Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 7, 2013

A2 Shore Road Greenisland scheme gets underway

Tuesday, 5th March saw work finally begin on the long awaited project to widen the A2 Shore Road through Greenisland. The work is due to last a little over two years, with completion scheduled for the summer of 2015.

The A2 is the main road between Carrickfergus and Belfast. Between Carrickergus and the M5 motorway at Hazelbank the road has two lanes in each direction with the exception of this 3.5km (2.2 mile) stretch which has just one lane each way – and looks more or less as it did fifty years ago. The map below shows the stretch in question highlighted in red. Beginning close to the University of Ulster Jordanstown campus it continues through Greenisland to Seapark. The road has residential and commercial properties tightly along both sides for this entire length.

The project is the logical consequence of a chain of decisions which was put in motion over half a century ago.

Matthews Plan

In 1961/62 the highly influential Matthews Plan was adopted by the Northern Ireland government. This document was an attempt to address both the economic dominance of Belfast in the province, and its uncontrolled expansion into the surrounding countryside as housing density fell and the population grew. As well as establishing the new city of Craigavon (which is a discussion for another day) Matthews also put a “stop line” round Belfast to prevent its growth, a line which still exists today with a few notable exceptions (eg Poleglass and Cairnshill). With a belt around Belfast, the excess population would have to be accommodated elsewhere. The answer was a significant, planned expansion of satellite towns. For this discussion, the most important was Carrickfergus which had a population of 10,000 in 1961. This was planned to be almost doubled to 18,000 by 1981, with the increase made up mostly of people displaced from Belfast by the existence of the stop line.

Many of these people were still going to have to get to work in Belfast and in 1961 this was, of course, going to be achieved by cars – which was, at that time, viewed as a progressive, futuristic technological driver of post-war society. Thus the Matthews Plan put in place the policy framework that both (a) prevented Belfast sprawling out into the countryside in an uncontrolled manner, and (b) set up the car-based commuting culture that still exists today with all the well attested traffic problems that come with it.

1969 Transportation Plan

Having set in motion a move to vastly increase the number of cars using the road from Carrickfergus to Belfast, the need to upgrade the road was obvious. Most of the existing road was a relatively modest single-carriageway road with one lane each way, and in the 1960s this was viewed as quite inadequate for the purpose. So the 1969 Belfast Transportation Plan included what would be best described as an ‘aspiration’ to build a motorway, to be called the M5, all the way to Carrickfergus along the route of the railway line – a proposal that had been first mooted in 1964. Although this would have taken the bulk of the traffic, the document also contained a proposal, which had already been in discussion for some years, (named Scheme N3) to “improve” the Shore Road – the 1960s way of saying “widening and straightening”.

The route of the proposed M5 can be seen in this map (the line diverging from it to the left is the proposed M6 to Larne):

1969 Transportation Plan - Newtownabbey

Although building the M5 all the way to Carrickfergus was always a bit of a dream, it was on the agenda for several years until the mid 1970s when Direct Rule Ministers took over the government of Northern Ireland and our grand motorway plans were largely abandoned. Only the very first bit of the planned M5, connecting the M2 at Greencastle to a roundabout on the Shore Road at Hazelbank, was ever built. This stretch opened in 1980, the only new motorway scheme to proceed between the imposition of Direct Rule and the opening of the M3 in 1995.

Shore Road Widening

With the M5 gone, work was carried out instead on widening the A2 Shore Road, from the truncated end of the more modest M5 and Carrickfergus, to provide two lanes of traffic in each direction. This work was largely completed by 1990, with only the eponymous stretch through Greenisland remaining in its original state of one lane each way. Meanwhile, the Matthews Plan had succeeded in increasing Carrickfergus’s population by almost 80% to 17,600 by 1981. By 1991 it had reached 22,800, more than double its level three decades before. All of this led to more and more traffic on the A2 Shore Road. The pinch point at Greenisland began to become more and more of an issue as congestion started to build up in the morning and evening rush hours.

The work that was carried out included the dual-carriageway from the end of the M5 at Hazelbank to Station Road, plus the wide stretch of four lane single-carriageway which ploughs its way rather unsympathetically through the village of Whiteabbey:

Further along part of the main street of the village survives intact since, at this point, the road itself was built by reclaiming the beach. This gives us some idea of what the old Shore Road looked like:

Comparing the old and new roads arouses mixed emotions. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the new road is not particularly photogenic, and is hardly the most attractive feature of County Antrim. Yet at the same time, had it not been upgraded, Whiteabbey village would today be clogged bumper to bumper with cars and lorries for most of the day. In a similar vein, having Carrickfergus largely inaccessible to traffic would hardly be an asset either.

Quite why the central stretch at Greenisland was not upgraded during the 1980s or 1990s is peculiar, but reasons may include:

  • The perceived negative impact of the upgrade through Whiteabbey village which was widely held to have destroyed the character of both the village and the waterfront.
  • That the Greenisland stretch had much more property along the “sea” side and hence a widening in the direction of the sea was less feasible than in Whiteabbey, where property was mostly concentrated on the landward side of the Shore Road.
  • The presence of a large number of expensive dwellings along the Greenisland stretch. It has long been suggested that the owners of some of these homes held enough influence to scupper any hopes of an upgrade. While this suggestion has a certain logic behind it, I have never seen any actual evidence to suggest that this was the case. Hearsay and conjecture is probably the best we can hope for.

