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.

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Responses

  1. I would prefer that Cromkill Road junction was not upgraded to GSJ as it is close to Ballee roundabout. The road network has been upgraded to encourage traffic to go via Ballee. If Cromkill Road was upgraded to GSJ the actual Cromkill Road would require a degree of improvement which would ultimately add to the overal cost.

  2. This is such a fast, dangerous road with vehicles pulling in and out of junctions from all angles and tractors with trailers in the central reservation that have the rear of their trailer jutting out into the fast lane. Did nobody take safety in consideration when this road was designed? I wonder why yet another gap junction was allowed to be built when the new Ballee Road east dual carriageway was built in 2010. At least the new A26 north of Ballymena will be of a good standard once complete.


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