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).

a6duallingmap_000

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.

Opposition

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:

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-21-16-20

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:

screen-shot-2016-11-21-at-21-19-52

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.

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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.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | December 17, 2015

Budget 2016-17 – Implications for NI Road Schemes

Here are some initial thoughts on the Northern Ireland Budget for 2016-17 that has been agreed today. The budget covers a lot more than transport, but I am focusing in specifically on new road schemes here. There are currently a huge number of worthy road schemes in planning, and nowhere near enough cash to build them all. Although the DRD progresses major road projects up to the point of being “shovel ready”, it is up to the Executive to actually allocate the cash, so the Executive in effect decides what gets built and when. So budgets are always of critical importance because they basically decide what the priorities are going to be.

Lots of road schemes are in planning, but the six major schemes that are closest to being “shovel ready” are (in order of readiness, costs are DRD estimates):

  1. A6 dualling Randalstown-Castledawson. Is shovel ready NOW. Design work basically completed, contractor appointed and just awaiting cash. Cost up to £140m.
  2. York Street Interchange, Belfast. Design work mostly completed, public inquiry completed but inspector’s report not yet received. Appointment of contractor underway. Could be shovel ready within 8 or 9 months. Cost up to £165m.
  3. A5 dualling Newbuildings to north of Strabane. Design work mostly completed, contractor appointed but public inquiry still to take place. Within a year of being shovel ready. Cost £170m.
  4. A5 dualling south of Omagh to Ballygawley. Design work mostly completed, contractor appointed but public inquiry still to take place. Within a year of being shovel ready. Cost £160m.
    Items 3 and 4 here are collectively referred to as “A5 dualling Phase 1” which the Executive agreed to progress ahead of the rest of the project back in 2012. Confusing, I know.
  5. A6 dualling Derry-Dungiven including Dungiven Bypass. Majority of design work completed, public inquiry completed, report received but DRD has not yet issued its response. Process for appointing contractor not yet begun. Could be shovel ready within a year or so if this was made a priority. Cost up to £420m for the whole project, or up to £65m if the Dungiven Bypass element is decoupled and built separately.
  6. A24 Ballynahinch Bypass. Design work at advanced stage. Public inquiry to take place January 2016. Could be shovel ready within two years. Cost up to £50m.

This budget in the first instance covers just the next single financial year, 2016-17 (April to March). While £384m of capital funding is provided to the new “Department for Infrastructure”, this is not broken down in the document into its components (roads, water, electricity etc) so we can’t say too much right now on exactly what that money is going towards.

However, the budget statement notes that “the nature of some capital projects means it is important to provide funding certainty beyond that time span. Therefore the Executive has agreed to identify a number of flagship projects where funding will be agreed now for future periods.” So, although we are only getting the final funding allocations for the next financial year, we also get commitments to fund particular “flagship” projects for the next five years. These are schemes, like the six listed above, which will take more than a year to build and so need funding commitments for several years in order to begin. The ones relevant to roads that are mentioned in the budget are:

Project 2016/17 2017/18 2018/19 2019/20 2020/21
A5 Road £13.2m £40m £53m £55m £68m
A6 Road £21m £57m £60m £60m £60m
Belfast Rapid Transit £17m £9m £20m £12.9m

Taking these in turn:

A5 Road

The total money allocated here is £229m. This figure seems to INCLUDE the £75m promised by the Republic of Ireland in the “Fresh Start” agreement a few weeks ago (judging by a comment on page 5 of the budget statement), to be paid in three tranches of £25m over three years. So this is actually £154m of Executive funding plus £75m of Dublin funding. £229m is more than enough to cover the A5 dualling Newbuildings to North of Strabane scheme at £170m, but the £59m that that leaves is only a third of what is needed to complete the other half of “Phase 1”, namely the A5 dualling south of Strabane to Ballygawley scheme. In a DRD press release issued tonight (not yet online now online) the DRD Minister indicates that she clearly thinks the funding refers to the first of these ONLY, saying only that the funding includes “the New Buildings to Strabane section of the A5 Western Transport Corridor”. But given that there is too much funding allocated for just that one stretch, we still have to determine what the rest of the money is for.

Now, assuming these two schemes pass their inquiry, they could in theory get underway in about a year from now, say January 2017 for the sake of argument. Assuming that each one takes three years to complete, they would be completed by January 2020, which is during the 2019/20 financial year. Clearly there is not enough cash in the allocations above to allow this. However, it COULD work if start on one of the two was deferred by a couple of years so that its funding profile moved up to the 2021/22 financial year, beyond the scope of this budget. So in that scenario we could see:

  • A5 dualling Newbuildings to North of Strabane scheme commencing in early 2017
  • A5 dualling south of Omagh to Ballygawley scheme commencing in early 2019

It’s also possible, though I think less likely, that the DRD will decide to abandon this way of breaking down the A5 project (i.e. abandon the “Phase 1” distinction) and instead progress another element, such as the Strabane Bypass instead of Omagh-Ballygawley.

