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.

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.


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.


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.


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.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | January 1, 2015

Northern Ireland Road Deaths – 2014

Note: In this blog I look at road deaths statistically. I am very conscious that road deaths are not merely statistics – every one represents a loved one lost and a lifetime of bereavement. Nothing in this blog is intended to trivialise this tragic reality.

Provisional figures show that 79 people died on Northern Ireland’s roads in 2014, well up on the year before when 57 people died and substantially more than 2012, the lowest on record, when 48 people lost their lives. This is very disappointing and the PSNI and Department of the Environment have already pledged to do their best to reduce this in 2015. The graph below shows the figures for the past twenty years.

Road Deaths Northern Ireland 1995-2014

As you can see, the overall trend was fairly steady for the first ten years, before a decline began from 2004. Over the next ten years deaths on the roads more than halved, reaching a low of 48 in 2012. Since then the figure has increased again, reaching 2014’s figure of 79. However, it is worth noting that despite the upward trend, the number of deaths in 2014 was still the fifth lowest since records began.

So a couple of questions are worth asking:

1. Is 2014 unusually bad, or were 2010-2013 unusually good?
2. Is this trend mirrored elsewhere or is it unique to Northern Ireland?

At the outset we need to say that these figures cannot be explained by the changing number of people on the roads, since this only varies by a percent or two from year to year and is nowhere near large enough to account for such big differences. The explanation must be deeper.

We have to be careful when looking at road deaths statistically because Northern Ireland has a very small population (around 1.8 million) and road deaths in recent years have always been less than 200 per year. With such a small sample size we must expect a higher degree of fluctuation from year to year than would be the case over a larger population, such as Great Britain. Therefore it is instructive to compare road deaths in Northern Ireland over the past twenty years to our two closest neighbouring areas – Great Britain (i.e., the rest of the UK), and the Republic of Ireland. Unfortunately the total number of road deaths in Great Britain in 2014 has not yet been released, so we only have figures up to 2013 for GB. However, the graph below compares the trends in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland over the previous 20 years. Each graph shows road deaths given as a percentage of the 1996-2000 five-year average so that they can be compared to each other (road deaths in GB in 2013 were actually 1713, and in RoI there were 190 in 2013).

Road Deaths NI, GB and RoI, 1996-2014

Looking at this graph it seems that all three areas have seen a very similar trend – road deaths fairly static (or declining slightly) during the first decade, but after 2004, they all fall sharply. Notably, Northern Ireland’s deaths fell most dramatically, out-performing both GB and RoI over this time period before growing again over the past three years, back towards the trend seen in GB and RoI. This suggests that the overall trend is not unique to Northern Ireland but is mirrored elsewhere.

You can also see that the smoothest line is for GB, which is to be expected since it has the largest sample size and is thus less susceptible than NI to the effect of random fluctuations. Thus the GB line is the one that is most likely to be an accurate reflection of the underlying trend, less affected by statistical spikes. The line for NI does seem to broadly follow the GB trend, but, as discussed, it varies much more from one year to the next due to the much smaller population size here.

So the NI graph fell much deeper below the overall trend seen elsewhere, and has since risen again. This suggests that it is more likely that 2010-2013 were unusually good years in Northern Ireland, and that 2014 represents a return towards the underlying trend. This could be an example of the phenomenon known as regression towards the mean.

Nevertheless, the graph also suggests that 2014 was probably higher than average. These statistics suggest to me that the total number of deaths in 2015 is likely to be less than in 2014, but likely to be more than in 2010-2013. So my conclusion is that the increase in road deaths in 2014 is disappointing but probably not quite as alarming as some media reports would suggest. However, at a human level the high number of deaths in 2014 is sobering and should usefully serve to concentrate the minds of both road users and road planners on safety during 2015.

I plan to blog more on the subject of road deaths in the near future. In that blog I will look at what trends we can derive from analysing road deaths over the past three years, 2012-14, concentrating on the patterns for particular groups, for example the type of road user, age, gender as well as road standard and setting.

