Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 18, 2021

Lessons from history for the A5 WTC

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

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

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

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

Factor 1 – Timing

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

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

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

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

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

Factor 2 – Public Opposition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factor 3 – Inertia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factor 4 – Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

Appendix – Primer on the A5 WTC Scheme

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

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

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

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

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | February 13, 2017

Improving the A2 Bangor to Belfast Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result? I believe it could be done.

The road would need the addition of:

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

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


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

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 21.27.11.png

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

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

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


Posted by: wesleyjohnston | January 7, 2017

Why self-driving cars are going to change everything

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

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

Liability for crashes will move from driver to manufacturer.

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

We will no longer have to have a driving license.

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

We will no longer own our cars.

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

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

There will be different models of car ownership.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cars will have sorter lifespans.

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

Traffic levels could rise significantly.

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

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

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

Almost perfect compliance with the law will be possible.

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

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

Self-driving HGVs.

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

Significant reduction in road deaths.

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

Much safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

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

Roads would have much higher capacity.

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

Hacking is a threat.

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

Lifestyle changes and less of a concern about journey times.

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

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

Some professions will disappear.

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

The final 5% is the technological hurdle.

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

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

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

Wesley Johnston, 7 Jan 2017,

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | November 24, 2016

A6 legal challenge – what now?

History of the Scheme

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

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

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


Preferred routes for A6 dualling scheme

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

Progression towards construction

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Legal Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happens now?

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

Can construction begin?

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

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

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

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

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

Possible outcomes

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

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

Other points of note

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

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

Public Response

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

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

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

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | November 21, 2016

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | June 15, 2016

New Roads Minister reveals priorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• the A4 Enniskillen Southern Bypass
• the Ballynahinch Bypass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, in another section, they add

  • the Belfast Rapid Transit Scheme

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

They then list three specific schemes that they would support:

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

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

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

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

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

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

They also specifically mention Narrow Water Bridge:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | April 19, 2016

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

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

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

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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.


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!

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