westlink

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the completion of Belfast’s A12 Westlink. Although few outside the enthusiast community will even be aware of this landmark, it is guaranteed that nearly 100,000 vehicles will travel on it today – it is the third busiest stretch of road in Northern Ireland after the M2 foreshore and M3 Lagan Bridge. Although most people associate Westlink with its rush hour traffic jams it does, in the words of a Roads Service engineer I spoke to some years ago, continue to be “an extremely popular traffic jam!”

Westlink serves a critical role connecting the M1 south of the city centre to the M2 and M3 north of the city centre, allowing tens of thousands of vehicles to avoid driving through the city centre – as they previously had to do until it was completed in 1983. But it has a far more colourful and eventful history than its role suggests.

As far back as World War Two, following the invention of the motor car, it was recognised by the city planners in Belfast Corporation that some kind of new road network would be needed to adapt to the reality of cars. A 1944 plan would have seen a tree-lined street-level ring round the city centre with roundabouts at the various connecting roads. By the late 1950s, as the number of cars started to rise at an increasing rate, planners had concluded that it was only a matter of time before everyone owned a car and buses and trains would become redundant. Future planning, therefore, in the 1950s and 60s was almost exclusively based on the private car. Coinciding with this was the mushrooming of Belfast’s suburbs, meaning more and more traffic was travelling further and further to get into the city centre.

In 1959 the Sydenham Bypass opened (Ireland’s first modern dual-carriageway) allowing traffic from Bangor to avoid suburban east Belfast. However the road was limited by its unsatisfactory terminus at Ballymacarrett, where it simply joined the Newtownards Road at a T-junction (image below). This led to the realisation that major roads can’t just dump traffic onto existing streets – there needs to be a plan for what to with it once it gets there. Belfast’s planners were initially slow to deal with this reality.

1962 saw the opening of the M1 from Belfast to Lisburn (Ireland’s first motorway) which bypassed south Belfast and which similarly ended at a roundabout on the Donegall Road. Traffic found the M1 very useful and traffic quickly grew beyond predictions. The first stretch of the M2 opened in 1966, the “hill section” leading from Greencastle to Sandyknowes. Its extension into the city at Whitla Street, the “foreshore”, opened in 1973 after seven years of construction. (Upon opening the ten-lane section was the widest motorway in the UK). In the late 50s and early 60s Belfast Corporation toyed with the idea of the surface level ring road with flyovers at the junctions, but nothing concrete happened, which greatly frustrated the Stormont government which was busy planning the rural motorway network.

By the 1960s traffic levels were soaring at an astounding rate, which led to traffic planners predicting increasingly apocalyptic traffic conditions within a few years. By the mid 1960s congestion in Belfast was probably worse than it is today in 2023 as the road system was still largely as it had been in the nineteenth century, albeit with tarmac. The Stormont government, in 1964, announced a huge programme of motorway building across the province from Derry in the North-West, to Newry in the South and a particularly dense network in the vicinity of Belfast (though not west Tyrone or Fermanagh). These plans were far too ambitious, with hindsight, and most did not happen but Belfast Corporation mirrored the ambition in 1967 by announcing the intention to build the Belfast Urban Motorway.

The Urban Motorway would have seen an elevated three-lane motorway ring constructed around the city centre, with connections to the various feeder motorways. The plans were astounding in their ambition, including a three-way intersection partly located literally in the river Lagan near Ormeau Bridge (see below), and a four-lane crossing of the Lagan. Other areas, including The Crescent area of south Belfast, Holywood Arches along with Short Strand would all have been largely demolished to make way for it. Large chunks of the road were to pass through regeneration areas, especially in west Belfast, where slum housing was in the process of being cleared and replaced.

The scheme was approved and broken into phases. Phase 1 would have seen the Western Tangent constructed from the M1 to the M2 via west Belfast, along the route of the modern Westlink. However, the commencement of land clearance and piling coincided with the start of the Troubles and this led to major delays. Some people had their homes vested, but then could not leave because replacement housing had not been completed. Others fled their homes entirely, due to sectarian violence, and the British Army were then unwilling to allow contractors to enter to clear the derelict homes as it would create areas of open ground with no cover.

In addition, there was increasing opposition to the Urban Motorway from the people of west Belfast. This was not a roads versus public transport debate – the evidence suggests that most people at the time accepted the need for the road, at least in function. The issue was one of roads versus houses. People objected to valuable housing land being taken for such a wide road. To compensate for the reduced amount of land for housing the planners sought to build high-rise flats to achieve the required density, which were unpopular and eventually phased out. Paramilitaries eventually got involved and contractors were then very unwilling to carry out further work. In fact, the only part of the city where residents supported the road was the Donegall Road, where the M1 ended, causing hundreds of lorries to drive past front doors every day.

The Troubles led to a deteriorating financial climate, with Stormont being suspended and Direct Rule from London imposed in 1972. In addition, Belfast Corporation (the main driver of the scheme) was abolished in 1973 and replaced by Belfast City Council which had fewer powers and immediately voted to oppose the Urban Motorway. Piecemeal responsibility for roads passed from the councils and Stormont to a single new roads agency, Roads Service. The Direct Rule government initially decided to press ahead with the Urban Motorway scheme but by 1975, in a deteriorating financial climate, proposed to abolish the south and eastern legs of the road, and only build the West Tangent plus the crossing of the River Lagan. The proposals went to a Public Inquiry in 1977. The inquiry inspector, Lavery, recommended a mixed strategy where the Urban Motorway would be reduced to a dual-carriageway with two lanes each way, and the stretch from Broadway to Grosvenor Road built at ground-level with roundabouts instead of flyovers. He also recommended the cross-harbour bridge be built. He also recommended investment in pubic transport.

The decision was also made to build the northern half of Westlink as a depressed road below ground level, rather than elevated, even though this would create much more severe severance. At the time I published my book on the Urban Motorway in 2014 I stated that there was no evidence that the security situation played a part in this decision, which was the case at the time. However, since then, documents newly released have shown that in fact the British Army DID pressure Roads Service in the mid 1970s to depress the road as it would reduce the number of points of access from West Belfast into the city centre and allow for easier security monitoring.

Work on Westlink, as it was now known, began in 1979. The surface-level stretch from Broadway to Grosvenor Road was easier to build and opened without ceremony on 4 February 1981. The two roundabouts were initially conventional roundabouts. The traffic signals were added in 1984 to deal with the inevitable congestion that resulted from this decision. The canyon section from Grosvenor Road to York Street opened on 29 March 1983. The M2 was also extended from its temporary terminus at Whitla Street to meet Westlink at York Street. The road was very well received by the travelling public, and quickly became congested at peak hours as it proved far more attractive than the Lavery Inquiry had allowed for (though Roads Service engineers had expected it).

(Image ©DFI Roads)

Work immediately switched to the Lagan crossing which is beyond the remit of this blog post, but the M3 Lagan Bridge opened in 1995 and its connection to the Sydenham Bypass in 1998. Bt this time attention had turned to the massive congestion on the Westlink. This coincided with the Good Friday Agreement. The government was keen to provide a “peace dividend”, to improve infrastructure that had suffered three decades of under-investment. Various major road schemes were taken forward in this period and in the late 1990s the government announced plans to grade-separate the Broadway to Grosvenor Road stretch of the Westlink by adding underpasses and widening the road. The public inquiry took place in 2000.

This time the main objections were not about land use but about environmentalism. Why, opponents argued, widen a road when it will end up as congested as it was before within a few years, and contribute to fossil fuel usage? Roads Service’s view was that, while it was true that the scheme would not eliminate congestion, removal of congestion was not the goal of the scheme. The goal was to increase the capacity of the road to facilitate more journeys – increasing its capacity from about 60k per day to closer to 100k per day and hence leading to economic improvements. The Inquiry approved the scheme and work got underway in 2006 and was completed in March 2009. I followed the work exhaustively on my web site.

Since then traffic levels on the road have got close to 100,000 per day on Westlink. Congestion mostly affects northbound traffic, which has to stop at lights at York Street, compared to southbound, which flows directly onto the M1. Current debate around Westlink focuses on how to reduce the severe severance effect it has had on the west of the city and on whether (and, if so, how) York Street interchange should be improved. Work to build flyovers and underpasses which were due to get underway in 2018 (see below) were scuppered by a successful legal challenge to the appointment of the contractor and it is now unclear whether they will ever happen.

While few would say they “love” Westlink, it has certainly had a profound impact on the development of the city in its four decades of existence and will likely continue to for many years to come. While its planners had specific goals in mind it will be for future generations to decide how it must adapt to the changing needs of our city.

If you want to read more about the development of the Urban Motorway, the M3 and Westlink, get a copy of my book The Belfast Urban Motorway:

Wesley Johnston

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | April 27, 2022

The Roads of the Craigantlet Hill Climb

This weekend marks the annual Craigantlet Hill Climb at Killeen, east Belfast. Here car racers have been competing since 1913 to ascend a steep incline along a series of switchbacks in the shortest time. The road will be closed for the event as it is the only Hill Climb in the UK that uses public roads. The road itself is Ballymiscaw Road, which leads from the Stormont area up into the Craigantlet Hills. On week days the road is very busy with commuters, some of whom may have noticed the strange layout of roads on the hill. This brief blog post covers the past history of the roads here whose form is the result of two centuries of change.

Below is how the road looks today. The main Ballymiscaw Road turns a sharp right-hand bend just as it leaves the built up area, but thereafter climbs quite steeply up a long, gentle bend.

Some people assume that the sharp right-hand bend (at the very left in the image above) is a sign that the road used to go straight on here. In fact that’s not the case, the sharp right-hand bend is simply to allow the road to cross a stream. (Prior to the 1800s Irish roads typically turned to cross rivers at right angles as the engineering technology required to build bridges at a skew had not yet been developed. Many roads today that pass over old bridges have similar right-angle bends at either side.)