If you are interested to know more about why road deaths have fallen so much over the past decade, see this blog post I wrote in 2012 where I suggest that the three biggest factors are 1. driver awareness of safety issues; 2. better vehicle safety and 3. better road design.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | September 12, 2014

Banning lorries from Hillsborough

The DRD have said that they are going to ban heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) from the centre of Hillsborough. Why is this happening?

The information emerged during a DRD Committee meeting on 10 September 2014, which was held in the town, where members had an extensive discussion and heard several presentations on the subject of the impact of HGVs on town centres. You can listen to it here. Part of this discussion was reported in the Belfast Telegraph, which highlighted the particular case of Hillsborough.

What’s the issue in Hillsborough?

From the point of view of residents, the issue is the large numbers of lorries are driving through the town – the town centre is of great historic significance, has narrow streets, listed buildings (including Hillsborough Castle) and because the central part of the town has been a designated Conservation Area since 1976. This means that the physical environment of the town is recognised as being of such significance that laws are in place to protect its character, especially to protect it from unsympathetic changes. Over the years, but particularly over the past decade, there have been claims that buildings have been damaged by the vibrations caused by HGVs going through the town and general problems of nuisance and dominance.

How big an issue is it?

Lorries go through Hillsborough at all times of the day, but the DRD say that largest numbers of vehicles are using it between 7.30am and 8.30am on weekdays, i.e. in the morning rush hour. These lorries are primarily travelling from south to north, and it seems that they are using the town centre in order to bypass congestion on the A1 Hillsborough Bypass (which this year celebrates its 40th birthday). The A1 is the most important road in Ireland, linking the two largest cities on the island and is designated as part of European route E01. Despite many upgrades over the years, the Belfast to Dublin road still has two at-grade (i.e. non-flyover type) junctions, both of which are near Hillsborough – the Sprucefield junction, where the A1 and M1 meet, and the Hillsborough roundabout which is situated on the A1 at the north end of the town.

The presence of the Hillsborough roundabout causes lengthy tailbacks in the rush hours. During the evening peak, these traffic jams stretch towards Lisburn, but in the morning peak they stretch south round the Hillsborough Bypass. With the A1 at a standstill, astute drivers can bypass several hundred stopped cars by ducking off the A1 at the Dromore Road junction south of the town, going down the main street, and rejoining the A1 at the Hillsborough roundabout. The map below shows how this is done as a red line, while the location of the traffic jam that is being bypassed is shown in blue. This is presumably done by many cars, but it is the HGVs that are causing the most concern due to their sheer physical size and weight.

Why else are HGVs doing this?

As already said it is most commonly an attempt to bypass the congestion at Hillsborough roundabout. However, this is not the whole story. Lorries are going through Hillsborough to reach places like Maze, Culcavy and Halftown Road, both at peak hours and non-peak hours. The DRD themselves admit that in some cases they can’t figure out why the lorries are using these routes. A representative at the Committee said that they have “struggled at times to understand why HGVs are doing what they’re doing“, even going so far as to admit that “we’ve been doing things like following them around” to try to get to the bottom of it.

Lorry drivers are very experienced road users since they drive for a living, and in doing so they become very well acquainted to the nuances of local areas. As such, if a lorry driver thinks a particular route is the quickest way to get somewhere, then they are very likely to be correct. So noting where HGVs choose to go is usually a good guide to the quickest routes in a locality. So if HGVs are going through Hillsborough town, then the reason is unlikely to be as mysterious as the DRD are making out – it’s probably just because it’s the quickest route for their journey.

The haulage industry is the economic backbone of the country. Nothing in the country from the food in the shops to the clothes on our backs gets to us without HGVs. But the haulage industry is also notoriously competitive, meaning that profit margins are wafer thin. With fuel prices so high, and lorries having such big engines, shaving a few minutes off a journey can actually make a significant difference in terms of profitability so there is therefore a significant economic incentive for lorries to choose the fastest route. It is not simply a matter of convenience, or “getting home in time to see the match”. These decisions are made for hard, economic reasons. These lorries are going about their lawful business and keeping the economy functioning.

What has already been done?

