Posted by: wesleyjohnston | December 16, 2015

Northern Ireland Traffic Figures – in Google Earth format!

If you just came here for the KML file, here it is! But read on…

TransportNI have just released their 2014 Annual Traffic Census report. This document is basically a huge, 140 page, list of tables, the bulk of which list the traffic counts measured at the 350 or so automated traffic counters located around Northern Ireland, for example:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 20.55.25

Another table lists the locations of these counters in Irish Grid format. For example:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 20.55.05

We’ve probably all seen temporary traffic counters in operation – two cables strung across the road with a box at one end. What most people don’t notice, however, are automated counters because these are buried under ground and use induction to detect traffic. But you can see the telltale pattern in the tarmac if you know where to look and you might also see the little counter box discretely located beside them.

The traffic census information is incredibly useful, because it allows us to see not only the annual average daily traffic (AADT) at each spot, but also the hourly flow during the busiest hour in the morning and afternoon peak, a more critical figure when analysing congestion. A few counters are also able to distinguish HGVs from other vehicles and give a percentage of traffic that consists of HGVs. Some can even distinguish traffic types in even more detail than this.

However, while the Report does have maps at the back, it is still cumbersome to use because you have to find the locations you want in the maps at the rear and then refer back to the various tables in the rest of the document.

So what I’ve done is to re-package some of this material in KML format (download here), which means that you can open it in Google Earth and see the data on an actual map. The information I have included is: the counter name and number, AADT figure for 2014, the morning and evening peak traffic flows and the % HGVs, if available. However, I have also gone back to old traffic reports and included the historic traffic counts at each location from 1999-2013. Therefore you can not only see the 2014 figure, but how it compares to historic figures for the previous 15 years.

Depending on your version, when you open it in Google Earth and zoom in you’ll see something like this, where each balloon represents the location of one automated traffic counter:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 20.46.23

Each balloon is labelled with “at a glance” info – the road number and the 2014 AADT traffic level, in thousands. If you click on the balloon, however, you see the more detailed information:

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 21.25.13



So the top bit gives the details of the counter. Each counter can record two separate “channels” of traffic data, which are added together to get the AADT. These are almost always wired up to be one channel for each direction, so the AADT figure is the total for the road. However, in a few cases (e.g. on the M2 foreshore and Westlink) only one channel is used, or it’s used to record two bits of information in the same direction, and in these cases this is clearly indicated. After this is the 2014 data, lifted straight from the 2014 report. At the bottom is historic data.

If a particular figure is missing it will be either because the automated counter did not exist then, because it’s not capable of recording that specific piece of data, or because it was not operating properly at that time. In some cases, counters have been removed due to road upgrades so you’ll see data for a number of years, but then nothing more recent.

You will also note that some very minor roads (like here) have automated counters. Why? This is because TransportNI are keen to estimate how much traffic uses the thousands of miles of low-traffic rural roads we have – these counters are positioned at random around the province to try to get a representative sample that can be used to estimate the usage of the unclassified rural road network.

Link to the KML file which should open in Google Earth.


UPDATE 21 DEC 2015

My KML file contains all the data for each traffic counter as a single piece of text that you can click. Since I wrote this blog, Bob Harper over at NICVA has worked wonders and further refined the data, separating out the data for each year, etc, as a separate field. The data is now available on the NICVA web site in various formats (CSV, Geojson, KML) which can be used with GIS software. Thank you!


2015 is a good time to take stock of where we are with the road construction programme in Northern Ireland because it is in 2015 that the three major plans which have given structure to the programme for the past decade finally run out. 2005 saw the publication of three detailed transport plans; detailed in the sense that they named actual schemes and gave actual costs and timescales. These were:

  • The Belfast Metropolitan Transport Plan (BMTP) – covering Belfast plus North Down, Castlereagh, Newtownabbey, Lisburn and Carrickfergus (oddly not Newtownards).
  • The Regional Strategic Transport Network Transport Plan (RSTN-TP) – covering trunk roads outside the greater Belfast area.
  • The Sub-Regional Transportation Plan (SRTP) – covering plans for roads that aren’t trunk roads, usually local roads. I am not going to refer to this plan again as it only covers localised road schemes whereas the focus of this blog is on strategic, i.e. major, road schemes.

These plans covered the ten years from 2005, and so officially expire in 2015. To date nothing with this level of detail has been produced to replace them. Other policy documents are still in force, including the “Regional Development Strategy 2035” published in 2012, and the “Ensuring a Sustainable Transport Future – A New Approach to Regional Transportation” document, also published in 2012, which sets current transport policy. However both are very high-level documents and lack detailed proposals. The three plans above are the most detailed plans we have, and they are now about to expire without a replacement of a similar level of detail.

Looking back at these plans, it is instructive to see how many of the proposals have actually been implemented.

The BMTP, first of all, contains five major schemes for implementation by 2015. Three of these – the M1/Westlink upgrade, the M2 upgrade and the A2 dualling at Greenisland have all been implemented. However two remain unbuilt:

  • A2 Sydenham Bypass widening, Belfast
  • A55 Outer Ring widening at Knock, Belfast

So that’s 3 out of 5 for the BMTP.

However, it is also interesting to note that some schemes, such as the dualling of the A8 and York Street Interchange are entirely absent from the BMTP, because they were proposed after the BMTP was created. This demonstrates that the absence of a specific proposal from a strategic plan does not rule out the proposal from nevertheless happening during the period of that plan. Thus the A8 dual-carriageway was completed within the timeframe of the BMTP despite not being in it.

The RSTN-TP contains the largest number of proposals. Ignoring schemes that were actually completed by the time the RSTN-TP was published in 2005, there are 32 separate road proposals in the RSTN-TP (two of which are duplicates from the BMTP). Of these, 23 have been completed or are under construction, including the works to the A1, A4 and A8. One other was rendered redundant by the later proposal to dual the entire A5 (namely, Strabane Bypass Phase 3). That leaves eight unimplemented plans which are:

  • A2 Buncrana Road widening, Derry
  • A3 Armagh North and West Link
  • A5 Strabane to Lifford Link Road (delayed due to delay in the A5 dualling scheme)
  • A6 dualling Castledawson to Randalstown
  • A6 Dungiven Bypass
  • A24 Ballynahinch Bypass
  • A28 Armagh East Link
  • A29 Cookstown Bypass

Pattern of Implementation across Northern Ireland

So this tells us that of the 35 individual road scheme proposals in the RSTN and BMTP together, 24 were actually completed during the ten year plan period. That’s an implementation rate of 69%. Is this pattern the same across Northern Ireland, or are there regional discrepancies? For this, we need to refer to the five “Key Transportation Corridors”. These are the five main transport conduits identified by the DRD as the most important components of the road network in Northern Ireland. These are supplemented by “Link Corridors”, which are important supporting links between the five key corridors. Then there are other “trunk roads” which are also important roads, but not quite as critical. They are all shown on this map (taken from the Regional Transportation Strategy):

Northern Ireland Key Transportation Corridors

The Eastern Corridor runs from Larne to the border at Newry via Belfast, taking in the A8, parts of the M2 and M1, the Westlink and the A1. All 8 of the proposals for this corridor have been implemented, namely the three final sections of the A1 dual-carriageway, the Ballynure Link Road, the M1/Westlink upgrade, the M2 upgrade and the first package of grade-separated junctions on the A1. That is a 100% implementation rate.