What is much more interesting is the strange series of switchbacks visible in the image, and also the strange loop of road at the upper right – these being the bits of road used for the Craigantlet Hill Climb. What’s going on? Let’s go back to 1831:

Things look very different, don’t they? The modern road is not there, but nor are the switchbacks. Instead we see the road at the very left turning sharply right to cross the stream, as it does now, but then turning left up a steep, straight section of road which, using a couple more bends, ascends the hill fairly directly. The line of this road suggests that it was developed in an evolved manner prior to the 1700s, initially connecting various farms together before eventually becoming a coherent route. A road going straight up a steep incline was quite acceptable up until the early 1800s because at that time most travellers were either on foot, or using packhorses, neither of which found steep inclines particularly challenging, and certainly preferable to long detours. Even small carts could be hauled up hills fairly easily.

This changed by the early 1800s. By this time, technology had advanced to the point where wheeled carts were considerably bigger than they had been in the century before, as well as increased use of coaches for (wealthy) pedestrian travel. Even with two horses, the roads here proved increasingly difficult for horses to haul goods up. So Irish roads went under a period of significant redevelopment, where hundreds of miles of roads were reconstructed on gentler, more curvaceous routes that tried to reduce gradients wherever possible. (Hence, for example, the main road to Newtownards from Dundonald, which went straight over the hill in the 1700s, was re-routed in the 1800s to the gentler north along what is today the Old Belfast Road.)

As an aside, this period of road building lasted for several decades in the early 1800s, and was really the height of road building in Ireland. Significantly more miles of new roads were built in Ireland in these few decades than were built in the entire 20th century. The road building boom ended with the introduction of railways when a lot of goods and passenger traffic switched to rail.

But when it came to steep hills, there was nothing else for it but to introduce switchbacks. Hence the map of 1902 looks very different:

A series of switchbacks have been introduced on the lower section, while a large loop of road has been built at the upper right. Carriages and carts found this a much easier road to use. You can see that part of the old road lower down (under the word “Lodge” above) has completely disappeared, probably absorbed into the farmland. This was relatively straightforward since roads at that time were often quite insubstantial, unsurfaced affairs, and could be returned to nature or agricultural use with ease. You can see, however, that the upper section of the old road remained in use, probably because it would still have been useful for pedestrians, for whom the large loop to the right was perhaps a little too far out of the way for everyone to use.

You can see traces of similar loops in many other places such as here in Holywood or here on the Ballygowan Road.

Then we come to the early 20th century when the motor car was invented. This changed things again, because cars were not limited by inclines in the way that horses were. Indeed, lorries found switchbacks difficult to use and car drivers found them tortuous due to the low speeds necessitated and higher risk of going off the road. Hence, at some point around the 1960s or 70s the road was altered again, this time to introduce a straighter road that went up the hill, but utilising gentler curves more suitable for motor vehicles. So the 1983 map looks like this (note also the appearance of Parliament Buildings):

Both the switchbacks and the loop of road to the upper right have remained in use, due to the need to access properties along them, but traffic once again goes steeply up the hill, albeit on a slightly different alignment than two centuries previously. And that is the situation today. Of course, the Craigantlet Hill Climb pre-dates this particular upgrade, so continues to use the 1800s road with its switchbacks, which is perfect for the race!

Very best wishes to the participants and spectators of the Hill Climb!

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 18, 2021

Lessons from history for the A5 WTC

A road scheme that has been in gestation for well over a decade, but without a metre of road built, despite huge sums of money being spent on design work. A scheme that, due to the huge cost, has been broken down into separate phases but, even then, attempts to begin work have been aborted several times. Multiple public inquiries have failed to settle the question of whether it should be built, while costs continue to rise. And, all the time, a roads authority that remains doggedly committed to constructing the whole thing, despite the escalating obstacles.

No, I am not talking about the A5 Western Transport Corridor (A5 WTC) in 2021, but the Belfast Urban Motorway in 1973. The parallels are striking, and from it we can learn lessons about the direction of the A5 WTC.

I spent several years exhaustively researching Belfast Urban Motorway, its origins, its many problems and its eventual demise (which I wrote up as a book). Those familiar with it will know that the Urban Motorway was eventually scaled down and only two sections, Westlink and the M3, were ever built – and even those were of a lower standard than originally planned. At the end of that book I outlined four key reasons why the Urban Motorway was never completed, and I’ll take each of these here and apply them to the A5 WTC here.

For those who want a quick primer on the A5 WTC, I have included one at the bottom of this blog.

Factor 1 – Timing

The development of the Belfast Urban Motorway coincided with a critical period of evolution in how the UK thought about roads. When it was approved for construction in 1968, there was relatively little public opposition. However a series of delays was caused by the Oil Crisis, the start of the Troubles and the excessive period of time needed to relocate residents from the path of the road. This meant that, by the time construction could actually begin, the public mood has shifted decisively, and the government was already stepping back from major new urban roads in other parts of the UK.

The A5 WTC, too, has come during a critical period of evolution. The scheme was first conceived in 2007, before critical events like the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and the 2020 declaration of a “Climate Emergency” by the Northern Ireland Executive. In that time, there has also been a growth in public awareness of the urgency of tackling climate change and there has been an increased focus on the role of sustainable transport.

In interim report on the A5 WTC produced by the public inquiry inspector, and published in March 2021, the Inspector concluded that “the A5 scheme is undeniably inconsistent with the ambition to decarbonise the economy“, that it “would have a large adverse effect on climate” and recommends that DFI “explain how it has taken account of the UK’s climate change commitments, including those set out in the Paris Agreement“.

Lest I be accused of over-stating this point, we must clarify that the Inspector does not have the power to alter the scheme, only to make recommendations, so none of the above actually ties the DFI’s hands to any particular course of action. But it does put the scheme on a collision course with climate policy, and it is obvious that the issue of climate change is likely to get more significant, rather than diminish, as the years go on. It is not hard to see this question ending up in the courts.

In addition, the Inspector spent a huge amount of time exploring environmental considerations in almost excruciating detail, and recommending the production of new documents. Environmental law as it now stands is such that the documentation for new roads must be both (a) up-to-date and (b) comprehensive, but in fact these two requirements stand in tension. The more comprehensive a document is, the longer it takes to produce. The more up-to-date it is, the more detail it needs to leave out. Both deficiencies can lead to successful legal challenges as we have seen. Some environmental documents that are currently “in date” will be out of date by the time DFI have carried out the new assessments that the inspector has recommended. The work DFI is now being asked to do in the area of the environment is so onerous that even a single new legal challenge will cause a sufficient delay to force them to be re-done, re-consulted and subjected to a new public inquiry. If DFI continues to proceed with the scheme in the most sensitive environmental areas, this will repeat endlessly and nothing will ever be built. Either the Assembly has to make the requirements under the law more manageable, or DFI have to admit that this is one battle they are not going to win. Perhaps both should be considered.

Factor 2 – Public Opposition

The Belfast Urban Motorway split opinion in the city. Opposition tended to come from the people who lived in the areas through which the road passed and their representatives, while support tended to come from those with business interests in the Belfast area, transport planners and politicians. My research suggests that opposition to the Urban Motorway was essentially local in nature, while the wider public was more indifferent or passively supportive. While opponents argued strongly in favour of better public transport, this was really motivated by a desire to stop the road more than it was a desire to encourage public transport. The two groups become more and more divided until it eventually morphed into an ideological confrontation.

This closely mirrors what has happen with the A5 WTC. Support has tended to come from politicians, users of the A5 – especially businesses – and the Department for Infrastructure. Opposition has tended to come from the the people who live in the areas through which the dual-carriageway will pass and their representatives, in this case the Alternative A5 Alliance (AA5A). And, just as in the 1970s, arguments being presented in favour of public transport by this demographic appear to be motivated primarily by a desire to stop the road, and only incidentally to encourage public transport use. After the last legal challenge was mounted in 2018 the head of the AA5A, John Dunbar, summarised his view thus: “Every time the thing is delayed, our farmers are getting more time to use their land. We’re quite happy to go with that“.

However, the most significant problem that arose in the 1970s was that the two sides of the dispute were arguing different points. Those in favour of the urban motorway were arguing primarily on the grounds of economics and transport needs, while their opponents were arguing on social grounds and the impact of the scheme on communities and landscapes. The two sets of opinions were being framed through entirely different worldviews. There was therefore no objective way to weigh these two conflicting arguments against each other, which made compromise impossible. And, in the end, those for and against the Urban Motorway became increasingly associated with unionism and nationalism respectively which, in the context of a divided society, was a significant problem.

In the same way, the arguments being presented in favour of the A5 WTC are primarily economic and transport-led. And the arguments are very strong, as the public inquiry inspector concludes in his report. He writes that in terms of road safety the scheme would have a “significant beneficial effect on road safety“, which is an understatement given the appalling loss of life experienced on this road in the past decade. He went on to say that, if anything, DFI had under-stated the benefit of the scheme in terms of journey time reliability, noting that DFI described “the journey time reliability benefits of the scheme as slight” but “that a 36% reduction in journey time would be a substantial saving“. He also concluded that the scheme “would make a significant beneficial contribution towards maintaining balanced infrastructure provision across the region“, would have “a significant beneficial effect on North/South links” and would have “a large beneficial effect on economic competitiveness“. The economic and road safety argument seems to be pretty solid.

Yet opposition to the road does not address any of these points, but rather opens up new ones. The Inspector concluded that the scheme would have “a significant adverse effect on the cultural heritage“, mainly archaeology and listed buildings and monuments, “a large adverse effect on the landscape“, mostly by altering the appearance of the countryside in major ways, “a significant adverse effect on flora and fauna“, “a significant adverse effect on human beings by reason of noise and vibration” and “a significant adverse effect on material assets“, ie homes, farms and businesses along the route. As if this wasn’t negative enough, the inspector berates DFI for concluding that the combined impact of all of the above would be “moderate adverse cumulative effects” for people in specific areas (especially around Strabane). He concluded instead that “the scheme would have large adverse effects on human beings living in the vicinity of Ballymagorry, Strabane and adjacent parts of Donegal, Sion Mills and Newtownsaville.” The social and environmental impact of the road is clearly negative.

