Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 29, 2023

Forty Years of Belfast’s A12 Westlink

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the completion of Belfast’s A12 Westlink. Although few outside the enthusiast community will even be aware of this landmark, it is guaranteed that nearly 100,000 vehicles will travel on it today – it is the third busiest stretch of road in Northern Ireland after the M2 foreshore and M3 Lagan Bridge. Although most people associate Westlink with its rush hour traffic jams it does, in the words of a Roads Service engineer I spoke to some years ago, continue to be “an extremely popular traffic jam!”

Westlink serves a critical role connecting the M1 south of the city centre to the M2 and M3 north of the city centre, allowing tens of thousands of vehicles to avoid driving through the city centre – as they previously had to do until it was completed in 1983. But it has a far more colourful and eventful history than its role suggests.

As far back as World War Two, following the invention of the motor car, it was recognised by the city planners in Belfast Corporation that some kind of new road network would be needed to adapt to the reality of cars. A 1944 plan would have seen a tree-lined street-level ring round the city centre with roundabouts at the various connecting roads. By the late 1950s, as the number of cars started to rise at an increasing rate, planners had concluded that it was only a matter of time before everyone owned a car and buses and trains would become redundant. Future planning, therefore, in the 1950s and 60s was almost exclusively based on the private car. Coinciding with this was the mushrooming of Belfast’s suburbs, meaning more and more traffic was travelling further and further to get into the city centre.

In 1959 the Sydenham Bypass opened (Ireland’s first modern dual-carriageway) allowing traffic from Bangor to avoid suburban east Belfast. However the road was limited by its unsatisfactory terminus at Ballymacarrett, where it simply joined the Newtownards Road at a T-junction (image below). This led to the realisation that major roads can’t just dump traffic onto existing streets – there needs to be a plan for what to with it once it gets there. Belfast’s planners were initially slow to deal with this reality.

1962 saw the opening of the M1 from Belfast to Lisburn (Ireland’s first motorway) which bypassed south Belfast and which similarly ended at a roundabout on the Donegall Road. Traffic found the M1 very useful and traffic quickly grew beyond predictions. The first stretch of the M2 opened in 1966, the “hill section” leading from Greencastle to Sandyknowes. Its extension into the city at Whitla Street, the “foreshore”, opened in 1973 after seven years of construction. (Upon opening the ten-lane section was the widest motorway in the UK). In the late 50s and early 60s Belfast Corporation toyed with the idea of the surface level ring road with flyovers at the junctions, but nothing concrete happened, which greatly frustrated the Stormont government which was busy planning the rural motorway network.

By the 1960s traffic levels were soaring at an astounding rate, which led to traffic planners predicting increasingly apocalyptic traffic conditions within a few years. By the mid 1960s congestion in Belfast was probably worse than it is today in 2023 as the road system was still largely as it had been in the nineteenth century, albeit with tarmac. The Stormont government, in 1964, announced a huge programme of motorway building across the province from Derry in the North-West, to Newry in the South and a particularly dense network in the vicinity of Belfast (though not west Tyrone or Fermanagh). These plans were far too ambitious, with hindsight, and most did not happen but Belfast Corporation mirrored the ambition in 1967 by announcing the intention to build the Belfast Urban Motorway.

The Urban Motorway would have seen an elevated three-lane motorway ring constructed around the city centre, with connections to the various feeder motorways. The plans were astounding in their ambition, including a three-way intersection partly located literally in the river Lagan near Ormeau Bridge (see below), and a four-lane crossing of the Lagan. Other areas, including The Crescent area of south Belfast, Holywood Arches along with Short Strand would all have been largely demolished to make way for it. Large chunks of the road were to pass through regeneration areas, especially in west Belfast, where slum housing was in the process of being cleared and replaced.

The scheme was approved and broken into phases. Phase 1 would have seen the Western Tangent constructed from the M1 to the M2 via west Belfast, along the route of the modern Westlink. However, the commencement of land clearance and piling coincided with the start of the Troubles and this led to major delays. Some people had their homes vested, but then could not leave because replacement housing had not been completed. Others fled their homes entirely, due to sectarian violence, and the British Army were then unwilling to allow contractors to enter to clear the derelict homes as it would create areas of open ground with no cover.