To date, the DRD has adopted what they call “subtle traffic calming” in Hillsborough, which means things like 30mph speed limits, “gateways” (signage indicating that this is a village setting, generally of the “please be nice” variety), and deliberate narrowing of the road to give it a more village-like feel and so encourage slower speeds. They have ruled out speed bumps because these would cause the lorries to bounce up and down as they go over them, significantly increasing the vibrations being generated in the ground and probably causing much greater harm to adjacent buildings and much more nuisance to local residents.

What can be done?

There are two broad approaches that can be taken to problems of undesirable behaviour in society, a carrot and a stick. In a liberal democracy such as the UK, a carrot approach is usually better than a stick approach as it encroaches less on civil liberties and reduces the perception of the government as a controlling force. The carrot in this case would be to make it quicker for HGVs to follow a more appropriate route. The stick would be to use legislation or some other means to actually force the lorries to go elsewhere without making the “elsewhere” any better.

Carrot Approaches

In the case of Hillsborough the obvious “carrot” solution is to reduce the congestion on the Hillsborough roundabout. This is easier said than done. The best solution would be a flyover over the roundabout. However, this would be very expensive, and there is a real risk of wasting a lot of money since there is a long term proposal for a large-scale bypass of the whole Sprucefield area, connecting the A1 and M1 via a new dual-carriageway, that would bypass the Hillsborough roundabout. This means that spending money on a flyover right now could prove to be a waste of scarce public money, since it could be redundant in a few years. So we need to find cheaper options.

A less radical solution would be to signalise the Hillsborough roundabout, i.e. add traffic lights. This would allow traffic going straight through on the A1 to have greater priority, making the Hillsborough town route less desirable and simultaneously reducing congestion. The DRD have dismissed this as they feel it would be “inappropriate” on a strategic route such as the A1. I find this position very odd. There are plenty of examples of signalised junctions on strategic routes – namely York Street junction in Belfast, Sandyknowes roundabout in Glengormley and (until a few years ago) Broadway roundabout in Belfast. In all these cases the signals significantly improved traffic flow, so I do not see how it can be dismissed at Hillsborough so easily. If the concern is that traffic on the A1 is travelling much faster and in a rural setting, and that signals would thus be inappropriate I would agree but only up to a point. I would point out that all traffic has to stop now anyway for the roundabout, so this would hardly be introducing a new issue. Besides, there are plenty of UK examples of major high-speed roads in rural settings ending at traffic signals, e.g. the south end of our very own A8(M) or the A2 Bang0r-Belfast dual carriageway at the Bangor end. If this was a serious issue, a 50mph speed limit on the approach to the lights would surely resolve it and still be better than the current setup.

Another solution that has been considered is to provide a free-flow “jet lane” bypassing Hillsborough roundabout for northbound traffic, similar to the one that exists for southbound traffic at Sprucefield today. The DRD have considered this, but their concerns seem to be how such a setup would perform at off-peak times when traffic speeds are higher, and in particular the danger that would be presented to users of private accesses close to the end of the jet lane where vehicles on the jet lane could potentially appear from out of sight at high speeds. This issue especially affects two residential properties. This solution has been dismissed for these safety reasons, but again I can’t help but wonder if it has been dismissed too lightly. If the congestion problem is as significant as is being made out, surely a modest bit of investment could resolve these issues? For example, a Stopping Up Order could be made to close off the affected private accesses and a Vesting Order made to provide alternative access roads for the affected landowners, paving the way for the jet lane to be introduced. This would come at a cost, but nowhere near as much as a flyover.

Stick Approaches

Possible “stick” approaches at Hillsborough would include anything that would make it difficult or more time consuming to go through Hillsborough. It is not possible to simply ban vehicles from “going through the town”, since this is a public road and a long standing right of way, and in a liberal country like the UK you can’t simply ban people from going about their lawful business. In any case, it would be impossible to legislate such a ban as it would be impossible to define what “going through the town” meant. What about someone going home, but who lives at the far end of the town? Or a local resident who lives at one end and wants to visit someone at the other? Or a farmer who wants to get between two bits of land without taking their chances on the main A1? Blocking off certain roads, e.g. with bollards across the road, would not work, as it would cut the town in two, significantly inconveniencing local residents and business owners and causing more problems for residents than exist now.