The 1990 Belfast Urban Area Plan

In the 1990 “Belfast Urban Area Plan 2001” the proposed M5 to Carrick is long gone, but Scheme N3 to widen the Shore Road at Greenisland is still well and truly alive. During the 1990s the plan to complete the job at Greenisland was still a live proposal and, even though no work occurred, planning applications for new developments along this stretch took into account a “land protection corridor” to ensure that they did not jeopardise future widening. This can be seen most obviously in recent developments such as Langley Hall:

Throughout the 1990s the congestion on the Shore Road got worse and worse. By 2001 the population of Carrickfergus had risen to 27,200, almost triple the level it had in 1961, and one and a half times the level envisaged by Matthews. The average daily traffic volume on the Shore Road at Whiteabbey was 15,000 vehicles in 1976, rising sharply to 23,000 by 1983. After that the rise continued, albeit at a reduced rate, and today is around 30,000 vehicles per day at the Whiteabbey end.

If we were to measure “congested” as the amount of traffic per lane, the A2 through Greenisland is today the second most congested inter-urban road in Northern Ireland – beaten only by the Sydenham Bypass. By this measure it is busier than the M1, M2 and Westlink and is almost certainly the most congested two-lane road on the entire strategic road network. The figures below show the amount of traffic on each road divided by the number of lanes available (2009 figures, rounded to nearest 100).

  • A2 Sydenham Bypass – 14,600 vehs/lane
  • A2 Shore Road south of Greenisland – 14,300 vehs/lane
  • A12 Westlink at Roden Street – 13,500 vehs/lane
  • M1 at Broadway – 12,400 vehs/lane
  • M2 Foreshore – 12,200 vehs/lane
  • A2 Holywood Bypass – 11,300 vehs/lane
  • A1 at Hillsborough – 10,000 vehs/lane
  • A55 Outer Ring at Knockbreda – 9,300 vehs/lane

The problem is now at the stage where the congestion is a severe handicap to the East Antrim region. The hope would be that releasing the bottleneck might not just make journey times quicker, but would encourage new traffic, which would have been hitherto put off, which would help to drive the economy of the Carrickfergus area. Yet even if traffic levels were to rise by 50% as a result of the scheme (which seems implausible) the situation would still be significantly improved from what it is today. The case for the scheme is compelling.

2004 Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan

The 2004 Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan reiterated the government’s intention to find a solution to the ever-worsening problem of the A2 at Greenisland. The current scheme was developed from 2004 onwards, with a public consultation in 2005, a public inquiry in 2007 and the scheme approved by the Inspector in September 2008. The scheme settled on was a combined option:

  • The portion of the road south of Station Road, Greenisland will be upgraded by widening the existing road. This stretch would be an urban dual-carriageway, which means that it is thinner than a similar road in a rural area. It will have two lanes each way plus a central reservation across which right turns will not be possible (except at one location, for buses only). The large number of private properties along the road mean that each side will be littered with entrances into driveways. The need to acquire a large amount of prime property along this stretch is surely the reason that this scheme is surprisingly expensive at £57m.
  • Safety will be secured by allowing left turns only in and out of side roads and driveways. Therefore someone wishing to turn right must first turn left and then turn around. To facilitate this, the road will feature four signalised roundabouts along its length. Were it not for the need to allow u-turns conventional signalised junctions would no doubt have been used instead.
  • The portion of the road north of Greenisland will not be upgraded, so this section of the Shore Road will remain as it is. Instead, the road will cut inland and go through an area of fields. This road will be built to rural dual-carriageway standard, ie with two lanes each way, a continuous central reservation and no side accesses. The most significant bit of work is the construction of two huge embankments to allow Whinfield Lane to be lifted up to cross over the new road on a bridge.

You can see route maps in more detail on the maps on my web site or the Roads Service web site.

With the design finalised, the question was then one of funding, which was secured late in 2010 and tender documents prepared for release to contractors. These were about to go out when, on 13 January 2011, the scheme was put on hold by the then-DRD Minister Conor Murphy, apparently due to lack of money. This was a bitter disappointment to the people of Carrickfergus. However a few months later the DRD changed hands, and the new Minister was Danny Kennedy. His party had included a commitment to the A2 Greenisland scheme in their manifesto, so it is perhaps no surprise that in February 2012 the scheme was given the go-ahead once again. A fortnight later the tenders were released, and the contractor (Graham Construction) was appointed on 31st January 2013. Work began on the ground on 5th March 2013 and is expected to be completed by the summer of 2015.

This will be a fascinating scheme to watch, and I hope to provide progress reports during the next two years. If anyone has any photos or interesting snippets please share them either on Twitter @niroads or by e-mail.

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