The Northern Corridor runs from Derry to Antrim via Coleraine, taking in the A26, A37 and A2. All 3 of the proposals for this corridor have been implemented or commenced, namely the A26-M2 direct link at Ballymena, the A2 Maydown dualling in Derry and the dualling of the A26 from Glarryford to Drones Road (currently underway). If we count this last scheme, this is also a 100% implementation rate.

The North-Western Corridor runs from Antrim to Derry along the A6. Only 3 of the proposals for this corridor have been implemented, namely the Skeoge Link in Derry, dualling the Crescent Link in Derry and upgrading junction 7 on the M2 at Antrim (a relatively small scheme). The three unimplemented schemes are:

  • A6 Dungiven Bypass
  • A6 dualling Randalstown to Castledawson
  • A2 widening of Buncrana Road, Derry (although urban schemes like this are fast falling out of favour so it is questionable whether it will actually happen)

This is only a 50% implementation rate, especially so given that the two most expensive schemes on the list (A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson and the A6 Dungiven Bypass) remain unbuilt.

The South-Western Corridor runs from Lisburn to Enniskillen and on to the border via the M1 and A4. Of the 4 proposals for this corridor, all 4 have been implemented, namely the A4 dualling from Dungannon to Ballygawley, the A4 realignment at Annaghilla, the A32 Cherrymount Link in Enniskillen and the A4 Sligo Road improvement, also in Enniskillen. 100% implementation rate.

The Western Corridor runs from Derry to Aughnacloy via Omagh and Strabane along the A5. It is the hardest to assess. Only 2 of the 4 proposals have been carried out, namely the A5 Omagh Throughpass Phase 3 and the A5 realignment at Tullyvar. However, the two unimplemented schemes have not been carried out either because they were rendered redundant by the major A5 dualling scheme (which was announced after these plans were created) or cannot be implemented ahead of it for logistical reasons:

  • A5 Strabane Bypass Phase 3 (now redundant)
  • A5 Strabane to Lifford Link Road (cannot happen ahead of the major A5 project).

Nevertheless, it is the case that the major A5 scheme that superseded these proposals has not happened either, so I still think it is fair to count these as “unimplemented” schemes. Therefore I will give the Western corridor a 50% implementation rate.

The Link Corridors performed fairly poorly, with only 1 of the 4 proposals being carried out, namely the A29 realignment at Carland in Co Tyrone. The three unimplemented schemes are:

  • A3 Armagh North and West Link
  • A28 Armagh Eastern Link
  • A29 Cookstown Bypass

So this is a 25% implementation rate.

Finally, the thunk roads cover road proposals for the remaining trunk road network. There were 5 proposals here, only 2 of which have been implemented, namely the A20 Frederick Street Link in Newtownards (a fairly small scheme) and the A31 Magherafelt Bypass (currently under construction). The 3 unimplemented schemes are:

  • A2 Sydenham Bypass dualling, Belfast
  • A24 Ballynahinch Bypass
  • A55 Outer Ring widening at Knock, Belfast

This represents a 40% implementation rate.


We can conclude that there is a geographic disparity in the way in which road schemes have been implemented here over the past ten years, though it is not the simple East-West divide that is sometimes assumed. Rather we can conclude these key points:

  • Schemes on link corridors were the least likely to be built, with a 25% implementation rate. Note that 2 of the 3 unbuilt schemes are in Armagh.
  • Schemes on trunk roads were the next least likely to be built, with a 40% implementation rate. Note that 2 of the 3 unbuilt schemes are in Belfast.
  • Schemes on the A5 Western Transport Corridor and the A6 North-Western Corridor are next least likely to have been built, with a 50% implementation rate. Schemes on the road from Belfast to Derry are the most notably absent from the list of implemented schemes.
  • Schemes on the Eastern Corridor, the Northern Corridor and the South-Western Corridor have all had 100% implementation rates. Note that all the schemes on the South-Western Corridor have been in either Tyrone or Fermanagh.
  • It is probably fair to say that the Western Transport Corridor and the North-Western Corridor have been neglected during the ten years 2005-2015, so it follows that it is also fair that priority should be given to schemes on these corridors when moving forward.
  • Some major new schemes have been added to the list of proposed roads since these plans were published in 2005 and have progressed rapidly through the processes to the point that they are now very advanced. The most notable are the A5 and A8 dualling schemes (already discussed), the York Street Interchange in Belfast and further safety improvements to the A1. While priorities always change over time, the previous point about the Western and North-Western Transport Corridors does need to be taken into account when deciding where these new schemes should slot into the schedule.
Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 17, 2015

Enforcement on Northern Ireland’s Roads

In the 1920 the USA made the sale of alcohol a criminal offence. But the USA was geographically so huge, its population so high and alcohol so easy to hide that law enforcement agencies found it very difficult to enforce the ban. The result was that by the early 1930s alcohol consumption was at almost 80% of the level it had been before the law came in to force. In 1933, the ban was repealed, for two reasons. Firstly, because the widespread flouting of the law suggested it did not have the support of the population as a whole. And secondly, because it had proved impractical to enforce.

The experience of prohibition in the USA demonstrates the distinction between legislating laws and enforcement of laws. While it is easy for Westminster and Stormont to pass laws to govern Northern Ireland, enforcing those laws is an entirely different matter. A few months ago a cow got loose on the M1 motorway, causing traffic chaos. I commented in jest on Twitter that the cow should have known better since animals are banned from motorways by law! Clearly, the passing of a law alone is not enough if it cannot be enforced.

Human society is made up of fallible human beings, some of whom are very well-behaved and some of whom are criminals. Most lie somewhere in between. It is therefore not only possible, but certain, that a level of lawbreaking will go on in any society. The role of enforcement is both to detect lawbreaking, and to deter it in the first place. It is clearly impossible to eliminate lawbreaking entirely. Societies which have attempted to do so, such as the former East Germany, have found that even by having a vast proportion of the population involved in detecting lawbreaking, the state is still unable to stamp it out, and indeed the process of attempting to do so is hugely destructive to human society.