The inspector perceptively notes that the positive impacts of the scheme are taken into consideration in the benefit/cost analysis (basically, will it generate more money than it costs) whereas the negative environmental impacts are not (because by their nature they cannot be monetised). So, while overall the project has a positive benefit/cost ratio (BCR), the inspector says “[the negative environmental] effects, although mentioned in the appraisal, did not contribute to the BCR calculations. Had it been possible to monetise these effects, the final [value for money] category might well have been different” – surely implying “less beneficial”.

This scheme, too, has become divided on sectarian grounds with the nationalist majority in the West more likely to support it than unionists. This means that people supporting the scheme are often labelled by unionists as supporting a “white elephant” or a “political project” while those criticising it are often suspected by nationalists as serving the needs of “unionists trying yet again to kill off a project in the west”. In fact, both sides in the debate have solid arguments in their favour.

How is the inspector to proceed? In fact, he has concluded that he cannot do so at this point in time. He says “I conclude that it would be unfair and unreasonable to make a decision to proceed with any part of the scheme for which funding had not been secured.” Given that funding has not been secured for the majority of the A5 WTC scheme, this is a very significant comment and one that is likely to come up again when the public inquiry resumes next year. As I have already said, the public inquiry inspector can only make recommendations, and does not have the power to change the scheme, but it would be hard for DFI to justify rejecting a major recommendation like this if it finds its way into the final report late next year.

Factor 3 – Inertia

The Belfast Urban Motorway increasingly suffered from inertia from the late 1960s, and much of this was due to its very restrictive terms of reference. The scheme designers had been told to develop an elevated urban motorway ring encircling the city centre. They were given no freedom to consider alternative approaches to solving the city’s traffic problems, and little freedom even to assess its route, and understandably did not do either. By 1968 revised traffic figures were available that demonstrated conclusively that half of the proposed ring (the south and east flanks) were not necessary and could be removed without significantly affecting the scheme’s goals. Yet, the planners responded that the scheme was “always envisaged as a ring” and resisted all attempts to change it. Essentially, the planners pressed ahead with their original plan even as evidence mounted up that parts of it no longer made sense. This made the scheme more and more susceptible to rational counter-argument as time went on.

In a similar way, the A5 WTC scheme was first designed a decade ago and the design has remained largely unchanged since then. The cost of the scheme has soared, from £560m as of 2007, to £844m as of 2009, £1bn as of 2016 and £1.2bn today, partly due to the inexorable effect of construction inflation. In addition, the soaring costs continually diminish the economic benefits of the road. The economic benefits of any road scheme are calculated from the direct impact of journey time savings, the economic benefit of prevented crashes, the wider economic benefits to the surrounding area and various other benefits. Against these are set the construction cost and the ongoing maintenance cost. While economics is not the only justification for building a road, for a project to make economic sense, the benefits must obviously be greater than the cost.

A benefit/cost ratio (BCR) is calculated by dividing the value of the economic benefits by the value of the costs. Any value greater than 1 means the project makes economic sense; anything less than 1 means the project does not make economic sense.

The inquiry inspector’s report suggests that, with the escalating costs, every section of the A5 WTC now has a BCR value of less than 1 with the exception of the Strabane Bypass and the Omagh Bypass. Phase 1a (Newbuildings to north of Strabane) has a BCR of 0.86, Phase 1b (south of Omagh to Ballygawley) has a BCR of 0.77, and Phase 3 (Ballygawley to Aughnacloy) has a BCR of 0.60. Only Phase 2 (north of Strabane to south of Omagh) has a BCR greater than 1 (3.37), but even this is only the case due to the two town bypasses. The inspector adds that “the Project Sponsor acknowledged that the greatest benefits would be realised in the bypass stretches of Phase 2, where the BCR might be above 5. He suggested that the BCR for the intermediate stretch was likely to be similar to that for Phases 1a and 1b, which I take to mean about 0.8“. Interestingly, the Inspector notes that when he asked for more specific data about the breakdown of breakdown of costs within phase 2 – which it was clear DFI had in their possession – in order to isolate the specific costs and benefits of the two town bypasses, “the Department, though so helpful in many other respects, did not provide these data“.

Ten years ago most of these stretches – except perhaps Phase 3 – likely had a BCR greater than 1, but the length of time that has gone on has now pushed almost all of them below 1. The inescapable conclusion is that most of the project no longer makes economic sense, insofar as even the wider economic benefits of an upgraded road on communities in the west of the province would not be sufficient to justify spending the money.

This may explain why DFI are determined to continue treating the A5 WTC as a single project. Only by combining all the sections into one, mammoth project can the overall average BCR value of the project be brought up to a value greater than 1. But to be fair to DFI, they are only doing so because they are acting on the direction of the DFI Minister, who is herself following the expressed will of the Northern Ireland Executive. So just like the Urban Motorway planners, DFI were given very restricted terms of reference (build a dual-carriageway along the entire A5) that prevents them from being able to treat it in any other way. As they say in their response to the interim report, “Both the NI Executive and the Irish government are committed to upgrading the A5WTC in full and the Department considers that it continues to be appropriate to implement that commitment“.

The scheme, therefore, is now displaying the same degree of inertia that the Belfast Urban Motorway was displaying in the early 1970s. Given that DFI must act under the authority of the Minister, only a Ministerial directive can change this situation.

Factor 4 – Money

The investment required to build the Belfast Urban Motorway was close to the limit of what the province could afford when it was given the go-ahead in 1968. After that, the economy suffered a significant hit due to the Oil Crisis and the Troubles, while construction inflation pushed the cost higher and higher. It took until 1974 before the government finally admitted that the project was now unaffordable and were forced to scale it back.

The A5 WTC has closely mirrored this. It was conceived in a time of economic prosperity, and even then could only be afforded as a result of the Irish government promising to stump up almost half of the estimated £844m cost, leaving Stormont to come up with £444m. The Irish government contribution has not increased in that time, and has in fact decreased due to the Great Recession of the last decade. With a total cost now of £1.2bn, Stormont would have to come up with at least £800m to complete the road – almost equal to the total estimated cost a decade ago – an enormous sum of money that will consume the road building budget for many years. With the scheme now delayed for at least two more years, the cost could easily reach £1.4bn by the time work begins on the ground. There is simply no way that the Executive could justify spending £1bn of money on a single road project in that scenario. Furthermore, the inspector notes that “it is likely that funding would be provided to start [the A5 WTC] but there is considerable doubt as to whether sufficient funds would become available to complete it by 2028.

Even if the Executive decide that they do want to progress the whole scheme, this will take many years of budget rounds to achieve, at which point the question of phasing comes into play. The Inspector quite rightly asks why Phase 1a (Newbuildings to north of Strabane) and Phase 1b (south of Omagh to Ballygawley) are being built first, when neither of them has a BCR above 1, and the one stretch that has a decent economic benefit is being left to a future date. DFI freely acknowledge that the phasing was a political decision, not an economic one. In other words, this is what the DFI Minister told them to do, rather than what they would have done if given the freedom to make the choice. There is nothing wrong with this situation, insofar as it is right and proper that DFI should act under the direction of elected representatives. But the decision does, at least, have to make sense.

DFI provided a rationale for the phasing at the inquiry, mostly depending on the argument that the full benefits of the scheme would not be achieved without all of it, that Phase 1a provided a number of small bypasses, and that phase 1b was a natural continuation of the A4. The Inspector was not convinced by these arguments. He said: “The [business case for building the road] presented the strange argument that while Phase 2 would generate the majority of benefits within the complete scheme, Phases 1a and 1b would act as “preparatory works” enabling the benefits of Phase 2 to be realised. To my mind, preparatory works are actions such as demolition of structures, diversion of highways or services, temporary construction, site preparation, archaeological and environmental site investigations, and decontamination. I do not accept that the benefits a 39-kilometre dual carriageway from the north of Strabane to the south of Omagh would be dependent on roads with a combined length of 37 kilometres being built first on either side.

I would agree that this rationale does not make sense, because it would suggest that when upgrading a road like the A1, A6 or A26, one should upgrade the least-trafficked sections first in order to achieve maximum gain, when in fact DFI and its predecessors has adopted the exact opposite strategy in almost every case for the past sixty years.

His conclusion was thus: “In my opinion, the reasons provided to date for the Department’s phasing choices have been inadequate. This must be put right in the interest of transparency. It also seems to me the Department must ensure that phasing is properly aligned with available funding so as to avoid inflicting unreasonable uncertainty and stress on people faced with the prospect of vesting.”

In fact it will be difficult for the department to “put right” the lack of rationale for the phasing decisions because we know that the decision was a political one made at a higher level. The rationale at that higher level may well be that – given that it is clear that the scheme is in economic difficulty – it is best to build the sections that have the least benefit first, because it is easier to argue for money to build a more beneficial section at a later date than it would be to try to get money for a less beneficial section. This strategy makes sense if the goal is to build the whole road and there is reasonable certainty that all the funding will be there, but given the economic appraisal discussed above, is another illustration of the degree of inertia that the project has now attained. If that is the strategy at a political level, it would be difficult for DFI to put such a rationale on public record.

However the inspector saves his most forceful comments for phase 3, the short section from Ballygawley to the Monaghan border at Aughnacloy. This stretch is also to be dualled despite having comparatively low traffic levels and there being no plan to dual the N2 on the Irish side of the border. It has been obvious to me for several years that this section makes no sense, and the inspector has come to the same conclusion. He notes that, given the high capacity of a dual-carriageway “even in 2043, the proposed road at this location would be operating at only 12% of its maximum capacity.” The stretch would cost £150m and require a lot of vested farmland, but cut less than a minute off the average journey, and save a notional 0.1 lives over the next 60 years. The inspector concludes “The poor return being forecast is relevant to the extent that it is symptomatic of overprovision. It is consistent with the other evidence which points inexorably to the conclusion that it would not be justifiable to proceed with Phase 3.