A6 Road

In a press release issued tonight (not yet online now online), the DRD minister says that the funding allocation will allow work to get underway on “the A6 road scheme”. Now, clearly there are TWO A6 road schemes, but  the Minister must surely be referring to the A6 dualling Randalstown to Castledawson scheme which is shovel ready, has a contractor and is just awaiting a cash allocation. Given that there is funding allocated to the A6 from the 2016/17 financial year onwards, it’s virtually certain that we will see:

  • A6 dualling Randalstown to Castledawson scheme commencing in April 2016 and being completed by around April 2018.

The Randalstown to Castledawson scheme costs up to £140m. The funding actually allocated to the A6 is £258m, so clearly work is going to get underway on other parts of the A6 too as that leaves £118m unaccounted for. The major A6 dualling scheme, A6 dualling Derry to Dungiven, will cost a whopping £420m so with these funding allocations we can’t build all of that in the next five years. But we could begin work on the A6 Dungiven Bypass, which we know can be decoupled from the rest of the project at an estimated cost of £65m. This still leaves £53m, so it could be that the plan is to begin work on the entire A6 Derry-Dungiven stretch later in the five year period. The budget does NOT commit to this, however, and due to the very substantial shortfall of over £300m we have to be careful not to get carried away. So given that the Randalstown to Castledawson scheme will use up all the cash for the first three financial years, I think we could see:

  • A6 Dungiven Bypass commencing around 2019.
    Or possibly work starting on the entire Derry-Dungiven scheme in 2019, though this has not been committed in this budget and would depend on available funding at that time.

York Street Interchange, Belfast

Is very notably absent from this list. Now, according to Julian O’Neill, the DRD have pointed out that “it simply was not highlighted in today’s document“. This is true – the budget is not allocating money for ALL road schemes for the next five years, it’s merely listing two very high-profiles ones. So the absence of a project from the table does not mean it won’t also get funding during this time period. However, I have to say that York Street Interchange is clearly in the same league as the A5 and A6 – it’s at a similar cost level (albeit attracting 40% EU funding as it’s on Euroroute 01), it’s at a similar point of readiness, it’s funding is similarly spread across multiple financial years, and it’s similarly high-profile and surely also a “flagship” project. So I don’t think it’s jumping to conclusions to say that this budget is not encouraging for an early start for York Street Interchange and could well be a disappointment to its advocates within the DRD. Make no mistake, I think the York Street Interchange project will go ahead, but it may not go ahead at quite the timescale the DRD have been hoping (they want it to begin on the ground within 12 months).

Belfast Rapid Transit (BRT)

Phase 1 of BRT (East Belfast, West Belfast and Titanic Quarter) has been underway since May 2014 and is due to be operational in September 2018. Since the scheme is actually underway, at a total estimated cost of around £99m, it’s no surprise at all that funding has been allocated for future years. However, I do note that funding has been allocated for the 2019/20 financial year, which is well beyond the scheme opening date. Now, I don’t know enough about the project to know whether it will still be requiring capital funding a year after it is completed, but another possibility is that this is a commitment to launch fairly rapidly into Phase 2 of BRT, which would see additional routes built to North and South Belfast. The fact that no funding is allocated for the final year, however, makes me think something more mundane may be going on – but we shall see.

Summary

This is all my speculation, but my best reckoning for the commencement dates of major projects going ahead in the next few years are:

  • April 2016 – A6 dualling Randalstown to Castledawson
  • Early 2017 – A5 dualling Newbuildings to North of Strabane
  • Early 2019 – A5 dualling south of Omagh to Ballygawley
  • 2019 – A6 Dungiven Bypass (and possibly more of the A6 Derry-Dungiven scheme)
  • Uncertain – York Street Interchange probably sometime in the next five years
Posted by: wesleyjohnston | December 16, 2015

Northern Ireland Traffic Figures – in Google Earth format!

If you just came here for the KML file, here it is! But read on…

TransportNI have just released their 2014 Annual Traffic Census report. This document is basically a huge, 140 page, list of tables, the bulk of which list the traffic counts measured at the 350 or so automated traffic counters located around Northern Ireland, for example:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 20.55.25

Another table lists the locations of these counters in Irish Grid format. For example:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 20.55.05

We’ve probably all seen temporary traffic counters in operation – two cables strung across the road with a box at one end. What most people don’t notice, however, are automated counters because these are buried under ground and use induction to detect traffic. But you can see the telltale pattern in the tarmac if you know where to look and you might also see the little counter box discretely located beside them.

The traffic census information is incredibly useful, because it allows us to see not only the annual average daily traffic (AADT) at each spot, but also the hourly flow during the busiest hour in the morning and afternoon peak, a more critical figure when analysing congestion. A few counters are also able to distinguish HGVs from other vehicles and give a percentage of traffic that consists of HGVs. Some can even distinguish traffic types in even more detail than this.