In addition, there was increasing opposition to the Urban Motorway from the people of west Belfast. This was not a roads versus public transport debate – the evidence suggests that most people at the time accepted the need for the road, at least in function. The issue was one of roads versus houses. People objected to valuable housing land being taken for such a wide road. To compensate for the reduced amount of land for housing the planners sought to build high-rise flats to achieve the required density, which were unpopular and eventually phased out. Paramilitaries eventually got involved and contractors were then very unwilling to carry out further work. In fact, the only part of the city where residents supported the road was the Donegall Road, where the M1 ended, causing hundreds of lorries to drive past front doors every day.

The Troubles led to a deteriorating financial climate, with Stormont being suspended and Direct Rule from London imposed in 1972. In addition, Belfast Corporation (the main driver of the scheme) was abolished in 1973 and replaced by Belfast City Council which had fewer powers and immediately voted to oppose the Urban Motorway. Piecemeal responsibility for roads passed from the councils and Stormont to a single new roads agency, Roads Service. The Direct Rule government initially decided to press ahead with the Urban Motorway scheme but by 1975, in a deteriorating financial climate, proposed to abolish the south and eastern legs of the road, and only build the West Tangent plus the crossing of the River Lagan. The proposals went to a Public Inquiry in 1977. The inquiry inspector, Lavery, recommended a mixed strategy where the Urban Motorway would be reduced to a dual-carriageway with two lanes each way, and the stretch from Broadway to Grosvenor Road built at ground-level with roundabouts instead of flyovers. He also recommended the cross-harbour bridge be built. He also recommended investment in pubic transport.

The decision was also made to build the northern half of Westlink as a depressed road below ground level, rather than elevated, even though this would create much more severe severance. At the time I published my book on the Urban Motorway in 2014 I stated that there was no evidence that the security situation played a part in this decision, which was the case at the time. However, since then, documents newly released have shown that in fact the British Army DID pressure Roads Service in the mid 1970s to depress the road as it would reduce the number of points of access from West Belfast into the city centre and allow for easier security monitoring.

Work on Westlink, as it was now known, began in 1979. The surface-level stretch from Broadway to Grosvenor Road was easier to build and opened without ceremony on 4 February 1981. The two roundabouts were initially conventional roundabouts. The traffic signals were added in 1984 to deal with the inevitable congestion that resulted from this decision. The canyon section from Grosvenor Road to York Street opened on 29 March 1983. The M2 was also extended from its temporary terminus at Whitla Street to meet Westlink at York Street. The road was very well received by the travelling public, and quickly became congested at peak hours as it proved far more attractive than the Lavery Inquiry had allowed for (though Roads Service engineers had expected it).

(Image ©DFI Roads)

Work immediately switched to the Lagan crossing which is beyond the remit of this blog post, but the M3 Lagan Bridge opened in 1995 and its connection to the Sydenham Bypass in 1998. Bt this time attention had turned to the massive congestion on the Westlink. This coincided with the Good Friday Agreement. The government was keen to provide a “peace dividend”, to improve infrastructure that had suffered three decades of under-investment. Various major road schemes were taken forward in this period and in the late 1990s the government announced plans to grade-separate the Broadway to Grosvenor Road stretch of the Westlink by adding underpasses and widening the road. The public inquiry took place in 2000.

This time the main objections were not about land use but about environmentalism. Why, opponents argued, widen a road when it will end up as congested as it was before within a few years, and contribute to fossil fuel usage? Roads Service’s view was that, while it was true that the scheme would not eliminate congestion, removal of congestion was not the goal of the scheme. The goal was to increase the capacity of the road to facilitate more journeys – increasing its capacity from about 60k per day to closer to 100k per day and hence leading to economic improvements. The Inquiry approved the scheme and work got underway in 2006 and was completed in March 2009. I followed the work exhaustively on my web site.

Since then traffic levels on the road have got close to 100,000 per day on Westlink. Congestion mostly affects northbound traffic, which has to stop at lights at York Street, compared to southbound, which flows directly onto the M1. Current debate around Westlink focuses on how to reduce the severe severance effect it has had on the west of the city and on whether (and, if so, how) York Street interchange should be improved. Work to build flyovers and underpasses which were due to get underway in 2018 (see below) were scuppered by a successful legal challenge to the appointment of the contractor and it is now unclear whether they will ever happen.

While few would say they “love” Westlink, it has certainly had a profound impact on the development of the city in its four decades of existence and will likely continue to for many years to come. While its planners had specific goals in mind it will be for future generations to decide how it must adapt to the changing needs of our city.

If you want to read more about the development of the Urban Motorway, the M3 and Westlink, get a copy of my book The Belfast Urban Motorway:

Wesley Johnston


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