DFI, in their response, rejected this recommendation and have said they intend to proceed with the whole plan regardless. In my view this is an indefensible position to take. This, more than anything else in the inspector’s report and the department’s response, convinces me that the project is becoming divorced from reality.

What next?

What happened to the Belfast Urban Motorway is instructive when exploring what will happen next to the A5 WTC. The government was eventually forced to accept that the Motorway was unaffordable. In 1977 they abandoned the sections that had the least economic benefit, and focused on the two that did – the west tangent and the Lagan bridge. These were built in two phases over the next 21 years, being completed in 1998. While the Lagan Bridge was built more or less as planned, the west tangent was downgraded to a two-lane dual-carriageway. The decision to put roundabouts on it was a mistake that was finally rectified in 2009 but, other than this error, it largely achieved the project goals of linking the M1, M2 and Sydenham Bypass together.

How can we apply these lessons to the A5 WTC? These are my conclusions:

  1. The minister must accept that the project is now unaffordable over any reasonable timeframe.
  2. As a result of point (1) the minister must stop treating it as a single, monolithic scheme and break it into smaller projects.
  3. As a result of point (2) the minister must accept that some sections of the road will not be built as their BCR is too low. This includes, at the very least, the Ballygawley to Aughnacloy section and probably both phase 1a and phase 1b too.
  4. As a result of point (3) the minister should direct DFI to rapidly progress plans for high quality, dual-carriageway bypasses of Omagh and Strabane, largely based on the designs already in place for the A5 WTC and bring these to the point of being shovel ready at the earliest opportunity.
  5. Also as a result of point (3) the minister should direct DFI to suggest a suite of measures that could be implemented on the remainder of the A5, akin to the report that was carried out on the A32 Omagh to Enniskillen road in 2007. The purpose of this would be to identify smaller-scale schemes that could be implemented more rapidly and which would have positive benefit/cost ratios and which would be focused on reducing the number of serious crashes. These could include more overtaking opportunities (though the scope for these is admittedly quite limited), improvements to junctions that have high accident histories, localised bypasses of small settlements (eg Bready, Sion Mills), consolidation and closure of some side accesses and perhaps the installation of sections of central crash barriers such as exist on the Cherrymount Link in Enniskillen.
  6. As a result of points (4) and (5) the minister should direct DFI to focus investment on infrastructure schemes that would lead to greater benefits in the West. By way of examples, these could include further upgrades to the A4 west of Ballygawley, or further upgrades to the A6 Belfast to Derry road.

Appendix – Primer on the A5 WTC Scheme

The A5 WTC is the main road running south from Derry/Londonderry, via Strabane, Omagh and Ballygawley to the Monaghan border near Aughnacloy. It thereafter continues as the N2 to Dublin. It is effectively the main road from Dublin to the North-West, as well as being the main north-south connector for the western half of Northern Ireland. In 2007 the Irish government offered funding of £400m to the Northern Ireland Executive to upgrade this road to dual-carriageway standard, presumably because it would improve access to Donegal. Construction has yet to begin, though £80m has now been spent on planning. It has been repeatedly held up by (a) the Irish government postponing their funding offer in 2011 due to the Great Recession (b) three legal challenges – two of which were successful – in 2012, 2016 and 2017 and (c) the need for multiple public inquiries, the last of which took place in early 2020 (and is currently technically adjourned).

Because previous public inquiries were perceived by some to be insufficiently independent of the Dept for Infrastructure (DFI), the scheme’s sponsor, the 2020 public inquiry was instead carried out by the independent Planning Appeals Commission (PAC). Although the inquiry was to have looked purely at environmental considerations, the PAC itself decided it was appropriate to widen the inquiry to look at the overall rationale for the scheme and to consider alternatives. The PAC delivered an “interim” report on the public inquiry to DFI in September 2020 but, in keeping with normal practice, it was not published at that time as DFI took the next six months to decide their response.

The PAC’s interim report was published on 16 March 2021, along with DFI’s response. Given that previous public inquiries had largely endorsed the proposed scheme, the PAC’s interim report is remarkable for its ambivalent appraisal of the scheme, supportive in some areas but very negative in others. They did consider alternatives, but concluded that both dualling the existing A5 and building a new railway line were unlikely to make economic sense. In the end the PAC decided that they could not form a final view on the scheme with the information they had, and have asked for more work to be done, after which the Inquiry will be resumed and a final report prepared.

It is important to stress that the PAC can only issue recommendations to DFI. It does not have the power to cancel or alter the scheme. The DFI Minister is therefore free to choose to reject any of the recommendations that the PAC make.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | February 13, 2017

Improving the A2 Bangor to Belfast Road

The A2 Bangor to Belfast Road is an astonishingly busy road. At Cultra the weekday traffic count is over 35,000 vehicles, making it busier than the A1 to Newry (28,000 at Dromore), the M1 at Dungannon (21,000) or the A26 between Antrim and Ballymena (31,000). It was also one of the earliest roads to be widened to two lanes each way during the era of cars.

The thing that makes the Bangor to Belfast road particularly scary is that it has no central crash barrier for several miles between Holywood and Ballyrobert. Along here there are two lanes each way with only a hatched white line between them. While this design is very common in urban areas, it’s a relatively rare design on inter-urban routes (because it’s so unsafe) the only other significant example being the A24 between Belfast and Carryduff.

With a speed limit of either 40 or 50mph along the stretch, the closing speed of vehicles passing a few feet from each other in the central lane is between 80 and 100mph – and that’s assuming drivers are sticking to the speed limit. Then add in vehicles stopped in the overtaking lane to turn right. If you have ever driven the A2 in the rush hour, and you have seen the hundreds of vehicles travelling along it nose-to-tail every day, it is startling that collisions do not occur more frequently than they do. Since 2012 four people have been killed on the stretch from Bangor to Holywood.

One of the difficulties TransportNI face in managing the road is the amount of development along either side  – literally dozens and dozens of private driveways, residential homes, hotels, museums and other properties litter both sides  – which severely limits what can be done in engineering terms. The result is a dangerous cocktail of fast through-traffic and slow or stationary local traffic trying to turn on and off the road. In an ideal world the road would be upgraded to a modern grade-separated dual-carriageway but this is clearly impossible without an enormously costly and socially unacceptable level of destruction to the area.

Instead TransportNI have tried to control vehicles through a combination of an elaborate average speed camera system (though the jury is out as to whether or not these are actually operational) and traffic signals at the main side roads. A short stretch of central barrier has also been added for about a hundred metres at the Devil’s Elbow, the most notorious section of the road (and one which was considerably worse in years gone by before the curve was partly smoothed out). There is also one 1960s-era grade-separated junction at the Folk and Transport Museum.

However, a recent road upgrade on the Shore Road at Greenisland has revealed a possible answer to the conundrum of how to improve the A2 Bangor to Belfast Road in a meaningful, but realistic, way. The Greenisland scheme involved upgrading the Shore Road to an urban dual-carriageway that eliminated dangerous right turn movements while still allowing access to dozens of private properties as follows:

  • Provide two lanes in each direction.
  • Install a continuous central crash barrier.
  • Consolidate side roads and private driveways where possible, and limit the remainder to left-in/left-out movements only so that nobody has to turn right either in or out of a side road.
  • Major junctions converted to compact signalised roundabouts. The reason they are built as roundabouts rather than standard T-junctions is to facilitate u-turns – so that people wishing to turn right in or out of a driveway can turn left and then do a u-turn at a strictly controlled location.

Here is an example of one of these new compact signalised roundabouts at Greenisland:

It’s a wonderfully simple idea, but at a stroke it resolves the main problem we face when proposing to improve safety on the A2 Bangor to Belfast Road, namely, the need to maintain access to all the properties along the road.

So I set myself a challenge – to find out if is it technically feasible to upgrade the A2 Bangor to Belfast Road to dual-carriageway standard using the Greenisland model. Any road enthusiast can have fun drawing lines on maps and creating beautiful, and completely impractical, road upgrades. But I wanted to create a feasible scheme, one that had a good chance of passing a cost/benefit analysis, so for that reason I gave myself some restrictions:

  • Limited to the stretch from Whinney Hill to Ballyrobert where there is no barrier.
  • Only use the existing route of the A2 – no heading off cross-country!
  • No grade-separated junctions – everything on the level to keep the cost down.
  • Signalised roundabouts of the same dimensions as those used at Greenisland.
  • No more than 800 metres between junctions – so that residents don’t have an excessive detour.
  • Minimal land take – land in Cultra is expensive!
  • Re-use existing road space wherever possible.

With these restrictions I set about coming up with a proof of concept.

The result? I believe it could be done.

The road would need the addition of:

  • Five compact signalised roundabouts sited at Cultra Station Road, Station Road, Glencraig Park, Seahill Road and Ballyrobert Road.
  • Two compact gyratory (like stretched roundabouts) sited at Whinney Hill and Craigdarragh Road.
  • Approximately one metre of land take along the length of the road to facilitate the addition of a central barrier. In some cases where the pavement is wide, this could be taken from the pavement. In most cases, however, it would need to be vested.
  • A 40mph speed limit along the whole stretch.
  • With slightly more land take there would be an opportunity to provide a cycleway along one or both sides of the road (not shown in my design).

Here is an example of how the Seahill Road junction could look (red is the kerb line, yellow are the locations of painted lane markings):


And here’s a gyratory-style junction at Craigdarragh Road. Remember, the point of the design is to facilitate u-turns for people who would now be limited to left turn movements by the presence of the central safety barrier.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 21.27.11.png

How much would it cost? Very difficult to judge, since land would be such a large component of the price. But if you assumed £1m per junction, that would be £7m, plus £15m to add a central barrier, you could be talking in the ballpark of £20m, which is not a huge amount of money when compared to other road schemes currently in planning.

