Posted by: wesleyjohnston | April 28, 2014

M2 Ballymena Bypass at 45!

The M2 Ballymena Bypass quietly passed its 45th birthday on Saturday, 26 April 2014, having opened on that date in 1969. So I thought it would be good to mark this birthday with a blog highlighting some random, but hopefully interesting facts about this quirky motorway.

1. Why Does the M2 Ballymena Bypass Sit Alone?

The most common question about the Ballymena Bypass when people first come across it is: why does a 4.5 mile stretch of the M2 lie in splendid isolation, detached from the rest of the M2 to the south? The answer is, as it always is, that grander things were planned. The M2 was originally planned to go from Belfast to Coleraine, via Antrim and Ballymena (a spur – the M23 – would have left the M2 north of Ballymena and headed to Derry).

1964 Motorway Plans, Northern Ireland

1964 Motorway Plans, Northern Ireland

The Belfast to Ballymena stretch of the M2 got priority over the extension to Coleraine, as it was the busiest stretch. However, work on the M2 began later than the province’s other main motorway, the M1, which was opened between 1962 and 1968 and largely completed as planned. The first part of the M2 (the hill section between Greencastle and Sandyknowes) did not open until 1966. By that time, the pace of motorway building was slowing in the face of high costs and construction practicalities, so it was decided to build the bypasses of the most congested sections of the existing road network first, and then fill in the gaps. So the Ballymena Bypass (M2 j10 to M2 j12) opened in 1969; the Antrim Bypass (M2 j5 to M22 j2) opened in 1971; and the M2 foreshore (Whitla Street to Greencastle, bypassing North Belfast) in 1973. Then came the gaps. First up was Sandyknowes to Templepatrick (M2 j4 to M2 j5) in 1975….

However this proved to be the last part of the M2 ever built, since at that point the start of the Troubles, the imposition of Direct Rule and financial woes saw the rest of the M2 project put on the long finger and eventually abandoned. So the next stretch, from Antrim to Ballymena, never got built. Instead the existing A26 was upgraded to all-purpose dual-carriageway in three phases between 1989 and 2001. With this dual-carriageway being adequate for the needs of traffic (albeit not as safe as a full motorway-standard road) there is now no prospect of this missing section ever being built.

2. Larne Road Roundabout

Larne Road roundabout, at the south end of the Bypass, has two claims to fame.

Firstly, it is the largest roundabout in Northern Ireland. With a circumference of about 850 metres, it takes a full minute to circumnavigate it at a steady 30 miles per hour. There has even been a claim that it was the largest roundabout in the UK when it opened in 1969, although I have not conclusively determined the truth of that assertion. (There are many larger roundabouts in the UK today, for example this one on the M4 near Cardiff, which is just ludicrously big.)

Secondly, many will remember that the roundabout includes two bridges which went over nothing but grass for most of their lives – from 1969 until 2010:

One of the empty bridges at M2 j10 (the northern one) seen from the southern bridge, in 2006

These were the bridges that were designed to go over the missing stretch of the M2 from Antrim which was never built. So they just lay empty with mud underneath them, used only by the occasional fox or rabbit. Back in 2006 I had a good rummage around this area. This is how the underneath of the bridges looked back then:

Northern bridge at M2 j10, 2006

Northern bridge at M2 j10, 2006

There was a great deal of mud about, but the bridges themselves were in pretty good shape all things considered. This landscape all changed in 2010 – but more on that below.

3. Where Would the Rest of the M2 Have Run?

Thanks to borehole records still held by the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland (accessible here) we can speculate with a high degree of certainty where the unbuilt M2 would have run south of Ballymena. Boreholes are used to determine the depth and type of subsoil and bedrock, and are carried out to inform the exact engineering plans, once the route of a road has been decided. There is a line of such boreholes named “Antrim Ballymena Motorway” running south from Ballymena, and I’ve connected them up below:

The motorway would have run roughly a mile east of the modern A26, presumably with a junction to serve Kells half way along. In fact, three junction numbers were omitted from the original numbering system:

Junction 7 was reserved for the M2/M22 diverge at Antrim, traces of which are still very evident. This number has since been re-used for the later junction at Antrim Area Hospital which was added in 1993.

Junction 8 was very likely to be a junction for the town of Kells. I have marked the two most probable locations on the map above with pins.

Junction 9 was apparently reserved for a future southern ring road round Ballymena, which never came to pass.

