Posted by: wesleyjohnston | May 30, 2012

Infuriatingly Empty Road Works

We’ve all been there – roadworks ahead. We resign ourselves to our fate. We queue for ages and ages at the approach. Finally we reach the lane closure, but as we inch past there is not a road worker in sight! Rage! Some people get very upset about this sort of thing. In a few cases some motorists have got so angry that they’ve actually removed the cones and driven up the empty lane, as happened on the A2 to Carrickfergus a few years back. This is a really stupid thing to do, as we shall see.

However the events on the A2 Bangor to Belfast Road earlier this month are a good example of why all is not always as it seems. In this case, one lane of the road was closed at the Devil’s Elbow for almost a week (Friday 4 May to Thursday 10 May), yet there were almost never any road workers evident. There were lengthy tailbacks and much local anger. People asked why the road was closed for so long.

According to Roads Service (Assembly Written Answer AQW 11541/11-15) the problem was a damaged BT manhole which was reported at 5pm on Friday 4th May. Roads Service immediately coned off the affected lane. Upon investigation it became apparent that the concrete structure of the inspection chamber under the manhole was damaged, and had to be replaced. This work began the next morning (Saturday) and the road was excavated and the new inspection chamber was cast in concrete during the day.

Concrete is usually touch-dry within a day, but this is an illusion. Concrete sets via a chemical reaction which continues for many days. Even once it is dry and hard to the touch, it is still very brittle. The reaction has to continue for several more days before the concrete develops its strength. I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I was laying a foundation for a wall in my garden. I poured the concrete into the trench and left it to set. 24 hours later it was set, and I stepped into the trench to stand on it. The concrete immediately cracked in half! Although dry, it had no strength at all. I had to dig it all out and pour it again. This time I left it for four or five days, after which even a sledgehammer would have had difficulty taking it out.

Anyhow, the concrete inspection chamber which was poured on Saturday 5th May had to be left for five days before it was safe to drive on it, after which the cones were removed. What motorists saw was a perfectly good lane coned off for no reason. Yet if anyone had been stupid enough to drive in that lane, they could have ended up having a nasty accident as the concrete might have cracked and collapsed beneath them.

This, of course, raises the question of why a tidal contra-flow could not have been implemented (one lane county bound and two city bound in the morning peak; and two lanes country bound and one city bound in the evening). This is a good question. Implementing such a system takes a lot of planning as you have to take into account not only people driving along the A2, but also the needs of residents, people accessing side roads, pedestrians etc. In this case the presence of a signalised junction and traffic islands would have made a tidal flow system here downright dangerous. People would have ended up approaching traffic lights on the wrong side of the road, causing no end of confusion. In addition, people turning onto the road from side roads would need managed very carefully to prevent them accidentally turning the wrong way into the reversible central lane. One error here could mean a head on collision and multiple fatalities.

Another question that was raised was why a metal plate could not be used to cover the inspection chamber and re-open the lane. This approach is often taken on minor roads, such as housing estates. However on a major road a metal plate represents a significant hazard as it is set above the road surface and must be kept exactly in place. If it began to move, vehicles could be deflected off the road, into other vehicles or inadvertently drive on the setting inspection chamber itself. Roads Service dismissed this option as too dangerous. Nevertheless, they have promised to review the whole event to see if anything could be learned.

This whole episode is a good reminder of why empty road works do NOT mean that people are doing no work or getting lots of overtime for sitting in the back of a truck! And if you do see someone removing cones and driving through road works, don’t follow them – do everyone a favour and report them to the police.


  1. I was on a bus in Latvia recently that drove a good distance down a closed off lane. We had to stop at the end of it, and the driver had to get out. Who might have guessed there were cones at the other end too? Perhaps not him. Anyway this post was in my mind and I was most concerned something worse would befall us!

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