Here is the full design (JPG image compressed as a ZIP) – click to view. (background images are from Google Earth).

Anyway, this is not a formal design proposal (I will leave that up to the professionals). But I do believe I have demonstrated that it is technically feasible to significantly improve the safety of this road by this type of upgrade without excessive cost or disruption.


Posted by: wesleyjohnston | January 7, 2017

Why self-driving cars are going to change everything

Every so often a technology comes along that makes a fundamental change to a given field. Like MP3s to the music industry. I am convinced that self-driving cars (also known as autonomous vehicles) is such a technology for transport. New technologies always bring both pros and cons. Do not believe anyone who tells you that self-driving cars are a nightmare scenario. And do not believe anyone who claims they are a panacea that will solve all our transport problems. They will bring a spectrum of impacts.

Self-driving technology is not yet sufficiently developed to allow fully autonomous vehicles on our roads today, but we are probably within five years of a small number being present, and within ten years of more widespread use. The next decade has the potential to see a revolutionary change in how we view cars, roads and transport in general. It is impossible to do the whole area justice in such a short space, but in this blog I very briefly summarise some of the potential changes that are coming:

Liability for crashes will move from driver to manufacturer.

If you are behind the wheel of a car that drives itself, who is responsible in a crash? Clearly it could not be the occupant if they were not in control of the vehicle at all, and was not required to be. So liability will have to lie with the manufacturer of the self-driving hardware and software.

We will no longer have to have a driving license.

A self-driving car will be capable of driving anyone, whether or not they can drive a car. In theory a child under the age of 17 could travel alone, as could a person registered blind. There will no longer be a need to take driving lessons, pass a driving test or hold a driving license.

We will no longer own our cars.

If the car contains all the hardware/software for driving the car, and the manufacturer is liable for crashes, then they will not want to hand ownership of the car over to someone who could compromise the technology. So it will be more like software where we use the car under the terms of a license, rather like a rental agreement. So you will hire the car in your driveway, not own it.

But why stop there? If a car can drive itself, why go to all the bother of having one sitting in your driveway taking up space? Why not just have one turn up when you need it and have it drive away again when you’re done? It may not be the same vehicle each day, but is that really a problem if you just want to get from A to B?

There will be different models of car ownership.

There will always be car lovers so there will continue to be a demand for manually controlled cars. However, in time the cost of getting a driving license for a manually controlled car will increase as their numbers decline. And insurance costs will sky-rocket since human drivers will be the most dangerous on the roads, compared to computers. So the top end of the hierarchy will be the rich who can still afford to drive manually controlled cars.

Below this are people who are happy to hire a car, but want it to be “their” car, so they can fill it with their stuff and have it in their driveway, or if parked off-site at least be the same vehicle each day. This will operate like a hire-purchase arrangement.

Below this, at lower cost, will be those who are happy to hire a car, but don’t mind if it’s a different vehicle each time they use it and don’t mind if it’s not parked outside their home. They may pay on a pay-as-you-go basis or via monthly subscription.

The bottom rung will be people who are also happy to car-share with strangers. They will pay even less in return for agreeing to perhaps not be taken directly to their destination and to accept the car picking up and dropping off other people on the way. This is not dissimilar to a black taxi today.

The distinction between public and private transport will blur and even disappear.

The bottom rung of people who hire cars and share with other people is not dissimilar to a bus, except that the route is bespoke and the vehicle is smaller. But there is no reason why self-driving buses could not also appear. These, too, may be owned by manufacturers. This raises the possibility of a more nuanced transport system with a descending hierarchy of large buses, small buses, large cars and small cars all serving progressively lower-demand journeys. It will be hard to tell where “public transport” ends and “private transport” begins – and will the distinction even matter?

Cars will have sorter lifespans.

If cars are hired out, manufacturers will want to make sure they get as much use as possible. This means that they will incur mileage much more rapidly than cars which are parked outside homes all day. So the average lifespan of a car may reduce to less than five years, meaning that the majority of cars on the road may be quite modern. This has the advantage that new technologies will be disseminated much more rapidly. There will also be a need to maintain all these cars, and this could be a new industry, or a development of the existing car maintenance industry. Car usage patterns suggest that it would make sense for a lot of car maintenance work to take place during the night when cars are idle.

Traffic levels could rise significantly.

At the present, the number of drivers limits the number of cars on the road. Logically, there cannot be more cars on the road than there are licensed drivers. This limit disappears with cars that can drive themselves. With car companies sending unoccupied cars out onto the roads, traffic levels are limited only by the number of vehicles that exist, which could be much higher.

Car parks will move from where people work/shop to the city periphery.

Currently people drive to work and shops and obviously seek to park close by. This creates demand for large car parks in city centre locations and at out-of-town shopping centres. But with self-driving cars there is no need to park close to shops or workplaces. Instead, there may be a need for “drop off points” where cars can let out passengers, before driving away to get other passengers. However, demand will be higher at some times (eg 8-9am) than other times (eg 3am) and so at off-peak times there will be a need for somewhere to store thousands of idle cars. Economics demands that these be in areas where land is cheap, namely industrial estates or the city periphery. So we will see a loss of demand for city centre car parks and an increase in demand for large-scale out of town parking areas. This reduction in parking could make both housing estates and city centre streets much more attractive by removing parked vehicles from the streets and freeing up land currently occupied by car parks, and allowing increases in density of development.

Almost perfect compliance with the law will be possible.

Self-driving cars will drive exactly as programmed and will not experience human emotions such as frustration. As such, almost perfect compliance with things like speed limits and traffic signals becomes achievable. Currently legislation is limited by the practicalities of enforcement – where even if a law is passed, it cannot be enforced. But imagine a scenario where you could establish a 17mph speed limit outside a particular school, and have immediate compliance by almost all vehicles. Or mark a particular route as “residents only” or “not suitable for HGVs” and have the same immediate compliance? Or even create laws that are impossible to pass today, for example one that says “traffic going from Lisburn to Bangor must use the A55 Outer Ring”. It would allow governments to very closely control how roads are used for the first time.

Having a small number of manufacturers supplying vehicles would allow governments to much more closely regulate the use of vehicles. For example, governments could use a taxation system, based on miles travelled, time travelled and location travelled to create a complex marketplace for transport with the aim of influencing where people drive to and when. So a higher taxation on inner city streets would seek to discourage traffic build-up in sensitive locations, while lower taxation to areas of social deprivation could be used to encourage investment.

Self-driving HGVs.

HGVs will also be increasingly self-driving. This will make freight transport cheaper since there will no longer be a driver’s wage to pay, and HGVs will no longer need to stop for rest breaks or have tachographs. Moving goods about will be easier and cheaper. Like cars, there will be a hierarchy of HGVs, smaller lorries, vans and courier-type vehicles. Perhaps companies such as Amazon could run a fleet of self-driving delivery vehicles.

Significant reduction in road deaths.

Nobody is suggesting that self-driving cars will never make a mistake or never crash. But they do have the potential to be significantly safer than human drivers. A plausible figure that is sometimes quoted is “ten times safer”. This means that for every ten people killed on the roads driving manually-controlled cars, only one person would be killed if they had been using self-driving cars. Getting road fatalities in Northern Ireland down to seven or eight per year would seem to be within reach with self-driving technology.

Much safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Self-driving cars have already demonstrated strong awareness of what other road users are doing. A Google test car once did an emergency stop because it thought that a cyclist on a footway, who did a slight wobble, was about to fall onto the road. This may have been an over-reaction by the test car, but it illustrates the point that a computer can be thinking about the trajectory and possible actions of dozens of other road users simultaneously. Cars could potentially spot a child about to run into the road and take action before they have even reached the road. It is possible that at some future date a pedestrian could simply step off the pavement into live traffic in almost perfect safety. This is something that could certainly be abused by pranksters, but also allows for the possibility of streets becoming much more equitable between different types of road user.

Roads would have much higher capacity.

Self-driving cars currently leave large gaps between themselves and human-controlled cars, but once the majority of cars are autonomous, they could safely drive much closer together. Imagine the M1 into Belfast filled with cars travelling 2 or 3 metres apart at 50mph. The capacity of the road network would rise significantly without having to build new roads or widen existing ones.

Hacking is a threat.

Self-driving cars could potentially be “hacked” by terrorists. A “hacked” HGV with its safety features over-ridden could be driven through a pedestrian area much as occurred in France in 2016. But in this case, there would be no driver to incapacitate, making the incident much more difficult to bring to an end. Making autonomous vehicles safe from hacking will become a significant issue.

Lifestyle changes and less of a concern about journey times.

Currently a commuter obviously has to focus on driving their car. But if cars are self-driving, then the occupant can do whatever they wish with the time. This could include eating, sleeping or working. So what was once “wasted” time commuting could now become productive or leisure time. This means that commuters may become less concerned about their journey times and hence may be less concerned about congestion than at present.

It would also make longer commutes more tolerable. Imagine if you lived in Belfast and worked in Strabane. You could get up at 7am and get straight into a car with a box of food, go back to sleep for the first hour and then eat breakfast and catch up with the news or social media during the second hour before turning up at work at 9am. They would arrive in work less tired and stressed.

Some professions will disappear.

Some common professions will ultimately no longer be needed, or needed in fewer numbers. These include bus drivers, taxi drivers, traffic wardens, traffic police, private car mechanics, tyre shops for the general public, driving instructors, driving test officers and lorry drivers. Professions have come and gone throughout history but of course cause problems for the individuals affected.

The final 5% is the technological hurdle.

The technology exists today to introduce self-driving cars that can drive in all normal driving conditions. The delay, and the majority of the work, comes from dealing with the exceptions. What, for example, does a self-driving car do in these circumstances?:

  • A police officer steps into the road and indicates “stop” with their hand.
  • A manhole collapses in the middle of the road ahead.
  • A fallen tree is blocking the road.
  • Someone alters a road sign to show the wrong speed limit.
  • A pedestrian sits down in the middle of the road.
  • The car suffers a mechanical failure on a motorway.
  • The road markings are covered with snow.