4. Motte within Junction 11?

Many people are unaware that the pair of looped slip roads at the north side of M2 junction 11 (Broughshane Road) actually encircle the remains of a possible Norman motte (see Sites and Monuments Record). While it’s not certain that the mound is a motte, there was a strong Norman presence in the area in the medieval period, and this site, on the banks of the Braid, would have been an ideal site for such a structure which was designed to monitor the use of waterways – the motorways of the medieval period.

Unusually, there are actually two sliproads for entering the M2 southbound at Broughshane Road. I have not seen this confirmed, but I would be fairly confident that it was built this way to avoid having to build another bridge over the River Braid which rather inconveniently runs right through the junction. It does make it a rather unusual junction in having five sliproads instead of the usual four.

5. Teeshan Junction

The northernmost junction on the M2 Ballymena Bypass is the Teeshan junction. Today is does look like a rather over-sized mess of sweeping curves, but there is method to it. The actual design is almost identical to the Greencastle junction on the M2 closer to Belfast (ignore the M5). The planned M2 to Coleraine would have continued towards the north west over the top. The map below is speculative, but it shows how the junction might have looked if the M2 had been extended beyond Teeshan as planned:

6. Heritage Features

The M2 Ballymena Bypass has a good claim to be a ‘heritage’ motorway, and still has some features not found on more modern or upgraded motorways. Firstly, the Bypass has still got the original kerbstones separating the hard shoulder from lane 1, a common feature of 1960s motorways, but something that has been removed in almost all other places.

Secondly, until around 2010 the M2 Ballymena Bypass still had its original 1960s peat central reservation. This has now been replaced with a tensioned wire barrier. While it is sad that this historic feature has now gone, the peat barriers were deficient from a safety standpoint. Vehicles either went straight through them, in the case of lorries, or hit them heavily like a brick wall, in the case of smaller cars. The tensioned wire barriers are much safer (unless you’re a motorcyclist). Nevertheless, the picture below shows how it used to look with its peat barrier: You can also just about make out the kerbstones, adjacent to the solid white line.

M2 Ballymena Bypass seen in 2007. This is the view north from the Crebilly Bridge.

M2 Ballymena Bypass seen in 2007. This is the view north from the Crebilly Bridge.

Image from Geograph. © Copyright Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

7. Larne Road Roundabout Upgrade, 2010

It has always seemed silly that all traffic using the M2 Ballymena Bypass had to crawl round Larne Road roundabout when most of it was just going straight on onto the A26. Instead, all traffic had to head up the sliproad onto the roundabout and back off at the other side. The picture below shows the start of the M2 Ballymena Bypass from Larne Road roundabout in 2006. It’s obvious that the planners fully intended to complete the motorway judging by the half-baked way it was left in 1969.

Start of M2 Ballymena Bypass from Larne Road roundabout in 2006.

Start of M2 Ballymena Bypass from Larne Road roundabout in 2006.

Given the existence of the 1960s bridges, it made sense to use them. Work to do this finally began in June 2009 and was completed in August 2010. Instead of following the route of the planned M2 to Antrim, the road instead curves sharply west to meet the existing A26. The bridge only required minor modifications – including strengthening the 1960s central pillars which were deemed too weak for a modern standard of road (e.g., in the event of an HGV colliding with them). This was accomplished by casting a solid concrete cube around their base, just visible in the picture below, and adding extra wingwalls to the abutments on either side.

M2 bridges finally in use in August 2010. Photograph by Noel O'Rawe.

M2 bridges finally in use in August 2010. Photograph by Noel O’Rawe.


Another side effect of the upgrade is that, since the motorway restrictions begin at the last point where traffic can leave the road, the M2 was lengthened by 800 metres! Hurrah!

It is great that these bridges are finally serving a useful function after bridging grass for 41 years. You can see lots more photographs and details of the scheme on my web site here. The map below shows the layout of the road as it now looks. It may not have been what the 1960s planners had intended, but I am sure they would approve of us finally using their bridges.

8. Contractors

Finally, the list below is of the contractors and designers who built the M2 Ballymena Bypass:

Preliminary Design: Ministry of Development, Northern Ireland Government
Detailed Road Design: Works Division, Ministry of Finance, Northern Ireland Government
Bridge Design: Ministry of Defence engineers
Road Construction: Thomas Lowe and Sons
Bridges: Farrans

Source: The Northern Ireland Motorway Achievement, Roads Service/Motorway Archive Trust, 2002

Happy birthday M2 Ballymena Bypass!



  1. Thank you for this.
    I remember cycling the stretch between Broughshane road junction & Larne road junction before the road opened in the late sixties. My brother & I could not resist being the first to ride the new road. Even so at 8 years old it is a long ride & my legs hurt for a good while afterward.

    Happy days

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