Most states use law enforcement agencies, such as the police, to detect and deter lawbreaking. Because it is impossible (and clearly undesirable) for law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on every member of the population at all times, enforcement usually involves a more pragmatic approach of only actively enforcing laws from time to time – spot checking – the idea being that if the general public see other people being being detected breaking the law with enough frequency, that will deter them from breaking the law.

Hence TV license officers do not check every house in the country every day to see if they are using a TV without a license, but rather conduct spot checks on a few selected properties each day. TV license agencies are keen to promote figures of the number of people detected breaking the law in this way so that the general public get the impression that there is a reasonable chance that rule-breakers will be caught. By this method, compliance with TV licensing laws remains quite high (95%) despite the fact that in a given day, the chance of an individual being caught is actually very low.

Even in this “spot check” approach, a balance has to be struck between:

(a) spending so much time and resources detecting lawbreaking that it becomes prohibitively expensive and intrusive, and

(b) spending so little time and resources detecting lawbreaking that the less scrupulous elements of the population realise that they are highly unlikely to get detected, and hence lawbreaking increases.

Risking The Social Contract

Enforcement clearly cannot drop off to zero. There is a point at which enforcement drops below a critical level beyond which lawbreaking starts to become much more widespread. This is often described through the idea of a social contract, the idea that by obeying laws citizens of a country are agreeing to give up certain freedoms in order to achieve greater benefits. For example, most people choose to stop at a red traffic light, despite it delaying their journey, on the basis that it creates order from which they ultimately benefit. Similarly, most people agree to pay taxes, because they understand that if everyone else does so too things like the NHS and schools can be funded and they will ultimately benefit.

However, it’s vital to note that the social contract is a contract. The public is only one side to it, with law enforcement as the flip side. If the public starts to see that the government is not enforcing the law, and hence others are profiting from lawbreaking with impunity, they start to question why they themselves are obeying the law. If I was to pay my taxes, but everyone else did not, and got away with it, I would very quickly start to ask why I should pay taxes. “Why shouldn’t I keep my taxes and spend them on myself like everyone else?” So while every free society must, by necessity, tolerate a certain level of lawbreaking, a critical point can be reached if law enforcement diminishes to the extent that the social contract breaks down and the wider public starts engaging in lawbreaking on the basis that everyone else is too.

We now turn to the rules of the road. The rules of the road are an example of laws that are generally enforced in a “spot check” manner, i.e. by actively enforcing them only from time to time in the hope that this will happen often enough to deter the public more generally from breaking the law. Typical examples of these laws are speeding, careless driving, illegal parking, running red lights and driving in bus lanes.

One can tell from spending even a few days on our road network in Northern Ireland that enforcement of all these laws is not occurring very often. Anecdotally, road users in Northern Ireland have been saying for some time that lawbreaking is on the increase. Could it be that enforcement has reached such a low point that the social contract is breaking down?

Enforcement on Roads in Northern Ireland

Enforcement of traffic laws in Northern Ireland is generally the responsibility of two agencies.

Firstly, the police (PSNI). While any police officer can of course stop a driver who is committing an offence, there were 178 officers specifically assigned to traffic policing in 2014 (source). This has reduced from 292 in 2001. If we assume, as a back of the envelope exercise, that one third of these officers are on active duty at any one time, and if we further assume that these officers must work in pairs, and if we further assume that they can spend 100% of their time patrolling the roads (which they surely are not) that leaves 30 traffic policing units on active duty across the whole province at any one time. There are about 25,000 km of roads in Northern Ireland, so that is one traffic policing unit for every 830 km of road. Clearly the PSNI cannot hope to manage more than sporadic spot checks with this level of coverage. If we look at greater Belfast/Lisburn alone, there are only 26 traffic police officers assigned from stations in these areas. Using the same sum as above, that leaves just four traffic police units to cover the entire city. Clearly, then, it is impossible for there to be any meaningful enforcement of things like speeding or bus lane infringement, and we should not be surprised that it is mostly not happening. Those who believe that they can break these laws with impunity are largely correct.

Secondly, traffic attendants, who deal with parking issues such as breaches of Urban Clearways, parking in bus lanes, over-staying in car parks etc. There are currently 107 traffic attendants in Northern Ireland Monday-Saturday, of whom 25 operate in Belfast (information correct Oct 2014). There are 873 km of roads in Belfast City Council (pre April 2015 boundaries) so each of these traffic attendants is effectively managing 35 km of roads. Clearly it is not possible for one traffic attendant to actively prevent illegal parking on anything close to 35 km of roads. Additionally, there are some forms of illegal parking – such as illegal waiting by taxis – that cannot be enforced as the driver will simply drive off if they see the attendant approach and return once they have left the area. And even if the traffic attendants did focus all their efforts on, say, parking in bus lanes they would then fail to enforce all other forms of illegal parking. So, again, those who believe that they can break parking laws with impunity are, unfortunately, largely correct.

Since the bus lanes were introduced to Belfast over the past two years, enforcement has been very poor. Both the PSNI and the traffic attendants lack the resources to offer much more than token enforcement, and I fear this level of enforcement falls below the level that can sustain the social contract. Thus complaints about people parking in Clearways and driving in the bus lanes have now gone beyond venting frustration and have become the city’s running joke – “Wow, only 15 cars parked in the Lisburn Road bus lane this morning!”. “Gosh, I saw a BUS in the bus lane this morning. What’s going on?”

Belfast’s bus lanes are also being routinely flouted by taxis who resent the way they have been displaced by the bus infrastructure and refuse to obey the rules. Taxis park in bus lanes in such numbers on Donegall Square North and outside Central Station that the bus lanes there do not function. The PSNI and parking attendants have basically been defeated in this standoff with the taxis, so now it occurs all day every day with apparent impunity.

The law, as the saying goes, looks an ass.

The “Enforcement Issue”

This is what I have been referring to over the past couple of years as the enforcement issue. And I am concerned that it’s going to become an even bigger issue. As enforcement continues to diminish in the face of further budget cuts, the road network is going to be characterised as an increasingly lawless environment. So while others are concerned with increasing enforcement, the more immediate challenge is going to be even maintaining the low level of enforcement we have now.

Work is currently ongoing to construct an ambitious Rapid Transit system in Belfast. This will be bus-based and will operate via dedicated bus lanes running out to the Stewartstown Road in west Belfast, Dundonald in east Belfast and to Titanic Quarter. The selling point of the system is going to be its promise of fast, reliable journey times into the city centre that are much faster than an equivalent journey by car. In principle I believe Rapid Transit is a good idea. However, it is going to be crippled from its very inception if we do not take serious steps to tackle the enforcement issue. Rapid Transit vehicles will end up stuck in traffic if even a handful of illegally parked vehicles block the bus lanes. Unless there is a significant change in our approach to enforcement before the system becomes operational, Rapid Transit will be severely crippled.

There are three ways to tackle the problem.

