Posted by: wesleyjohnston | September 12, 2014

Banning lorries from Hillsborough

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

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

What’s the issue in Hillsborough?

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

How big an issue is it?

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

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

Why else are HGVs doing this?

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

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

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

What has already been done?

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

What can be done?

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

Carrot Approaches

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

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

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

Stick Approaches

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

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

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

So what are the DRD proposing?

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

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

Will it work?

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

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

Too much stick, not enough carrot?

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

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Responses

  1. Having worked in Hillsborough and lived close to it I could suggest another alternative. Do away with the roundabout altogether, use the new bridge at the other end as the main exit, entrance. Keep the slip road into the village where the roundabout is currently and make a north bound slip rd at Harrys rd. Sounds simple, is simple and cuts congestion in Hillsborough.

  2. Actually, it wouldn’t be the first HGV restriction. Curran Road Castledawson is now a “Weak Road” absolute ban on all vehicles over 7.5t (including buses), but it was an HGV 7.5t ban except for access from the mid-90s onwards. The original restriction was because it was a very handy shortcut into Castledawson village before the bypass was built.

    • Thank you for the correction and the fascinating historical insight too!

  3. Wesley there are traffic lights at the the Moira Roundabout for traffic coming off from the Portadown side during the morning rush hour. Traffic lights during the morning rush hour for northbound traffic could be the most cost effective solution. I think about this while I sit in traffic at this roundabout!

  4. Very interesting post Wesley!

  5. Wesley,
    seem like this is now actually going to happen. The legislation for weight limits does not apply to all vehicles, just through vehicles (certain other exceptions), so a plate “except for access” is not required. Any HGV accessing land/delivering goods etc is exempt from the weight restriction, so Hillsborough is business as usualy – just without through HGV traffic.


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