The unexpected is by definition unexpected, so the cars will somehow have to learn and adapt and this raises the potential for errors. Self-driving cars will therefore make mistakes and we need to be clear about this. It is this “final 5%” of situations that is going to take 95% of the work for those developing the technologies, but the problem will eventually be solved and self-driving cars will arrive on our streets. I believe it is inevitable, and it will be up to society to meet the opportunities and problems highlighted in this blog and adapt.

Wesley Johnston, 7 Jan 2017,

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | November 24, 2016

A6 legal challenge – what now?

History of the Scheme

There has been pressure to upgrade the A6 for many years. The Moneynick Road east of Toome is the lowest-standard of road between Belfast and Derry. An upgrade has been planned since at least 1964. There has been enormous political pressure over many years from the North West to upgrade the road.

TransportNI intends to upgrade the A6 to dual-carriageway from the end of the motorway at Randalstown to Castledawson roundabout. Half way along this route is Toome, which already has a dual-carriageway bypass. Hence the scheme is actually in two parts – Randalstown to Toome, and then Toome to Castledawson.

Various routes were considered, especially from Toome to Castledawson which passes through environmentally sensitive land west of the River Bann. Eleven routes were investigated for this section, but the preferred route was chosen after a public consultation in 2005. The maps below show the chosen routes (existing Toome Bypass in black).


Preferred routes for A6 dualling scheme

A public inquiry was held in November 2007 which approved the scheme in this form. There then followed a long period of inaction as the scheme repeatedly failed to reach the top of the funding pile (and an argument about one junction rumbled on from 2009 until 2015). Finally funding was granted in 2015.

Progression towards construction

Both schemes went through the planning process separately with separate legal documents (such as the Vesting Order, Direction Order, Environmental Statement). However, a single construction contract was awarded to Graham/Farrans joint venture in May 2015. The contract contains a break clause between the design and build components that means that it is contractually possible for the design to be completed but the road then not proceed to construction, despite the tender award. The design was completed and construction was due to get underway in October 2016.


Chris Murphy, an ornithologist and one of a number of opponents to the scheme, launched legal action against the western half of the scheme (Toome to Castledawson) in late September 2016. It is probably best left to the opponents to explain why they are opposed to the scheme, but to me it seems to centre around two issues:

  1. That the route takes the road through countryside that was home to poet Seamus Heaney, including areas that feature in a number of his poems. The route also passes very close indeed (approx 100 metres) to his former home, Mossbawn. The opponents believe that this land is therefore culturally sensitive and that construction of a dual-carriageway is incompatible with this.
  2. That the route passes through environmentally sensitive land west of the River Bann, including an area used by over-wintering swans.

It should also be said that although the opposition was widely publicised this year due to construction getting underway, the same issues were raised at the public inquiry back in 2007.

TransportNI would say that the issues were indeed taken into consideration at both the planning stage and in the inquiries.They would say that these issues are not the only ones that have to be considered and they they have to be balanced against a range of other considerations that are not all compatible with each other. They say that the route chosen represents the best compromise between the conflicting needs of the economy, road safety, the travelling public, local residents, construction cost, accessibility, the environment and cultural heritage.

Fundamentally, the two sides do not agree on this point. As I explore in my book on the Belfast Urban Motorway, it is almost impossible to objectively balance issues that fundamentally differ in substance in a meaningful way.

No legal challenge has been raised against the eastern part of the scheme (Randalstown to Toome) though it has to be said that the opponents are not a homogenous group and some (e.g. Friends of the Earth) seem to be opposed to road-building more generally, in cases where they believe the schemes are environmentally unsustainable, and this does seem to apply to the A6 more widely than just the section in question. (They can correct me if I am wrong in this.)

Legal Challenge

The legal challenge was an application for a “judicial review”. A judicial review is where a judge examines the action of a body (in this case, the Department for Infrastructure) to see whether that action compiled with relevant law. This is quite a narrow process. So for example, a judicial review would not explore whether a road is justified in a general sense – that’s an issue for the public inquiry. But it could look at, for example, whether the legislation around how environmental assessments should be carried out was followed while the scheme was being designed.

However, it would waste a lot of time if everybody could request a judicial review about anything. So the court first of all has to decide whether there is an arguable case – this is called “applying for leave”. This is what has occupied the courts for the past two months, and which was concluded by today’s decision.

Mr Murphy argued six possible points on which he believed the Department may not have complied with the law. Today the judge ruled that he did not have an arguable case on five of these points, but that he did have an arguable case on one – whether the environmental assessments carried out under the Habitats Directive complied with law. The Habitats Directive is an EU law that places a requirement on member states to protect the environment, in this case the area around Lough Neagh and Lough Beg. The UK is still in the EU, and so the Habitats Directive applies to Northern Ireland.

The judge seems to be concerned that, while various assessments have been carried out for these Lough areas during the years that the scheme has been in planning, it’s not clear which, if any, of these were intended to meet the requirements of the Habitats Directive. He said:

“The court is left wondering about the impact or otherwise of the checks being carried out. … The question relates to whether the checks, if they had produced a negative outcome in the sense of a conclusion there would be an adverse impact being demonstrated… would this have led to the existing scheme being abandoned?”

He went on to say that the court may well become satisfied that this is not actually an issue, but that it is worth exploring the point. So it is important to stress that the judge has not answered the question he raised. He has merely said that asking the question is justified. The leave for a judicial review was therefore granted.

What happens now?

The next round will be a legal hearing to look at this question of the legality of the various environmental assessments. A judge will then probably reserve judgement (meaning they’ll go away and think about it) and then make a ruling at a later date. I am told that the hearing would be likely to begin in January, but that an outcome may be a number of weeks after that. It is hard to know more precisely than this.

Can construction begin?

Although some preliminary site works are underway under a separate contract (e.g. archaeological works) the main contract was put on hold pending the decision of the court case. Since the legal challenge was only made to the section west of Toome, a case can be made for proceeding with the section east of Toome that is not the subject of the challenge: particularly since this section is currently the worst in terms of road design and safety, and probably the most needed.

The Minister is keen to do this if possible and said today that he “will now explore our options for commencing construction on the unchallenged section of this project.” Why is it not straightforward? Two reasons.

Firstly, there is only one construction contract so reducing the scope of the works would have big implications for the contractor, who would have planned their manpower, logistics, raw materials, site yards etc with a two-part scheme in mind. They would also likely want to revisit the agreed fee since the economics of construction would change.

Secondly, the fact that Chris Murphy only challenged one part of the scheme is not the end of the matter. If the court believes that the possible breach of legislation on the Habitats Directive also affected the assessments on the eastern part of the scheme, they could decide to quash the legal orders for the entire scheme, not just the western portion, on the grounds that the eastern bit, too, did not comply with legislation.

Tonight one of the Minister’s advisors seemed very confident that work could get underway on the eastern portion, so perhaps the Department has already established their position on this.

Possible outcomes

These range from best-case to worst-case. (As this is a roads blog, “best-case” means the road going ahead as planned. If you disagree, simply swap the words “best” and “worst” and read in that manner.)

  1. Best-case scenario: The judicial review finds that in fact the Department for Infrastructure did comply with legislation and the concerns are unfounded, i.e. that the environmental assessments are sufficient to meet the requirements of the Habitats Directive and no laws have been broken. Implications: (1) construction on both sections could get underway as planned either straight away, or early in 2017. (2) road is built as planned, on the route planned. (3) The Department would be vindicated.
  2. Worse scenario:  The judicial review finds that the environmental assessments did not comply with legislation but that this failure was limited to the western portion of the scheme. Implications: (1) construction on the Randalstown-Toome section could get underway early in 2017 as planned. (2) TransportNI would have to carry out new environmental assessments for the Toome-Castledawson stretch. (3) There may have to be a new public inquiry, meaning this stretch would be unlikely to get underway for at least a further 2 or 3 years and could even require a different route. (4) Mr Murphy would be vindicated and questions would have to be asked within TransportNI about the inadequate assessments.
  3. Even worse scenario: The judicial review finds that the environmental assessments did not comply with legislation on both parts of the scheme. Implications: (1) All construction would halt, and the road would not be built. (2) TransportNI would have to carry out new environmental assessments for the entire scheme. (3) There may have to be a new public inquiry, meaning this work would be unlikely to get underway for at least a further 2 or 3 years. (4) Unspent cash would revert to the Executive and could be reallocated to other road schemes. (5) Again, Mr Murphy would be vindicated and more serious questions would have to be asked within TransportNI about the inadequate assessments.
  4. Worst-case scenario: In this scenario, the judicial review finds that not only did the environmental assessments not comply with legislation on both parts of the scheme, but that the same procedure was used on other road schemes (e.g. the A5) in which case we could see multiple road schemes halted. In such a scenario the forward planning schedule for TransportNI could the thrown into disarray. Thankfully this scenario is unlikely, especially given the care that has gone into the new assessments for the A5, but is nevertheless a possibility.

Other points of note

A few other points have emerged from this situation that deserve a brief mention:

  • Some people whose properties are being vested are currently in the process of purchasing new homes and arranging to vacate their properties. If the legal orders for the scheme are quashed, then this process is thrown into confusion as these people will be left in limbo, potentially with house purchas contracts signed, and plans made but no money to follow through on the purchase. Anybody in this situation deserves special attention as this would be very distressing.
  • A large number of jobs in the civil engineering sector are dependent on the scheme going ahead. If the scheme was halted, then there will inevitably be some people who will lose their jobs (temporary as well as permanent contracts) as well as the impact on the construction sector locally, through no fault of their own.
  • The judge acknowledged that the implications go well beyond the confines of the legal challenge. He said “There’s substantial public interest involved in a case like this…. Stopping a major road project is a matter of considerable importance.” The First and Deputy First Minister today made the point that it has taken two months simply to decide whether the courts will even hear the challenge, and in a scheme of this importance that is a significant and financially very costly delay. They said “No one will dictate to judges how they decide cases but we are alarmed by the time it often takes to hear cases and the time it takes to obtain any decision.” This is surely a valid point.