1. Spend more on resources. The most obvious solution is to allocate more resources to law enforcement on the ground. However, in the current climate of budget cuts this is highly unlikely to happen – because by “resources”, what we really mean is “people’s taxes” and there is less and less of those to go around. So far from spending more on resources, the situation is likely to get worse as the PSNI faces further budget cuts. Roads policing is only one facet of the PSNI’s work, and when faced with cutting things like tackling serious crime, fraud, terrorism and civil disorder it is easy to see how traffic policing will struggle to be a high priority. It could be argued that the DRD should be putting funding towards traffic policing as part of running an effective transport system, and I believe there is a strong case for that. That is not the current situation, but even if it was, the DRD faces similar budget cuts across the board.

2. Use more cost-effective resources. Human beings are expensive resources for the state to use in enforcing law. For many types of lawbreaking, such as civil disorder or fraud, human beings are still the only way to tackle the problem. But some aspects of traffic policing – such as detecting speeding or bus lane infringements – can be highly automated through the use of fixed or mobile cameras to detect law-breaking. Cameras also have ongoing running costs, both to run them and to take action against those they catch, so it is not as if they are a “free” solution. But given the low probability of any more policing or traffic attendants being introduced in the near future, this is still an attractive form of enforcement. Indeed it is something that TransportNI wanted to introduce last summer to enforce bus lanes in Belfast, but bizarrely it was opposed by the DRD Committee. Of course, there is a wider issue of the extent to which mass surveillance of the general public is appropriate in a liberal democracy. It is legitimate to ask: to what extent is it appropriate for the state to make video recordings of people going about their lawful business in order to detect the few who are not?

An important aside point on this is that when speed cameras are used it is vital that they are highly visible on the roads. Why? If they are not, then the only people who will be aware of them will be the select few who get caught. Those who do not get caught will be unaware that enforcement was taking place. But for the social contract to work, it is vital that the wider public observe the enforcement taking place. While there is a sense in which a visible speed camera may allow a speeding driver to slow down and not get caught, this is actually less important than the wider impact that the visibility of enforcement has on the behaviour of the majority. It is not sufficient for justice to be done – justice must also be seen to be done.

3. Stop building infrastructure that relies on active enforcement. Laws that require the active participation of law enforcement agencies in order to function create ever more ongoing work and costs for the state. As soon as enforcement stops, lawbreaking rises. This is what we could call active enforcement and, while capable of great flexibility, is also very expensive to maintain.

With road law enforcement it is possible to create self-enforcing measures that rely purely on their physical form to work. The classic example is the speed bump. Speed bumps are self-enforcing in that they generally result in traffic slowing to around 20mph without requiring anyone to stand with a speed camera. They are also active 24 hours per day. Self-enforcing measures have an initial setup cost, but are thereafter very cheap to maintain. In a financially-strapped state such as Northern Ireland, re-orienting our thinking to rely more heavily on self-enforcement has obvious benefits. Sensitive and careful use of bollards can be used to enforce parking restrictions and protect things like cycle lanes from poorly parked vehicles. Bus lanes that are fully segregated from general traffic lanes are subject to far fewer obstructions than those that are separated merely by painted lines.

There is a sense in which creating more and more bus lanes that rely on active enforcement is simply not going to work in Northern Ireland in the current economic climate, and therefore in the foreseeable future. Perhaps we should go so far as to stop building infrastructure that relies on active enforcement and focus instead on self-enforcement wherever possible.

In summary, enforcement of road traffic laws can never be universal and can only ever be piecemeal. However, even this approach relies on a certain visibility of enforcement which is increasingly not being achieved in Northern Ireland. As a result, the social contract itself is under threat and could break down entirely. If we are not careful, the road network could increasingly become a lawless environment. Given the current financial state of the province, we may need to look towards different enforcement measures such as cameras or self-enforcing infrastructure in order to prevent this from happening.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | March 1, 2015

What would it take to get a motorway to Derry/Londonderry?

This is a copy of a blog post that I wrote for Slugger O’Toole on 10 February 2015, reproduced here by permission.

Back in 1964 William Craig, the Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland, announced an ambitious plan to build a network of motorways around the province.

In terms of the North West, the core of the plan was a motorway from Belfast to Coleraine – the M2. From this would come two spurs. The M22 would diverge at Antrim and go to Castledawson, serving Mid Ulster. The M23 would diverge north of Ballymena and go to Londonderry, via Limavady. At the Derry end it would have closely followed the modern railway line into the city and terminated on the Duke Street dual-carriageway. At that time, the A2 route via Limavady was by far the busiest route into the city, carrying over 8000 vehicles per day in 1970 compared to less than 3000 for the A6 via Glenshane Pass.

During the late 1960s it became apparent that the ambition of the 1964 plan far outstripped the province’s financial capabilities. Motorways, they found, cost more and took longer to build than anticipated. It was quickly realised that it would be many decades before such an elaborate system could be completed. It was therefore decided that the A6 needed to be upgraded in the interim, ie from the end of the planned M22 at Castledawson. The work to upgrade the A6 to a high-quality single-carriageway (featuring innovations such as hard shoulders on long stretches) was carried out from 1960 to 1975, with only a bypass of Dungiven omitted.

Following the collapse of Stormont in 1972 the motorway project was largely abandoned leaving the M2 built only as far as Antrim, (with an isolated section at Ballymena) the M22 built only as far as Randalstown and the M23 not begun. This left the stretch of the A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson via Toome as the worst part of the whole road since, in anticipation of the M22, it had not been upgraded.

Fast forward to 2015 and this is still the situation, the only change in the interim being the addition of a dual-carriageway bypass of Toome eleven years ago. In addition, traffic levels have soared to the extent that a single-carriageway is no longer an appropriate standard along much of the length.

So how much would it cost to upgrade the approx 46 miles (74 km) of single-carriageway road? This depends on the standard you build it to.

Until around ten years ago Roads Service were great fans of at-grade dual-carriageways, ie roads with lots of central reservation gaps and right-turns. Good examples are the northern part of the A1 or the main A26 Antrim-Ballymena road. These were cheap to build in the cash-starved era of the Troubles – no flyovers were needed and you didn’t have to close up every gate and driveway you came across. As a rough estimate, upgrading the A6 to this standard would cost around £300m. However this standard has now fallen out of fashion as we have found that they have poor safety records, particularly at junctions and so it is questionable whether they are worth providing at all. The DRD no longer builds them.