However, while the Report does have maps at the back, it is still cumbersome to use because you have to find the locations you want in the maps at the rear and then refer back to the various tables in the rest of the document.

So what I’ve done is to re-package some of this material in KML format (download here), which means that you can open it in Google Earth and see the data on an actual map. The information I have included is: the counter name and number, AADT figure for 2014, the morning and evening peak traffic flows and the % HGVs, if available. However, I have also gone back to old traffic reports and included the historic traffic counts at each location from 1999-2013. Therefore you can not only see the 2014 figure, but how it compares to historic figures for the previous 15 years.

Depending on your version, when you open it in Google Earth and zoom in you’ll see something like this, where each balloon represents the location of one automated traffic counter:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 20.46.23

Each balloon is labelled with “at a glance” info – the road number and the 2014 AADT traffic level, in thousands. If you click on the balloon, however, you see the more detailed information:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 21.25.13

 

 

So the top bit gives the details of the counter. Each counter can record two separate “channels” of traffic data, which are added together to get the AADT. These are almost always wired up to be one channel for each direction, so the AADT figure is the total for the road. However, in a few cases (e.g. on the M2 foreshore and Westlink) only one channel is used, or it’s used to record two bits of information in the same direction, and in these cases this is clearly indicated. After this is the 2014 data, lifted straight from the 2014 report. At the bottom is historic data.

If a particular figure is missing it will be either because the automated counter did not exist then, because it’s not capable of recording that specific piece of data, or because it was not operating properly at that time. In some cases, counters have been removed due to road upgrades so you’ll see data for a number of years, but then nothing more recent.

You will also note that some very minor roads (like here) have automated counters. Why? This is because TransportNI are keen to estimate how much traffic uses the thousands of miles of low-traffic rural roads we have – these counters are positioned at random around the province to try to get a representative sample that can be used to estimate the usage of the unclassified rural road network.

Link to the KML file which should open in Google Earth.

Enjoy!

UPDATE 21 DEC 2015

My KML file contains all the data for each traffic counter as a single piece of text that you can click. Since I wrote this blog, Bob Harper over at NICVA has worked wonders and further refined the data, separating out the data for each year, etc, as a separate field. The data is now available on the NICVA web site in various formats (CSV, Geojson, KML) which can be used with GIS software. Thank you!

2015 is a good time to take stock of where we are with the road construction programme in Northern Ireland because it is in 2015 that the three major plans which have given structure to the programme for the past decade finally run out. 2005 saw the publication of three detailed transport plans; detailed in the sense that they named actual schemes and gave actual costs and timescales. These were:

  • The Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan (BMTP) – covering Belfast plus North Down, Castlereagh, Newtownabbey, Lisburn and Carrickfergus (oddly not Newtownards).
  • The Regional Strategic Transport Network Transport Plan (RSTN-TP) – covering trunk roads outside the greater Belfast area.
  • The Sub-Regional Transportation Plan (SRTP) – covering plans for roads that aren’t trunk roads, usually local roads. I am not going to refer to this plan again as it only covers localised road schemes whereas the focus of this blog is on strategic, i.e. major, road schemes.

These plans covered the ten years from 2005, and so officially expire in 2015. To date nothing with this level of detail has been produced to replace them. Other policy documents are still in force, including the “Regional Development Strategy 2035” published in 2012, and the “Ensuring a Sustainable Transport Future – A New Approach to Regional Transportation” document, also published in 2012, which sets current transport policy. However both are very high-level documents and lack detailed proposals. The three plans above are the most detailed plans we have, and they are now about to expire without a replacement of a similar level of detail.

Looking back at these plans, it is instructive to see how many of the proposals have actually been implemented.

The BMTP, first of all, contains five major schemes for implementation by 2015. Three of these – the M1/Westlink upgrade, the M2 upgrade and the A2 dualling at Greenisland have all been implemented. However two remain unbuilt:

  • A2 Sydenham Bypass widening, Belfast
  • A55 Outer Ring widening at Knock, Belfast

So that’s 3 out of 5 for the BMTP.

However, it is also interesting to note that some schemes, such as the dualling of the A8 and York Street Interchange are entirely absent from the BMTP, because they were proposed after the BMTP was created. This demonstrates that the absence of a specific proposal from a strategic plan does not rule out the proposal from nevertheless happening during the period of that plan. Thus the A8 dual-carriageway was completed within the timeframe of the BMTP despite not being in it.