Public Response

Today on Twitter a large amount of anger was apparent from people in the North West at the decision. This anger stems from the feeling that roads to the North West have been neglected for many years (which is objectively true) but also frustration that in recent years the only roads that have been subjected to legal challenges of this nature have been roads serving Derry. The anger was directly mostly towards Chris Murphy and other opponents of the scheme, but also towards Stormont which they perceive as being complicit in the alleged neglect of the North West.

While acknowledging all these reactions, I think it is important to reserve judgement on where to apportion “blame” until the judicial review is concluded: because if the judge rules that the environmental assessments have not been carried out lawfully, then the blame for such a failure would have to lie squarely within the Department for Infrastructure and not with Chris Murphy or any of the opponents. Such a scenario would vindicate their legal challenge and blaming them would be unfair.

The Minister seems confident that he will win the case, i.e. that we will have the “best-case scenario” above. But we shall have to wait until the new year to find out.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | November 21, 2016

A1 Loughbrickland to Beech Hill – ten years on and still dangerous

Ten years ago, on 21 November 2006, Roads Service opened a new stretch of dual-carriageway, on the A1 between Loughbrickland and Beech Hill, just north of Newry. We in Northern Ireland have built quite a number of dual-carriageways over the past ten years, but one important point sets this one apart from the others.

It was the last at-grade dual-carriageway built on the strategic road network in Northern Ireland. The phrase “at-grade” means that the road has T-junctions with gaps in the central reservation where vehicles can turn right across the opposite carriageway. Like this one:


The opposite of “at-grade” is “grade-separated”, which means that junctions are comprised of flyovers with either sliproads, or left-turn-only T-junctions, such that vehicles cannot cross the central barrier. Like this one:


We built at-grade dual-carriageways in Northern Ireland from 1959, when the Sydenham Bypass opened, right up until 2006 when the A1 from Loughbrickland to Beech Hill opened. And after that, we stopped. Today we only built “high quality” dual-carriageways, called HQDCs for short. HQDCs do not have gaps* in the central reservation. (Though they do sometimes have roundabouts. Roundabouts are annoying for drivers, but far less dangerous than turning right across the central reservation.)

Why have we phased out at-grade dual-carriageways? Because they are lethal. Allowing right turns on a dual-carriageway may have been fine in the 1960s with much lower traffic levels and at a time when many vehicles travelled at 40mph, but today most vehicles travel at 70mph and there are thousands of them. Take these speeds and add a bit of rain or mist, twilight and lots of glaring headlights and it’s not difficult to see why people die at these “gap junctions” again and again and again.

By contrast, HQDCs are much safer. For example, the A4 between Dungannon and Ballygawley was upgraded to HQDC standard in 2010. In the six years prior to the upgrade, 2004-2009, 10 people died on that stretch. By contrast, in the past five years, 2012-2016, only 3 people have died on the new dual-carriageway. That’s a reduction of over 50%. So there are at least 5 people alive today who would have been dead had it not been for the A4 dualling scheme.

At-grade dual-carriageways are now out-dated and dangerous relics of the 20th century. That’s why it’s a very good thing that the A1 from Loughbrickland to Beech Hill was the last such road built here. It’s just a shame that it took until 2006 for us to reach this conclusion.

Today there are two stretches of at-grade dual-carriageway in Northern Ireland that stand out as particularly lethal, and both need dealt with urgently:

  • The A1 from Sprucefield to Beech Hill. TransportNI currently has plans to upgrade the A1 from Sprucefield to Loughbrickland to HQDC standard, but there are still no plans to do the same on the Loughbrickland to Beech Hill stretch.
  • The A26 from Antrim to Ballymena, which is likewise claiming life after life at these notorious gap junctions. Limited alterations to the junctions are now planned here but there are no plans for a more general upgrade of the stretch.

It is time for TransportNI to put upgrades to both these stretches into the forward planning programme and stop the “gap junction” carnage.

*Purists may remind me that there is one gap on the A26 Ballee Road East south of Ballymena which opened after 2006. I am content to strike this off as a special case since the road was an upgrade of a 1960s dual-carriageway, and not a new road at this point.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | June 15, 2016

New Roads Minister reveals priorities

Northern Ireland’s new “roads” minister Chris Hazzard (of Sinn Féin), who took the helm of the new Department for Infrastructure (DfI) on 25 May, has been spelling out his priorities for road infrastructure. Of particular note was a press release published today tellingly entitled “Hazzard determined to deliver infrastructure projects to connect people west of the Bann” strongly hinting that he favours upgrades to the A5 (Derry/Londonderry to Ballygawley via Omagh and Strabane) and A6 road (Randalstown to Derry/Londonderry). This is hardly a surprise, given that upgrades to these roads were manifesto pledges of both the DUP and Sinn Féin. However, there are a number of comments in the press release worth highlighting.

The A6 route between Derry and Belfast connects our two biggest cities. This is a vital link in making the north an attractive place for those choosing to live, visit, work or invest.  I am determined to drive this project forward and complete the scheme to Drumahoe in this mandate, so we can maximise our offering and develop the economic potential across the region.” (emphasis mine)

The DfI is currently progressing plans to upgrade two sections of the A6. Randalstown to Castledawson is very advanced with a contractor in place and construction due to get underway within weeks. However, Mr Hazzard is referring to the Dungiven to Derry section which is now in advanced planning. In the previous Assembly term the Executive gave enough cash to this latter scheme to build part of it, but not all of it, and I estimate work will commence around 2019. The previous Minister had said that the section to be built would begin at the Dungiven end and would go as far as it could towards Derry with the money available, but didn’t specify an end point. Mr Hazzard’s comment suggests that he wants to build the whole section from Dungiven to the eastern edge of Derry, leaving only the final bit unbuilt, i.e. the section that bypasses the Waterside to connect to the A2 near the Foyle Bridge. To build all this would probably need a further funding allocation over and above what has been committed, but if the Executive is behind it there is no reason why it could not be achieved during the term of this Assembly as he suggests.

“Construction of the first phase of the A5 Western Transport Corridor, from Newbuildings to north of Strabane, is due to begin in 2017 subject to the successful  completion of the statutory procedures.   However, I am currently looking at how funding could be increased to expedite delivery of the A5 scheme.”

The first part of this simply states what we know, which is that the first bit of the A5 (Phase 1A Newbuildings to north of Strabane) has been promised funding by the Executive and is likely to get underway in late 2017 subject to the outcome of the public inquiry, yet to be held. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (also Sinn Féin) is previously on record as saying that this scheme is of such importance to his party that they would not agree to a Programme for Government that did not include it. The Executive has also promised enough money to commence work on Phase 1B (south of Omagh to Ballygawley), probably around 2019. However there is currently insufficient cash to complete Phase 1B or build the longer and much more expensive Phase 2 (north of Strabane to south of Omagh and including bypasses of both). Mr Hazzard is saying that he is seeking additional funding to press ahead with these. Since the Executive has a fixed pot of cash, this money would have to come from something else, either by (a) persuading the Executive to give his department more money (b) to explore some kind of private funding initiative or (c) postponing other road upgrades.

Finally, the small print. Now, this press release was published during an event in Derry, so it’s not surprising that it highlights connections to the north-west. However, the notes below the press release suggest that this press release is also a reflection of the new Minister’s more general priorities. The final part notes:

In addition to these Executive flagship schemes, the Department for Infrastructure is progressing a number of other high priority projects including:
• Narrow Water Bridge

• the A4 Enniskillen Southern Bypass
• the Ballynahinch Bypass

This is a very interesting list both because of what’s there and what’s not. Firstly, the previous Minister (Danny Kennedy of the UUP) was never that enthusiastic about Narrow Water Bridge though he did cooperate with the statutory procedures. It has been controversial in the nationalist/unionist sense because of its symbolic cross-border nature, while the relatively low traffic levels it would attract compared to other competing schemes have caused others to doubt its value for money. The scheme collapsed at the tender stage three years ago due to (a) inaccurate cost estimates and then (b) a lack of additional funding to cover the shortfall, but there has since been a lot of political support for the scheme. The Department for Infrastructure is not, in fact, progressing this scheme as stated (it’s being progressed by Louth County Council) but the Executive has agreed to prepare a joint report on its future. So the fact that it’s in this list suggests that Mr Hazzard is very supportive of the scheme and it could even end up being jointly funded North-South, something that did not happen under Danny Kennedy’s tenure.

Secondly, it is interesting that both the Enniskillen and Ballynahinch Bypasses are in the list. These two bypasses have been in planning for many years, and design work has been actively progressing. But until now there hasn’t been any particular reason to think that they are a higher priority than any other schemes, e.g. the Cookstown Bypass, Armagh East Link or proposed upgrades to the A1 and Sydenham Bypass. The fact that these two schemes are specifically named and several others are not should give some hope to advocates of these two schemes.

Finally, there is one glaring omission from this list of “other high priority schemes” and that is York Street Interchange in Belfast. For the past couple of years I have got the distinct impression, backed up by the speed of activity, that the York Street Interchange scheme has been pretty much the highest priority scheme within TransportNI. It rapidly climbed the ladder of progress, with design work quickly overtaking that of other schemes, had its public inquiry last year, and is actually out to tender as I write (though note the tender does not commit DfI to construction) with construction due to begin in late 2017, subject to funding. Because it is on Euroroute E01 it could also attract up to 40% EU funding (referendum notwithstanding). So the fact that a scheme that has been the top priority within TransportNI for the past couple of years is not even mentioned in Mr Hazzard’s list of “other high priority schemes” is very notable. We shall have to wait and see what this means for the proposed commencement date of 2017.

The coming months should continue to clarify the priorities of the Minister.