One step up is a high-quality dual-carriageway (HQDC). These are roads where the central reservation is continuous, ie no right turns are allowed. Junctions are therefore either compact flyover junctions, left-in/left-out T-junctions or ground level roundabouts. They are a good compromise as they have much better safety records, yet the compact design of junctions means they are not excessively expensive. A good example is the recently completed section of A4 from the end of the M1 at Dungannon to Ballygawley which has significantly reduced fatalities since it opened. Based on recent estimates, upgrading the A6 to this standard would probably cost in the region of £800m to £1bn. The main reason for the huge cost hike is the substantial earthworks required to give the appropriate gradients and the need to provide flyovers at key junctions (imagine building a compact grade-separated junction to serve the Ponderosa Bar!).

The highest standard is what most people consider to be “motorway” standard, known to engineers as “Category 7”. These roads only have flyover-type junctions – so no left-in/left-out T-junctions and no roundabouts. They usually have full hard shoulders and the junctions tend to be on a larger scale. If designated as a motorway, certain road users (pedestrians, cyclists, small motorcycles etc) are banned for safety reasons, so additional parallel roads are sometimes needed to provide alternative routes for these people. The lack of side accesses also means long stretches of new side roads to maintain access to property. The M1 and M2 are built to this standard, but so is the recently completed A1 Newry Bypass, even though it’s not a motorway in the legal sense. Upgrading the A6 to this standard would cost well over £1bn, perhaps £1.2bn.

Given that we do not currently have these levels of cash – the 2015/16 budget provides zero funding for new road schemes other that those that are already proceeding – some kind of prioritisation is clearly needed. The road is generally broken down into four sections to facilitate this:

  1. Randalstown to Castledawson. Proposals to upgrade this to HQDC standard are at an advanced stage and just awaiting the c£140m needed to build it. This is the busiest stretch of the A6 carrying over 19k vehicles daily in 2009 [the most recent figures available to me] and also has the lowest standard at present. The time saving would only be 3-4 minutes at off-peak times, but at peak times could be much more than this since the loss of a lane at the Toome Bypass causes tailbacks.
  2. Castledawson to Dungiven, including Glenshane Pass. There are no proposals to upgrade this stretch. Given that it is the least-busy stretch at just under 12k vehicles daily in 2009, and has a fairly good safety record, it is probably the lowest priority for an upgrade. The total time saving to a driver would be in the order of 10 minutes.
  3. Dungiven Bypass. Plans are progressing to provide a short HQDC bypass of Dungiven at a cost of approx £60m. This is a major bottleneck and can be justified for both drivers and residents. The A6 just west of Dungiven carried 15k vehicles per day in 2009. At off-peak times the time saving would not be much, but could be considerable at peak times.
  4. Dungiven to Derry. This stretch carried around 14k vehicles per day in 2009 (as measured at The Cross). Plans are progressing to upgrade this stretch to HQDC standard at a cost of approx £380m. It is unlikely to get funding in the foreseeable future. The journey by an average driver would be reduced by anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes depending on the time of day.

Of course, as well as cost, safety records are also relevant when prioritising schemes. For example over the past three years there have been four fatalities on the A6, three of which were between Derry and Dungiven. The remaining one was between Toome and Randalstown.

What effect would it have? On the current road, outside of rush hour, average speeds range between 40 and 50mph so a journey from Belfast to Derry can be achieved in around an hour and a half. During the rush hour this can rise to well over two hours. If there was a dual-carriageway the whole way most of it would likely operate below capacity even at peak hours, so a steady 70mph would seem achievable on most of the road. This could see an off-peak journey reduce to just under an hour, perhaps an hour and a half at peak hours. So a full upgrade could be expected to cut about half an hour off a typical journey from Belfast to Londonderry.

With the A6 competing for severely limited funding against other major schemes such as the A5 (Londonderry to Ballygawley), the York Street interchange in Belfast and further upgrades to the A1, the Regional Development Minister has some hard choices ahead.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | January 1, 2015

Northern Ireland Road Deaths – 2014

Note: In this blog I look at road deaths statistically. I am very conscious that road deaths are not merely statistics – every one represents a loved one lost and a lifetime of bereavement. Nothing in this blog is intended to trivialise this tragic reality.

Provisional figures show that 79 people died on Northern Ireland’s roads in 2014, well up on the year before when 57 people died and substantially more than 2012, the lowest on record, when 48 people lost their lives. This is very disappointing and the PSNI and Department of the Environment have already pledged to do their best to reduce this in 2015. The graph below shows the figures for the past twenty years.

Road Deaths Northern Ireland 1995-2014

As you can see, the overall trend was fairly steady for the first ten years, before a decline began from 2004. Over the next ten years deaths on the roads more than halved, reaching a low of 48 in 2012. Since then the figure has increased again, reaching 2014’s figure of 79. However, it is worth noting that despite the upward trend, the number of deaths in 2014 was still the fifth lowest since records began.

So a couple of questions are worth asking:

1. Is 2014 unusually bad, or were 2010-2013 unusually good?
2. Is this trend mirrored elsewhere or is it unique to Northern Ireland?

At the outset we need to say that these figures cannot be explained by the changing number of people on the roads, since this only varies by a percent or two from year to year and is nowhere near large enough to account for such big differences. The explanation must be deeper.

We have to be careful when looking at road deaths statistically because Northern Ireland has a very small population (around 1.8 million) and road deaths in recent years have always been less than 200 per year. With such a small sample size we must expect a higher degree of fluctuation from year to year than would be the case over a larger population, such as Great Britain. Therefore it is instructive to compare road deaths in Northern Ireland over the past twenty years to our two closest neighbouring areas – Great Britain (i.e., the rest of the UK), and the Republic of Ireland. Unfortunately the total number of road deaths in Great Britain in 2014 has not yet been released, so we only have figures up to 2013 for GB. However, the graph below compares the trends in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland over the previous 20 years. Each graph shows road deaths given as a percentage of the 1996-2000 five-year average so that they can be compared to each other (road deaths in GB in 2013 were actually 1713, and in RoI there were 190 in 2013).

Road Deaths NI, GB and RoI, 1996-2014

Looking at this graph it seems that all three areas have seen a very similar trend – road deaths fairly static (or declining slightly) during the first decade, but after 2004, they all fall sharply. Notably, Northern Ireland’s deaths fell most dramatically, out-performing both GB and RoI over this time period before growing again over the past three years, back towards the trend seen in GB and RoI. This suggests that the overall trend is not unique to Northern Ireland but is mirrored elsewhere.

You can also see that the smoothest line is for GB, which is to be expected since it has the largest sample size and is thus less susceptible than NI to the effect of random fluctuations. Thus the GB line is the one that is most likely to be an accurate reflection of the underlying trend, less affected by statistical spikes. The line for NI does seem to broadly follow the GB trend, but, as discussed, it varies much more from one year to the next due to the much smaller population size here.

So the NI graph fell much deeper below the overall trend seen elsewhere, and has since risen again. This suggests that it is more likely that 2010-2013 were unusually good years in Northern Ireland, and that 2014 represents a return towards the underlying trend. This could be an example of the phenomenon known as regression towards the mean.