The RSTN-TP contains the largest number of proposals. Ignoring schemes that were actually completed by the time the RSTN-TP was published in 2005, there are 32 separate road proposals in the RSTN-TP (two of which are duplicates from the BMTP). Of these, 23 have been completed or are under construction, including the works to the A1, A4 and A8. One other was rendered redundant by the later proposal to dual the entire A5 (namely, Strabane Bypass Phase 3). That leaves eight unimplemented plans which are:

  • A2 Buncrana Road widening, Derry
  • A3 Armagh North and West Link
  • A5 Strabane to Lifford Link Road (delayed due to delay in the A5 dualling scheme)
  • A6 dualling Castledawson to Randalstown
  • A6 Dungiven Bypass
  • A24 Ballynahinch Bypass
  • A28 Armagh East Link
  • A29 Cookstown Bypass

Pattern of Implementation across Northern Ireland

So this tells us that of the 35 individual road scheme proposals in the RSTN and BMTP together, 24 were actually completed during the ten year plan period. That’s an implementation rate of 69%. Is this pattern the same across Northern Ireland, or are there regional discrepancies? For this, we need to refer to the five “Key Transportation Corridors”. These are the five main transport conduits identified by the DRD as the most important components of the road network in Northern Ireland. These are supplemented by “Link Corridors”, which are important supporting links between the five key corridors. Then there are other “trunk roads” which are also important roads, but not quite as critical. They are all shown on this map (taken from the Regional Transportation Strategy):

Northern Ireland Key Transportation Corridors

The Eastern Corridor runs from Larne to the border at Newry via Belfast, taking in the A8, parts of the M2 and M1, the Westlink and the A1. All 8 of the proposals for this corridor have been implemented, namely the three final sections of the A1 dual-carriageway, the Ballynure Link Road, the M1/Westlink upgrade, the M2 upgrade and the first package of grade-separated junctions on the A1. That is a 100% implementation rate.

The Northern Corridor runs from Derry to Antrim via Coleraine, taking in the A26, A37 and A2. All 3 of the proposals for this corridor have been implemented or commenced, namely the A26-M2 direct link at Ballymena, the A2 Maydown dualling in Derry and the dualling of the A26 from Glarryford to Drones Road (currently underway). If we count this last scheme, this is also a 100% implementation rate.

The North-Western Corridor runs from Antrim to Derry along the A6. Only 3 of the proposals for this corridor have been implemented, namely the Skeoge Link in Derry, dualling the Crescent Link in Derry and upgrading junction 7 on the M2 at Antrim (a relatively small scheme). The three unimplemented schemes are:

  • A6 Dungiven Bypass
  • A6 dualling Randalstown to Castledawson
  • A2 widening of Buncrana Road, Derry (although urban schemes like this are fast falling out of favour so it is questionable whether it will actually happen)

This is only a 50% implementation rate, especially so given that the two most expensive schemes on the list (A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson and the A6 Dungiven Bypass) remain unbuilt.

The South-Western Corridor runs from Lisburn to Enniskillen and on to the border via the M1 and A4. Of the 4 proposals for this corridor, all 4 have been implemented, namely the A4 dualling from Dungannon to Ballygawley, the A4 realignment at Annaghilla, the A32 Cherrymount Link in Enniskillen and the A4 Sligo Road improvement, also in Enniskillen. 100% implementation rate.

The Western Corridor runs from Derry to Aughnacloy via Omagh and Strabane along the A5. It is the hardest to assess. Only 2 of the 4 proposals have been carried out, namely the A5 Omagh Throughpass Phase 3 and the A5 realignment at Tullyvar. However, the two unimplemented schemes have not been carried out either because they were rendered redundant by the major A5 dualling scheme (which was announced after these plans were created) or cannot be implemented ahead of it for logistical reasons:

  • A5 Strabane Bypass Phase 3 (now redundant)
  • A5 Strabane to Lifford Link Road (cannot happen ahead of the major A5 project).

Nevertheless, it is the case that the major A5 scheme that superseded these proposals has not happened either, so I still think it is fair to count these as “unimplemented” schemes. Therefore I will give the Western corridor a 50% implementation rate.

The Link Corridors performed fairly poorly, with only 1 of the 4 proposals being carried out, namely the A29 realignment at Carland in Co Tyrone. The three unimplemented schemes are:

  • A3 Armagh North and West Link
  • A28 Armagh Eastern Link
  • A29 Cookstown Bypass

So this is a 25% implementation rate.

Finally, the thunk roads cover road proposals for the remaining trunk road network. There were 5 proposals here, only 2 of which have been implemented, namely the A20 Frederick Street Link in Newtownards (a fairly small scheme) and the A31 Magherafelt Bypass (currently under construction). The 3 unimplemented schemes are:

  • A2 Sydenham Bypass dualling, Belfast
  • A24 Ballynahinch Bypass
  • A55 Outer Ring widening at Knock, Belfast

This represents a 40% implementation rate.