The Northern Ireland Assembly election takes place on May 5, 2016. In this blog I do a brief roundup of where each party stands in terms of the development of the road network specifically. Links are to the manifestos I used as sources. I’ve limited this to parties that currently have seats and who are seeking re-election.

The DUP list “infrastructure” as one of their five priorities, and roads are included in this. They stress that “Northern Ireland needs to keep investing in new and improved road networks to keep our region competitive” – so they are supportive of building new roads in principle. In terms of how it should be developed, they go on to say that “Investment should be focused upon improving connections between our key towns and cities and schemes that are of strategic and economic importance”.

They go on to list some specific schemes that they would support:

  • the dualling of the Newbuildings to north of Strabane section of the A5 (notably this is not a commitment to dual the entire A5);
  • dual carriageways for the Londonderry to Dungiven and the Randalstown to Castledawson sections of the A6 (the road from Belfast to L’Derry – both in planning, the latter to get underway within months);
  • the York Street interchange [M2/M3/Westlink];
  • the [A24] Ballynahinch bypass;
  • the Newry Southern relief road (which could potentially be paired up with the Narrow Water bridge proposal) and
  • the [A4] Enniskillen Southern bypass.

And, in another section, they add

  • the Belfast Rapid Transit Scheme

Sinn Féin list “infrastructure” as one of the items on their ten point programme. They pledge to “invest £6 billion to improve roads, transport and other infrastructure including the completion of the A5 and A6”. Although this money is not purely to be spent on roads, they are the only party to give any actual figures for investment levels.

They then list three specific schemes that they would support:

  • completion of the A5 and A6 (they do not say whether they mean dualling all of these roads, but it seems likely that they mean this for at least the A5);
  • complete the Belfast Rapid Transport system;
  • work with the Dublin government to ensure Narrow Water Bridge (which got cancelled due to excalating costs but which could potentially be paired up with the Newry Southern relief road).

The road construction schemes listed here are all either (a) schemes that would encourage cross-border traffic, or (b) improve access to the North West, or indeed both.

The SDLP begin by deriding years of under-investment before coming out strongly in favour of investment in the road network: “A vibrant and equitable economy cannot operate without a modern roads network. For decades chronic underinvestment means that today Northern Ireland’s road network is no longer fit for purpose.

They go on to promise to “prioritise the completion of the A5 and A6”, but express scepticism about the current manner of funding them: “Sinn Fein and the DUP’s proposed funding model cannot and will not deliver these projects on time or within budget. The SDLP will explore additional funding options to ensure these projects happen.

They then go on to list some specific schemes, some of which are not mentioned by any other parties:

  • The planned [A24] Ballynahinch bypass.
  • A major upgrade of the road between Newry and Downpatrick [the A25] (to maximise the benefit of the Narrow Water Bridge and to open up the Mournes).
  • Major improvement of the Northern Ireland side of the A4/N16 between Enniskillen and Sligo (ie, upgrading the A4 west of Enniskillen).
  • A dedicated link road from the M1 to the A1 at Lisburn to allow Belfast – Dublin traffic to move uninterrupted by the congested Sprucefield junction (ie, the M1/A1 Sprucefield Bypass which is currently a longer-term plan).

They also specifically mention Narrow Water Bridge:

  • The SDLP remains committed to the Narrow Water Bridge project and the SDLP will ensure that the development of the project is at the forefront of the next Executive’s infrastructural agenda (which got cancelled due to excalating costs but which could potentially be paired up with the Newry Southern relief road).

The UUP make a specific issue of the amount of funding for road maintenance (which is currently very under-funded) and note that they want to “agree the multi-year road maintenance budget in the departmental baseline, rather than unsustainably rely on the monitoring round process” (currently maintenance tends to get the leftover funds at the end of the year).

They go on to list three road schemes that they would prioritise, though notably not mentioning the dualling of the A5, the only one of the “big four” not to do so. It is also noteworthy that all list the A6 dualling, the only road construction scheme to get support from all four of the these parties.

  • York Street Interchange [M2/M3/Westlink];
  • the A6;
  • Belfast Rapid Transit system;

The Alliance Party does not mention road building in its lengthy manifesto, focusing instead on sustainable transport, but it does emphasise road safety as a key issue and seeks to move the emphasis in road policy towards that. They also want to give councils the power to introduce 20mph zones in residential areas.

The TUV emphases their view that economic need means that road building must be a priority: “The priority must be towards building roads because of their economic, rather than political, justification.” The manifesto criticises the dualling of the A5 as a “political” project and instead calls for a joint project with the Scottish government to dual the A75 in Scotland (the link from Stranraer towards England). The only other specific scheme that gets a mention is Belfast’s recently-introduced city centre bus lanes: “Choking Belfast City centre with bus lanes is not in the commercial interests of the City”.

The Green Party is the only party to take a position actively opposed to road building, seeking a “a moratorium on new road build projects with a focus on better maintenance of existing road infrastructure”. Nevertheless, in case this does not happen, they also want to “ensure that all road upgrades include provision for cycling”. They want to “rebalance transport spend towards public transport and active travel”. The manifesto focuses on this.

UKIP, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t take a strong position on road building, noting simply that “our transport system is inadequate and costs us all too much money” and pledging to “push for a proper local transport system which meets the passenger’s needs.”

The Conservative Party position has been given below in the comments – thank you.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | April 19, 2016

The A26 Antrim to Ballymena dual-carriageway – Time for Action

Northern Ireland’s (and indeed, Ireland’s) first dual-carriageway was Belfast’s Sydenham Bypass which opened in 1959. During the optimistic 1960s we built very high-standard motorways, the highest-spec roads that we have ever built – the M2 foreshore was the widest motorway in the UK when it opened and boasts four hard shoulders along with its ten traffic lanes.

It all went downhill with the Troubles. Major motorway building had ceased by 1975 (the M3 and M5 being the only ones that happened after that). Starved of cash, Roads Service reverted to building cheap-and-cheerful dual-carriageways, sometimes even just sticking a second carriageway alongside an existing road. Unlike the motorways, these dual-carriageways did not have flyover junctions with sliproads (“grade-separated junctions”), but rather they had conventional T-junctions with almost every minor road, driveway and even field accesses they encountered (“at-grade junctions”). At each junction, a little tarmac gap was created in the central reservation to allow vehicles to turn right. These are often colloquially called “gap junctions”.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 21.20.25

Typical “gap junction” on the A1 (Grove Road near Dromore).

Most of the A1 from Lisburn to Loughbrickland was upgraded in this manner during the 1970s and 80s, and the A26 from Antrim to Ballymena was upgraded in three phases in 1989, 1999 and 2001. The last road in Northern Ireland to be built to this low standard was the A1 Loughbrickland-Newry stretch which opened in 2006, only ten years ago.

This was all fine at the time but as traffic levels increased, and it became harder and harder to turn right, the deficient safety of these junctions became more and more obvious. The A1 stood out as the worst example. More and more people were being killed at gap junctions on the A1. And it happened again and again and again and again. As a result, TransportNI (formerly Roads Service) have already built four grade-separated junctions on the stretch, and have a plan to build five more and close up all the remaining gaps between Loughbrickland and Beech Hill at an estimated cost of £43m.

In the past few years attention has turned to the A26 between Antrim and Ballymena, a typical 1990s-era dual-carriageway with lots of gap junctions which is increasingly inappropriate for the traffic it carries. Just compare the standard with that of the section of the A26 north of Ballymena that is currently being upgraded – it will have no gap junctions at all, and includes three grade-separated junctions:

The A26 between Antrim and Ballymena could well be the most lethal after the A1 in terms of people killed. It carries approximately 37,000 vehicles per day, more than the western end of the M1 and making it one of Northern Ireland’s busiest dual-carriageways.

Since January 2012, five people have lost their lives on these seven short miles of dual-carriageway. Three of these fatalities occurred at gap junctions and all three have occurred within the past 18 months – Avril Dempster in February 2015, a 62 year old man in October 2015 and Karla Cameron in February 2016.

As increasing numbers of modern, i.e. grade-separated, dual carriageways open around Northern Ireland (the A1 Newry Bypass, the A4 from Dungannon to Ballygawley and the A8 to Larne all being examples) so the A26 increasingly feels like an antiquated, inappropriate and rather dangerous road. It is becoming harder to ignore this issue as time goes on.

Screen Shot 2016-04-19 at 21.57.08

The A26 is littered with private accesses and gap junctions.

This spate of tragedies has encouraged TransportNI to review safety on the road and, according to a local media report there are plans for some basic interventions:

[TransportNI Network Development Manager] Mr Keys told the workshop that the next steps for TransportNI were to review signage and reassess the street lighting at the Barnish Road and Creavery Road Junction and that, in addition, draft legislation was being prepared and that designs were currently underway for the prohibition of right turns out of the Woodgreen, Maine and Cromkill Roads.

These are welcome steps but I would regard them as “interim” measures rather than a solution. The A26 is a road of significant regional importance and it is only going to get busier. Ultimately, the only appropriate solution is to carry out an upgrade of a similar type to that taking place on the A1, namely:

  • Providing a limited number of grade-separated junctions to allow safe right-turns at selected roads.
  • Making all other side roads left-turn only.
  • Closing all gaps in the central reservation.
  • Closing up as many private accesses as is practical.

It would require a more detailed study to identify the appropriate locations for grade-separated junctions, but based on the pattern being adopted on similar projects, two (possibly three) would likely suffice, perhaps located at:

Based on the costs being quoted for the junction improvement scheme on the A1, the cost of upgrading this part of the A26 in this manner could be somewhere in the region of £20m, which is a significant sum of money, but not expensive when compared with other upgrades such as the £65m current scheme to dual 4 miles of the A26 north of Ballymena or the approx £1.1bn scheme to dual 55 miles of the A5 from Derry to Aughnacloy.

This is why I am confident in predicting that in a few years’ time we will see “A26 Junctions Antrim-Ballymena” appear on TransportNI’s forward planning schedule. And not before time.

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