Nevertheless, the graph also suggests that 2014 was probably higher than average. These statistics suggest to me that the total number of deaths in 2015 is likely to be less than in 2014, but likely to be more than in 2010-2013. So my conclusion is that the increase in road deaths in 2014 is disappointing but probably not quite as alarming as some media reports would suggest. However, at a human level the high number of deaths in 2014 is sobering and should usefully serve to concentrate the minds of both road users and road planners on safety during 2015.

I plan to blog more on the subject of road deaths in the near future. In that blog I will look at what trends we can derive from analysing road deaths over the past three years, 2012-14, concentrating on the patterns for particular groups, for example the type of road user, age, gender as well as road standard and setting.

If you are interested to know more about why road deaths have fallen so much over the past decade, see this blog post I wrote in 2012 where I suggest that the three biggest factors are 1. driver awareness of safety issues; 2. better vehicle safety and 3. better road design.

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.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | August 15, 2014

Peculiarities of speed limits in Northern Ireland

This blog has been written by my good friend Andy Boal who, as well as being a transport enthusiast, is particularly knowledgeable in the fields of public transport and legislation. It is the latter to which we turn our attention here. It all started when he commented that rural roads in Northern Ireland with the National Speed Limit sign, i.e. this one….

NSL Sign

….have no speed limit at all! It’s just the vehicles that do. I thought “Eh?” and asked Andy if he would write a guest blog to explain what he means, which I am delighted to include here. Over to you Andy!

Speed limits in Northern Ireland: why they are the same yet very different from Great Britain

What do you mean? Yes, I know what the white circle with a black line across it means: cars can do 60 on single carriageways and dual carriageways…. what, you mean that cars can do 70 on both dual carriageways and motorways? So that’s why the Bangor-Belfast dual carriageways are marked as 60 not National Speed Limit? Isn’t it the same in Great Britain? Well, then, what’s all this about?

There is a quite interesting difference between Northern Ireland and Great Britain on speed limits, if you’re as much of a nerd as me, and it is a very simple distinction.

We love nerdy distinctions! Please, go on.

In Great Britain, all motorways and dual carriageways are restricted to 70mph, and all single carriageways to 60mph except in built-up areas or where special restrictions are imposed (ie the 40, 50 and 60 speed limits).

In Great Britain, the motorway speed limit is defined in by the Motorways Traffic (Speed Limits) Regulations 1974, and for all other roads the speed limit is set by the 70 miles per hour, 60 miles per hour and 50 miles per hour (Temporary Speed Limit) Order 1977, which was indefinitely extended in 1978.

Sounds simple enough…

In Northern Ireland, however, it is defined in the Motor Vehicles (Speed Limits) Regulations (NI) 1989, which lists all classes of motor vehicles and their speed limits. It states that “A passenger vehicle, car-derived van, motor cycle, motor caravan or dual purpose vehicle not drawing a trailer being a vehicle with an unladen weight not exceeding 3.05 tonnes or equipped to carry not more than 8 passengers” is subject to a maximum speed of 70mph on a motorway or a dual carriageway, or 60mph on other roads.

Schedule 6 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984  is the equivalent of the speed limit regulations in Northern Ireland, but it omits cars and motorcycles.

Okay, so on rural roads in Northern Ireland the vehicle has the speed limit, not the road.

So, the short version is this. If it weren’t for the fact that every public road in Great Britain has a defined speed limit, you would be allowed to drive your car or motorbike at any speed you wish. In Northern Ireland, on the other hand, as soon as you see an NSL sign it means that the speed limit has just ended… except that your car or motorbike is restricted a speed limit of 60 or 70mph depending on the type of road. Different rules, same result.

So why does any of this matter to the rest of us?

Since we’ve been speaking of restricting roads or restricting drivers, the idea has been floated of restricting all non-primary single carriageway roads to 50mph (something similar has been done in the Republic of Ireland). This sounds as simple as making new regulations, but it isn’t.

Why not?

There are three complications to this. The biggest one is the number of roads which used to be primary and are now secondary (see, for example, Belfast Road (Bradshaw’s Brae) between Dundonald and Newtownards) but are still festooned with green “primary route” signs.

I see – because only primary A-class roads should have green signs. All the others are supposed to have white signs. The ones on Belfast Road should have been replaced with white signs in 1978 when the A20 Newtownards dual-carriageway opened 36 years ago….

Primary road sign Newtownards

Green primary sign on a non-primary road. The horror! Made worse by the incorrect inclusion of a C-number on the adjacent sign.

The second complication is roads like the A44 Drones Road from Cloghmills towards Ballycastle, which has been a primary route since 1994 but still has large numbers of white non-primary signs.

White signs on primary road

Twenty years after the A44 became a primary route, the bottom two signs are still white…

Okay, I understand. If a driver can’t tell whether the road they’re on is primary or non-primary, they wouldn’t know whether the speed limit was 50 or 60.

The third complication is the number of roads that simply have the wrong coloured signs or none at all. How do you know when you come to the end of a minor road whether the road you are joining is a primary road if the junction isn’t important enough to need signs?

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 20.34.11

Mmmm. Arriving at this main road, is it primary or non-primary? Hard to tell… If a blanket 50mph limit was applied to all non-primary roads, how would you know what the speed limit was once you joined this road? [the answer is primary, incidentally]

For those three reasons, you’d have to erect 50mph signs at the entrance to all non-primary roads (plus repeaters), at massive cost. It’s not worth it, and to be honest, would just punish those who can drive along long straights at 60mph before slowing down to navigate bends at a safe speed.

So there you have it. The peculiar way Northern Ireland’s speed limits are set up in law means that it’s the vehicle, not the road, that has the limit in rural areas. Therefore, while it sounds simple enough to apply a 50mph speed limit to all rural roads that aren’t “main” roads, in practice it would be extraordinarily complex and expensive.

Many thanks to Andy Boal.


Posted by: wesleyjohnston | July 25, 2014

Farewell Roads Service

Those with any interest in transport in Northern Ireland cannot fail to have noticed the term “TransportNI” cropping up more and more often over the past year. What’s this about?

Currently the Department for Regional Development (DRD) is responsible for various things, including strategic planning, the road network, public transport, water and sewage services. Maintenance and enhancement of the road network has fallen to a body called Roads Service since control of the road network was centralised in 1973. Before 1973 numerous local councils were largely responsible for roads. Roads Service is the DRD’s dominant function, constituting over 80% of DRD employees.

In April 2013 there was a fairly low-profile statement by the DRD Minister Danny Kennedy. He said:

I have agreed that in line with a number of other jurisdictions, there should be a single organisation within my Department responsible for the delivery of roads functions and securing public transport services.