Conclusion

We can conclude that there is a geographic disparity in the way in which road schemes have been implemented here over the past ten years, though it is not the simple East-West divide that is sometimes assumed. Rather we can conclude these key points:

  • Schemes on link corridors were the least likely to be built, with a 25% implementation rate. Note that 2 of the 3 unbuilt schemes are in Armagh.
  • Schemes on trunk roads were the next least likely to be built, with a 40% implementation rate. Note that 2 of the 3 unbuilt schemes are in Belfast.
  • Schemes on the A5 Western Transport Corridor and the A6 North-Western Corridor are next least likely to have been built, with a 50% implementation rate. Schemes on the road from Belfast to Derry are the most notably absent from the list of implemented schemes.
  • Schemes on the Eastern Corridor, the Northern Corridor and the South-Western Corridor have all had 100% implementation rates. Note that all the schemes on the South-Western Corridor have been in either Tyrone or Fermanagh.
  • It is probably fair to say that the Western Transport Corridor and the North-Western Corridor have been neglected during the ten years 2005-2015, so it follows that it is also fair that priority should be given to schemes on these corridors when moving forward.
  • Some major new schemes have been added to the list of proposed roads since these plans were published in 2005 and have progressed rapidly through the processes to the point that they are now very advanced. The most notable are the A5 and A8 dualling schemes (already discussed), the York Street Interchange in Belfast and further safety improvements to the A1. While priorities always change over time, the previous point about the Western and North-Western Transport Corridors does need to be taken into account when deciding where these new schemes should slot into the schedule.
Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 17, 2015

Enforcement on Northern Ireland’s Roads

In the 1920 the USA made the sale of alcohol a criminal offence. But the USA was geographically so huge, its population so high and alcohol so easy to hide that law enforcement agencies found it very difficult to enforce the ban. The result was that by the early 1930s alcohol consumption was at almost 80% of the level it had been before the law came in to force. In 1933, the ban was repealed, for two reasons. Firstly, because the widespread flouting of the law suggested it did not have the support of the population as a whole. And secondly, because it had proved impractical to enforce.

The experience of prohibition in the USA demonstrates the distinction between legislating laws and enforcement of laws. While it is easy for Westminster and Stormont to pass laws to govern Northern Ireland, enforcing those laws is an entirely different matter. A few months ago a cow got loose on the M1 motorway, causing traffic chaos. I commented in jest on Twitter that the cow should have known better since animals are banned from motorways by law! Clearly, the passing of a law alone is not enough if it cannot be enforced.

Human society is made up of fallible human beings, some of whom are very well-behaved and some of whom are criminals. Most lie somewhere in between. It is therefore not only possible, but certain, that a level of lawbreaking will go on in any society. The role of enforcement is both to detect lawbreaking, and to deter it in the first place. It is clearly impossible to eliminate lawbreaking entirely. Societies which have attempted to do so, such as the former East Germany, have found that even by having a vast proportion of the population involved in detecting lawbreaking, the state is still unable to stamp it out, and indeed the process of attempting to do so is hugely destructive to human society.

Most states use law enforcement agencies, such as the police, to detect and deter lawbreaking. Because it is impossible (and clearly undesirable) for law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on every member of the population at all times, enforcement usually involves a more pragmatic approach of only actively enforcing laws from time to time – spot checking – the idea being that if the general public see other people being being detected breaking the law with enough frequency, that will deter them from breaking the law.

Hence TV license officers do not check every house in the country every day to see if they are using a TV without a license, but rather conduct spot checks on a few selected properties each day. TV license agencies are keen to promote figures of the number of people detected breaking the law in this way so that the general public get the impression that there is a reasonable chance that rule-breakers will be caught. By this method, compliance with TV licensing laws remains quite high (95%) despite the fact that in a given day, the chance of an individual being caught is actually very low.

Even in this “spot check” approach, a balance has to be struck between:

(a) spending so much time and resources detecting lawbreaking that it becomes prohibitively expensive and intrusive, and

(b) spending so little time and resources detecting lawbreaking that the less scrupulous elements of the population realise that they are highly unlikely to get detected, and hence lawbreaking increases.

Risking The Social Contract

Enforcement clearly cannot drop off to zero. There is a point at which enforcement drops below a critical level beyond which lawbreaking starts to become much more widespread. This is often described through the idea of a social contract, the idea that by obeying laws citizens of a country are agreeing to give up certain freedoms in order to achieve greater benefits. For example, most people choose to stop at a red traffic light, despite it delaying their journey, on the basis that it creates order from which they ultimately benefit. Similarly, most people agree to pay taxes, because they understand that if everyone else does so too things like the NHS and schools can be funded and they will ultimately benefit.

However, it’s vital to note that the social contract is a contract. The public is only one side to it, with law enforcement as the flip side. If the public starts to see that the government is not enforcing the law, and hence others are profiting from lawbreaking with impunity, they start to question why they themselves are obeying the law. If I was to pay my taxes, but everyone else did not, and got away with it, I would very quickly start to ask why I should pay taxes. “Why shouldn’t I keep my taxes and spend them on myself like everyone else?” So while every free society must, by necessity, tolerate a certain level of lawbreaking, a critical point can be reached if law enforcement diminishes to the extent that the social contract breaks down and the wider public starts engaging in lawbreaking on the basis that everyone else is too.

We now turn to the rules of the road. The rules of the road are an example of laws that are generally enforced in a “spot check” manner, i.e. by actively enforcing them only from time to time in the hope that this will happen often enough to deter the public more generally from breaking the law. Typical examples of these laws are speeding, careless driving, illegal parking, running red lights and driving in bus lanes.