With traffic calming measures having already been carried out as far as possible, this leaves some kind of legislated ban. There is currently no legislation in place in Northern Ireland that can just ban “lorries”, partly because if you actually get into it, it is very difficult to produce a watertight definition of a “lorry” that would stand up in court. So it can only be achieved indirectly. So, for example a height restriction could be imposed, enforced by metal gates at either end of the affected road. This, however, would have unintended side effects like preventing buses from accessing the area in question, and also preventing lorries that have a good reason to be in the town (e.g. furniture vans, delivery lorries, construction machinery) from lawfully passing.

Another possibility is a weight restriction. In Northern Ireland, weight restrictions have only ever been used to prevent damage to roads. So for example a weak bridge might have a weight restriction to stop heavy lorries from damaging it. However, a weight restriction could be used to ban “lorries”. A 7.5 tonne weight limit, for example, would allow vans but would ban most of the heavier lorries that are causing the issue in Hillsborough, up to the maximum weight of 40 tonnes for the largest lorries. A key advantage of this approach is that it is implemented only by signs, not a physical barrier, meaning that any vehicle with a lawful reason to go past the sign can do so – e.g. the buses, furniture vans, delivery lorries or construction machinery already mentioned. This would be allowed by a plate below the sign saying “Except for Access”.

So what are the DRD proposing?

It is this latter weight restriction approach that the DRD have decided to take. It will represent a significant departure for the province, since it will be the first time that a weight restriction will have been imposed specifically to prevent lorries from using a particular road, and could set a precedent that would be worrying to the haulage industry if it was to be introduced in less appropriate places, e.g. in places where there is no equivalent of the A1, i.e. no realistic alternative route. You have to consider that when you ban lorries from a route, you are implicitly sending them to another locality. And if that other locality is equally inappropriate you are not going to achieve your original outcome of improving local areas. This is a strong argument for the early provision of bypasses for towns with similar issues but with no bypasses, such as Dungiven or Ballynahinch where a legislated ban would send lorries down totally inappropriate narrow rural roads.

It is still early days, and there will have to be a public consultation perhaps in the new year, but it is their “aspiration” that the restriction might be in place by April of 2015, although this does seem a bit optimistic.

Will it work?

The main disadvantage of the DRD’s approach is that it there is nothing to stop a driver ignoring the weight restriction and, unless a police officer were to actually catch the driver in question, they would get away with it. Even then, the driver could simply claim that they had business in the town – perhaps visiting a local shop en route – and hence claim an exemption under the “except for access” plate. The experience of the new bus lanes in Belfast is that once the public become aware that there is little or no enforcement, unscrupulous drivers will start to ignore the restriction. As more and more people do so, the social contract of the “rules of the road” breaks down and the legislation becomes meaningless. Legislation is therefore pointless without at least periodic enforcement. One thing the DRD excels at is introducing legislation with no meaningful enforcement.

Now, I would never for a minute suggest that there might be HGV drivers in the Hillsborough area so dishonourable as to ignore a weight restriction sign, but the possibility nevertheless exists. So the imposition of such a sign would have to include discussions with the PSNI about periodic enforcement in order to ensure compliance. If the PSNI indicated that they did not have the resources to enforce the weight restriction, then the usefulness of the whole exercise would be questionable.

Too much stick, not enough carrot?

I am not suggesting that the weight limit is a bad idea, but it is my view that the DRD have been too quick to dismiss the more desirable “carrot” approaches of signalising Hillsborough roundabout or providing a northbound jet lane. We have incredible engineering talent in Northern Ireland, talent that has bridged the River Foyle, dug underpasses beneath live rivers at Broadway and built flyover junctions in the sides of mountains such as Cloghogue in Newry. It is not beyond the talent of our engineers in Northern Ireland to find affordable engineering solutions to the problem of Hillsborough roundabout. A freeflow northbound jet lane is quite feasible if there is the will to make it happen, and signalisation is also perfectly possible. Given the significant impact of the congestion on strategic traffic, I would encourage the DRD to revisit these issues.

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