In other words, it was felt that the planning and running of the “roads” functions by Roads Service were not sufficiently linked to the provision of public transport services, currently under the auspices of the less-well-known Public Transport Finance and Governance division of the DRD. This body is responsible for planning public transport services and securing their provision – for example by bodies such as Translink.

The idea is presumably that by combining Roads Service with the Public Transport Finance and Governance functions at the highest management levels, planning will become more efficient and lead to better co-ordinated thinking between the various forms of transport out there.

Time will tell how effective this proves to be. TransportNI, as the new body is called, has 2064 employees. In practice, almost all of these staff are former Roads Service staff, meaning that TransportNI is really just Roads Service + some extra public transport functions + a new name. It’s not a merger of two equally-sized bodies, but rather the absorption of some extra functions into an existing large body, and a new name. However, the significance is greater than a rough comparison of employee numbers suggests.

The real point here is to merge the planning of public transport with that of the road network, and to that end a merger of the type we have seen is of major symbolic significance. It is likely designed to counter the impression that Roads Service is really only interested in cars, an accusation that probably did have merit back in the Thatcherite 1980s. Whether the creation of TransportNI succeeds in countering this impression will depend on the actual results it delivers, and public transport and sustainable transport lobbyists will be watching closely to see if it makes any material difference. Such differences are likely to include tying together public transport services more effectively with things like bus lanes and park-and-ride facilities, and including public transport options at the earliest stages of planning solutions to things like bottlenecks on the road network.

TransportNI officially came into existence on 15 April 2013, but since then the name has been fairly low profile. However, over the past year the name has been creeping outwards. For example, the four Roads Service Divisions have now been re-named as “TransportNI” Divisions, and some Roads Service branded lorries have now been re-branded as “TransportNI” lorries. Wording has also been changed in some references to Roads Service elsewhere on the web. The DRD’s own corporate structure now omits reference to Roads Service. At the same time, the term Roads Service is alive and well in other places, such as in the most recent council reports and still features prominently at the top right corner of the DRD web site.

Nevertheless, it does seem that the Roads Service brand is eventually going to disappear. The most recent Summer issue of “On the Move”, the DRD’s official magazine, states that “The familiar Roads Service brand…. will soon be disappearing” and goes on to say:

The Roads Service brand no longer reflects the full role that the organisation plays in facilitating the safe and convenient movement of people and goods throughout the province. As a result, it was decided that now is the appropriate time to replace the Roads Service name with TransportNI.

Thus it seems that the well-known name of Roads Service really is to be consigned to the history books after 41 years. We have to be clear that we are not seeing Roads Service itself disappear, just its name. But there is a certain sense of loss that a body that managed to both maintain and expand the road network during some of the darkest episodes of Northern Ireland’s history is to lose its name after four decades, and I do regret that.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | July 9, 2014

Narrow Water Bridge – an example of Stormont dysfunction?

Today Justice Minister and Alliance Party leader David Ford hit out at what he called the “dysfunction” of the Stormont government. He went on to justify this viewpoint by giving some examples of this dysfunction. This included the comment that “we have handed money back to Europe over the Maze peace and reconciliation centre and the Narrow Water Bridge.” The latter is a reference to the failed project to construct a bridge between Louth and south Down at Narrow Water, near Warrenpoint.

Now, far be it from me to disagree with Mr Ford’s analysis of the functionality of the Stormont government, a view that is likely to be shared by many among the public. However in the interests of accuracy I must take issue with the inclusion of Narrow Water as an example of this dysfunction. Vladimir Lenin once said “A lie told often enough becomes the truth”. There are numerous examples of ‘facts’ being quoted and re-quoted to the point that nobody questions them, and then repeat them earnestly believing that they are true, despite them being false. This phenomenon was captured beautifully in a more modern xkcd cartoon.

So here is a summary of the actual sequence of events that led eventually to the collapse of the Narrow Water bridge project in November 2013. You can see a fuller account of the project over on my web site here.

  • January 2007. The Irish government publishes its National Development Plan, which includes money for a number of schemes in Northern Ireland or along the border. Approximately €14 was pledged to build a bridge between Louth and south Down at Narrow Water. Louth County Council was appointed to take forward the scheme on the Irish government’s behalf.
  • May 2008. Louth County Council completes a feasibility study which shows that it is technically feasible to build the bridge. They announce the chosen route during October of the same year and work on an economic appraisal – an assessment of the economic benefits versus its costs.
  • July 2011. Fast forward three years, and the Republic of Ireland is in a different financial state than it was in 2007. The Irish government looks at the completed economic appraisal and decides that the economic case for the construction of the bridge is weak, and that it is too expensive for the state to afford. The Irish government withdraws its support for Narrow Water bridge.
  • December 2011. Louth County Council asks the Irish government if it can proceed with the plan by itself. The Irish government basically says that it can do so if it wishes, but it must find the bulk of the money itself, because the National Roads Authority (NRA) will not fund it. However there is a suggestion that the NRA may be willing to provide €1.5m if Louth County Council succeeds in finding the rest of the cash.
  • March 2012. Louth County Council are actively seeking for funding. There is an approach to the Department of Regional Development in Northern Ireland, but they reply that they cannot justify spending the money ahead of other more urgent schemes as it does not “improve or extend Northern Ireland’s Strategic Road Network”. (The “strategic” road network is a defined set of roads in Northern Ireland where transport investment is focused. Since 1995 it has been very hard to get funding for major road schemes that are not on the strategic road network.) Louth Council also approaches the EU for funding under the Interreg IVa fund. The total cost of the scheme is now being given as around €18m-€20m. Louth County Council apply for planning permission in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to build the bridge.
  • 12 October 2012. The authorities in Northern Ireland grant planning permission for the bridge. The Republic of Ireland also does so.
  • 24 October 2012. The EU agrees to fund the project with a grant of €17.4m. It will also require approx €0.9m from Louth County Council, and £2.8m from Northern Ireland, due to the cross-border element of the scheme. This was despite Northern Ireland having already turning down a request for money, a condition which is likely to have created some resentment within Stormont.
  • February 2013. Roads Service say they are content for the bridge to be built, but it will not become part of the publicly-owned road network (i.e. it won’t be “adopted”) and will instead remain the responsibility of Louth County Council (with Newry & Mourne District Council acting as agent for maintaining the northern half).
  • March 2013. Louth County Council asks the DRD in Northern Ireland for a Bridge Order, which is a piece of legislation needed in the UK to allow a bridge to built over any watercourse that is used by boats. The DRD compiles the necessary legislation and puts this out to a 6 week consultation during April, as required by law. Meanwhile, the Stormont Department of Finance has not yet approved the £2.8m funding.
  • May 2013. Northern Ireland Department of Finance finally approves funding of £2.8m towards the scheme. The scheme has now been put out to tender by Louth County Council.
  • June 2013. Consultation on the Bridge Order ends. Objections have been received from boat owners and negotiations are taking place to avoid the need for a time-consuming Public Inquiry.
  • 9 July 2013. The DRD approves the Bridge Order for the bridge after objectors are apparently satisfied with the proposals after negotiations. There are no longer any obstacles in Northern Ireland to the bridge being built.
  • 9 July 2013. Louth County Council reveals that the tenders received for construction of the bridge are significantly higher than their estimated construction cost of €18m. In fact, the tenders ranged from €26m to €40m, meaning that the EU funding plus the Northern Ireland contribution of £2.8m is inadequate to complete the project. This appears to have been the result of incorrect estimates in the project planning work undertaken for Louth County Council.
  • September 2013. By now Louth County Council have spent two months trying to find alternative sources for the extra cash they now need. Newry and Mourne District Council (NI) pledges £1.8m, Down District Council (also NI) pledges £0.5m and Louth County Council pledges a €2m. These are important decisions given that none of these councils were expecting to have to stump up such large volumes of cash at short notice. This is still insufficient to the tune of about £5m. No further money is pledged by either Stormont or the Dublin government.
  • 4 November 2013. The position of both the DUP and Sinn Fein is that it is the Irish government who hold the key to the remaining funding. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness says “I think it would be wrong to identify our [DUP] Finance Minister as the problem with regard to Narrow Water. There is, effectively, a responsibility on the Irish Government, ourselves, the Special EU Programmes Body and the councils on both sides of Narrow Water to come up with a solution. I do not know whether that solution can be found. I would like to hear the Irish Government say more about it. In my discussions with the Taoiseach in Rostrevor a number of weeks ago, it was indicated to me that he intended to say something about it but, thus far, there has been silence.
  • 15 November 2013. No further sources of funding are identified and the EU withdraw their Interreg IVa funding. The project effectively collapses.