One can tell from spending even a few days on our road network in Northern Ireland that enforcement of all these laws is not occurring very often. Anecdotally, road users in Northern Ireland have been saying for some time that lawbreaking is on the increase. Could it be that enforcement has reached such a low point that the social contract is breaking down?

Enforcement on Roads in Northern Ireland

Enforcement of traffic laws in Northern Ireland is generally the responsibility of two agencies.

Firstly, the police (PSNI). While any police officer can of course stop a driver who is committing an offence, there were 178 officers specifically assigned to traffic policing in 2014 (source). This has reduced from 292 in 2001. If we assume, as a back of the envelope exercise, that one third of these officers are on active duty at any one time, and if we further assume that these officers must work in pairs, and if we further assume that they can spend 100% of their time patrolling the roads (which they surely are not) that leaves 30 traffic policing units on active duty across the whole province at any one time. There are about 25,000 km of roads in Northern Ireland, so that is one traffic policing unit for every 830 km of road. Clearly the PSNI cannot hope to manage more than sporadic spot checks with this level of coverage. If we look at greater Belfast/Lisburn alone, there are only 26 traffic police officers assigned from stations in these areas. Using the same sum as above, that leaves just four traffic police units to cover the entire city. Clearly, then, it is impossible for there to be any meaningful enforcement of things like speeding or bus lane infringement, and we should not be surprised that it is mostly not happening. Those who believe that they can break these laws with impunity are largely correct.

Secondly, traffic attendants, who deal with parking issues such as breaches of Urban Clearways, parking in bus lanes, over-staying in car parks etc. There are currently 107 traffic attendants in Northern Ireland Monday-Saturday, of whom 25 operate in Belfast (information correct Oct 2014). There are 873 km of roads in Belfast City Council (pre April 2015 boundaries) so each of these traffic attendants is effectively managing 35 km of roads. Clearly it is not possible for one traffic attendant to actively prevent illegal parking on anything close to 35 km of roads. Additionally, there are some forms of illegal parking – such as illegal waiting by taxis – that cannot be enforced as the driver will simply drive off if they see the attendant approach and return once they have left the area. And even if the traffic attendants did focus all their efforts on, say, parking in bus lanes they would then fail to enforce all other forms of illegal parking. So, again, those who believe that they can break parking laws with impunity are, unfortunately, largely correct.

Since the bus lanes were introduced to Belfast over the past two years, enforcement has been very poor. Both the PSNI and the traffic attendants lack the resources to offer much more than token enforcement, and I fear this level of enforcement falls below the level that can sustain the social contract. Thus complaints about people parking in Clearways and driving in the bus lanes have now gone beyond venting frustration and have become the city’s running joke – “Wow, only 15 cars parked in the Lisburn Road bus lane this morning!”. “Gosh, I saw a BUS in the bus lane this morning. What’s going on?”

Belfast’s bus lanes are also being routinely flouted by taxis who resent the way they have been displaced by the bus infrastructure and refuse to obey the rules. Taxis park in bus lanes in such numbers on Donegall Square North and outside Central Station that the bus lanes there do not function. The PSNI and parking attendants have basically been defeated in this standoff with the taxis, so now it occurs all day every day with apparent impunity.

The law, as the saying goes, looks an ass.

The “Enforcement Issue”

This is what I have been referring to over the past couple of years as the enforcement issue. And I am concerned that it’s going to become an even bigger issue. As enforcement continues to diminish in the face of further budget cuts, the road network is going to be characterised as an increasingly lawless environment. So while others are concerned with increasing enforcement, the more immediate challenge is going to be even maintaining the low level of enforcement we have now.

Work is currently ongoing to construct an ambitious Rapid Transit system in Belfast. This will be bus-based and will operate via dedicated bus lanes running out to the Stewartstown Road in west Belfast, Dundonald in east Belfast and to Titanic Quarter. The selling point of the system is going to be its promise of fast, reliable journey times into the city centre that are much faster than an equivalent journey by car. In principle I believe Rapid Transit is a good idea. However, it is going to be crippled from its very inception if we do not take serious steps to tackle the enforcement issue. Rapid Transit vehicles will end up stuck in traffic if even a handful of illegally parked vehicles block the bus lanes. Unless there is a significant change in our approach to enforcement before the system becomes operational, Rapid Transit will be severely crippled.

There are three ways to tackle the problem.

1. Spend more on resources. The most obvious solution is to allocate more resources to law enforcement on the ground. However, in the current climate of budget cuts this is highly unlikely to happen – because by “resources”, what we really mean is “people’s taxes” and there is less and less of those to go around. So far from spending more on resources, the situation is likely to get worse as the PSNI faces further budget cuts. Roads policing is only one facet of the PSNI’s work, and when faced with cutting things like tackling serious crime, fraud, terrorism and civil disorder it is easy to see how traffic policing will struggle to be a high priority. It could be argued that the DRD should be putting funding towards traffic policing as part of running an effective transport system, and I believe there is a strong case for that. That is not the current situation, but even if it was, the DRD faces similar budget cuts across the board.

2. Use more cost-effective resources. Human beings are expensive resources for the state to use in enforcing law. For many types of lawbreaking, such as civil disorder or fraud, human beings are still the only way to tackle the problem. But some aspects of traffic policing – such as detecting speeding or bus lane infringements – can be highly automated through the use of fixed or mobile cameras to detect law-breaking. Cameras also have ongoing running costs, both to run them and to take action against those they catch, so it is not as if they are a “free” solution. But given the low probability of any more policing or traffic attendants being introduced in the near future, this is still an attractive form of enforcement. Indeed it is something that TransportNI wanted to introduce last summer to enforce bus lanes in Belfast, but bizarrely it was opposed by the DRD Committee. Of course, there is a wider issue of the extent to which mass surveillance of the general public is appropriate in a liberal democracy. It is legitimate to ask: to what extent is it appropriate for the state to make video recordings of people going about their lawful business in order to detect the few who are not?

An important aside point on this is that when speed cameras are used it is vital that they are highly visible on the roads. Why? If they are not, then the only people who will be aware of them will be the select few who get caught. Those who do not get caught will be unaware that enforcement was taking place. But for the social contract to work, it is vital that the wider public observe the enforcement taking place. While there is a sense in which a visible speed camera may allow a speeding driver to slow down and not get caught, this is actually less important than the wider impact that the visibility of enforcement has on the behaviour of the majority. It is not sufficient for justice to be done – justice must also be seen to be done.

3. Stop building infrastructure that relies on active enforcement. Laws that require the active participation of law enforcement agencies in order to function create ever more ongoing work and costs for the state. As soon as enforcement stops, lawbreaking rises. This is what we could call active enforcement and, while capable of great flexibility, is also very expensive to maintain.

With road law enforcement it is possible to create self-enforcing measures that rely purely on their physical form to work. The classic example is the speed bump. Speed bumps are self-enforcing in that they generally result in traffic slowing to around 20mph without requiring anyone to stand with a speed camera. They are also active 24 hours per day. Self-enforcing measures have an initial setup cost, but are thereafter very cheap to maintain. In a financially-strapped state such as Northern Ireland, re-orienting our thinking to rely more heavily on self-enforcement has obvious benefits. Sensitive and careful use of bollards can be used to enforce parking restrictions and protect things like cycle lanes from poorly parked vehicles. Bus lanes that are fully segregated from general traffic lanes are subject to far fewer obstructions than those that are separated merely by painted lines.

There is a sense in which creating more and more bus lanes that rely on active enforcement is simply not going to work in Northern Ireland in the current economic climate, and therefore in the foreseeable future. Perhaps we should go so far as to stop building infrastructure that relies on active enforcement and focus instead on self-enforcement wherever possible.

In summary, enforcement of road traffic laws can never be universal and can only ever be piecemeal. However, even this approach relies on a certain visibility of enforcement which is increasingly not being achieved in Northern Ireland. As a result, the social contract itself is under threat and could break down entirely. If we are not careful, the road network could increasingly become a lawless environment. Given the current financial state of the province, we may need to look towards different enforcement measures such as cameras or self-enforcing infrastructure in order to prevent this from happening.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 1, 2015

What would it take to get a motorway to Derry/Londonderry?

This is a copy of a blog post that I wrote for Slugger O’Toole on 10 February 2015, reproduced here by permission.

Back in 1964 William Craig, the Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland, announced an ambitious plan to build a network of motorways around the province.

In terms of the North West, the core of the plan was a motorway from Belfast to Coleraine – the M2. From this would come two spurs. The M22 would diverge at Antrim and go to Castledawson, serving Mid Ulster. The M23 would diverge north of Ballymena and go to Londonderry, via Limavady. At the Derry end it would have closely followed the modern railway line into the city and terminated on the Duke Street dual-carriageway. At that time, the A2 route via Limavady was by far the busiest route into the city, carrying over 8000 vehicles per day in 1970 compared to less than 3000 for the A6 via Glenshane Pass.

During the late 1960s it became apparent that the ambition of the 1964 plan far outstripped the province’s financial capabilities. Motorways, they found, cost more and took longer to build than anticipated. It was quickly realised that it would be many decades before such an elaborate system could be completed. It was therefore decided that the A6 needed to be upgraded in the interim, ie from the end of the planned M22 at Castledawson. The work to upgrade the A6 to a high-quality single-carriageway (featuring innovations such as hard shoulders on long stretches) was carried out from 1960 to 1975, with only a bypass of Dungiven omitted.

Following the collapse of Stormont in 1972 the motorway project was largely abandoned leaving the M2 built only as far as Antrim, (with an isolated section at Ballymena) the M22 built only as far as Randalstown and the M23 not begun. This left the stretch of the A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson via Toome as the worst part of the whole road since, in anticipation of the M22, it had not been upgraded.