Ultimately the project collapsed because the project planning carried out for Louth County Council produced cost estimates that proved to be highly inaccurate. As a result, the funding that had been carefully put into place proved to be insufficient and this led to an unseemly scrabble as Louth County Council looked for extra cash at the last minute. Naturally both jurisdictions resented being asked to unexpectedly stump up extra cash due to an error that was entirely of the project planner’s own making, especially as the Irish government had explicitly put it on record in July 2011 that they were not prepared to fund the project in any significant way.

The scheme required a number of steps to be taken in Northern Ireland but, although the pace was painfully slow, and there were disagreements, all the procedural steps required of the Northern Ireland authorities (planning permission, part-funding and legal orders) did eventually fall into place in time to allow the project to proceed. In addition, there appears to have been a general consensus amongst Stormont parties of both sides that the onus was on Dublin to come up the remaining cash after the district councils in Northern Ireland agreed to come up with a further £2.3m to help rescue the scheme. Whether or not they were correct is not the point – the point is that there was consensus on the matter.

Therefore the Narrow Water Bridge scheme collapsed primarily due to poor project planning, namely inaccurate cost estimations, and to a lesser extent the Irish government’s lack of enthusiasm for the project. Yet David Ford has attempted today to present it in a very different light. He has given the impression that the project collapsed because of the inability of the parties at Stormont to get on with each other. This version of the story is quite wrong and not supported by the facts, and this needs to be put on the record.

Posted by: wesleyjohnston | June 7, 2014

Belfast on the Move – are traffic levels really lower?

As promised, the DRD has published a detailed survey of the impact that the new bus lanes have had on the city centre. The report suggests positive outcomes to both of its main aims, namely:

  1. Making alternative forms of transport, such as the bus, cycling or walking, more appealing.
  2. Encouraging through traffic out of the city centre and onto more appropriate routes.

I intend to blog about this most interesting report in more detail in the near future, but you can read it for yourself here. This report is of great significance as it represents an objective analysis of the scheme and its impacts.

Despite its positive message, most publicity that surrounded the publication of this report focused in on an apparent contradiction, which was that the report claimed that traffic levels had reduced in the city centre, whereas the experience of most car drivers is that traffic is about the same or, in some cases worse, than it was before. Some accused the DRD of “cooking the books” and suggested that the claim of reduced traffic levels was false.

In fact there is no contradiction, and this view is instead based on a misunderstanding of terminology around the use of the term “traffic flows”. This is not just my speculation – I have specifically encountered this misunderstanding from reporters over the past week.

The DRD press release says “Morning peak traffic flows have reduced by around one third in the city centre.” Many people, including some journalists, seem to have taken the term “traffic flows” to mean “traffic” more generally, i.e. the level of traffic congestion. They have thus understood the DRD to be claiming that traffic congestion in the morning peak is down by a third in the city centre. This is clearly not borne out by the actual experience of drivers – some of whom appeared on the radio and Twitter to say this – hence the mistaken belief that the DRD is “cooking the books”.

In fact, what the DRD mean by the term “traffic flows” is the total number of vehicles. So for example, the report shows that before the bus lanes went in (2011) there were approximately 1480 vehicles using Howard Street during the morning peak, whereas after the bus lanes went in (October 2013), there were about 680 – a fall of 54% (this being higher than the average of all city centre streets which is about a third, as the press release correctly claims). So the DRD is entirely correct and accurate in their claim that traffic flows have reduced by a third.

So if the total number of vehicles in the city centre has fallen by a third, why are motorists not noticing much, if any, reduction in traffic? The reason is that Belfast on the Move achieved its aims by taking away lanes from general traffic, i.e. mostly cars, and reallocating it to buses and cyclists. This means that the total road space for cars to squeeze into has fallen, as well as the total number of cars.

So Howard Street, for example, has seen the number of “car’ lanes reduced from 4 to 2 at its tightest point. Therefore, although there are now half as many cars on Howard Street as there were before, they are also in half the amount of road space. For example, 20 cars spread across 4 lanes will lead to a queue 5 cars long in each lane, while 10 cars spread across 2 lanes will also lead to a queue 5 cars long in each lane. Hence motorists will probably not notice any difference despite the fall in traffic levels.

So if there is no change for motorists, is the scheme a failure?

Not at all. Why? Because Belfast on the Move is not about making journeys easier for cars. The scheme is about making buses, cycling and walking easier. In fact, if the scheme had made life easier for cars, it would probably have failed in its primary objective of making alternative forms of transport more appealing. And it seems to have succeeded. Despite the huge reduction in cars in the city centre, there are now more people entering the city centre than there were before the bus lanes went in – 2253 more per day, an increase of almost 7%. And, for the first time in living memory, people entering the city centre by car in the morning rush hour are now the minority (47%).

I plan to write another blog post in the near future looking at this report in more detail, but at this point in time I regard the scheme up to this point as a success for the city, and to give due credit to its planners.

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