Fast forward to 2015 and this is still the situation, the only change in the interim being the addition of a dual-carriageway bypass of Toome eleven years ago. In addition, traffic levels have soared to the extent that a single-carriageway is no longer an appropriate standard along much of the length.

So how much would it cost to upgrade the approx 46 miles (74 km) of single-carriageway road? This depends on the standard you build it to.

Until around ten years ago Roads Service were great fans of at-grade dual-carriageways, ie roads with lots of central reservation gaps and right-turns. Good examples are the northern part of the A1 or the main A26 Antrim-Ballymena road. These were cheap to build in the cash-starved era of the Troubles – no flyovers were needed and you didn’t have to close up every gate and driveway you came across. As a rough estimate, upgrading the A6 to this standard would cost around £300m. However this standard has now fallen out of fashion as we have found that they have poor safety records, particularly at junctions and so it is questionable whether they are worth providing at all. The DRD no longer builds them.

One step up is a high-quality dual-carriageway (HQDC). These are roads where the central reservation is continuous, ie no right turns are allowed. Junctions are therefore either compact flyover junctions, left-in/left-out T-junctions or ground level roundabouts. They are a good compromise as they have much better safety records, yet the compact design of junctions means they are not excessively expensive. A good example is the recently completed section of A4 from the end of the M1 at Dungannon to Ballygawley which has significantly reduced fatalities since it opened. Based on recent estimates, upgrading the A6 to this standard would probably cost in the region of £800m to £1bn. The main reason for the huge cost hike is the substantial earthworks required to give the appropriate gradients and the need to provide flyovers at key junctions (imagine building a compact grade-separated junction to serve the Ponderosa Bar!).

The highest standard is what most people consider to be “motorway” standard, known to engineers as “Category 7”. These roads only have flyover-type junctions – so no left-in/left-out T-junctions and no roundabouts. They usually have full hard shoulders and the junctions tend to be on a larger scale. If designated as a motorway, certain road users (pedestrians, cyclists, small motorcycles etc) are banned for safety reasons, so additional parallel roads are sometimes needed to provide alternative routes for these people. The lack of side accesses also means long stretches of new side roads to maintain access to property. The M1 and M2 are built to this standard, but so is the recently completed A1 Newry Bypass, even though it’s not a motorway in the legal sense. Upgrading the A6 to this standard would cost well over £1bn, perhaps £1.2bn.

Given that we do not currently have these levels of cash – the 2015/16 budget provides zero funding for new road schemes other that those that are already proceeding – some kind of prioritisation is clearly needed. The road is generally broken down into four sections to facilitate this:

  1. Randalstown to Castledawson. Proposals to upgrade this to HQDC standard are at an advanced stage and just awaiting the c£140m needed to build it. This is the busiest stretch of the A6 carrying over 19k vehicles daily in 2009 [the most recent figures available to me] and also has the lowest standard at present. The time saving would only be 3-4 minutes at off-peak times, but at peak times could be much more than this since the loss of a lane at the Toome Bypass causes tailbacks.
  2. Castledawson to Dungiven, including Glenshane Pass. There are no proposals to upgrade this stretch. Given that it is the least-busy stretch at just under 12k vehicles daily in 2009, and has a fairly good safety record, it is probably the lowest priority for an upgrade. The total time saving to a driver would be in the order of 10 minutes.
  3. Dungiven Bypass. Plans are progressing to provide a short HQDC bypass of Dungiven at a cost of approx £60m. This is a major bottleneck and can be justified for both drivers and residents. The A6 just west of Dungiven carried 15k vehicles per day in 2009. At off-peak times the time saving would not be much, but could be considerable at peak times.
  4. Dungiven to Derry. This stretch carried around 14k vehicles per day in 2009 (as measured at The Cross). Plans are progressing to upgrade this stretch to HQDC standard at a cost of approx £380m. It is unlikely to get funding in the foreseeable future. The journey by an average driver would be reduced by anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes depending on the time of day.

Of course, as well as cost, safety records are also relevant when prioritising schemes. For example over the past three years there have been four fatalities on the A6, three of which were between Derry and Dungiven. The remaining one was between Toome and Randalstown.

What effect would it have? On the current road, outside of rush hour, average speeds range between 40 and 50mph so a journey from Belfast to Derry can be achieved in around an hour and a half. During the rush hour this can rise to well over two hours. If there was a dual-carriageway the whole way most of it would likely operate below capacity even at peak hours, so a steady 70mph would seem achievable on most of the road. This could see an off-peak journey reduce to just under an hour, perhaps an hour and a half at peak hours. So a full upgrade could be expected to cut about half an hour off a typical journey from Belfast to Londonderry.

With the A6 competing for severely limited funding against other major schemes such as the A5 (Londonderry to Ballygawley), the York Street interchange in Belfast and further upgrades to the A1, the Regional Development Minister has some hard choices ahead.

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