National Highways looks forward with ‘bold’ new approach to roadworks

National Highways is developing a series of measures to reduce the impact of billions of pounds worth of vital work being carried out on the Strategic Road Network.

This includes an increase in the use of higher speed limits past work sites where it is safe to do so, clearer messaging for drivers, more effective diversion routes and a decluttering of the roadside.

National Highways will also consider an increase in the number of full closures of motorways and major A-roads to complete work on the network itself relatively quickly as an alternative to months or even years of partial closures. In some cases, this means building more structures off-site and then lifting them onto the road.

The approach is designed to save taxpayer money and minimise the impact on local communities and drivers caused by major projects on the 4,300-mile network. It is also likely to lead to lower carbon emissions from construction equipment and minimise the risks to worker safety.

It is already being employed in a limited number of schemes. The construction of a new bridge over the M42 as part of the HS2 rail scheme is being carried out through two closures of the busy motorway over consecutive Christmas periods in 2021 and 2022 when traffic is lightest. This is an alternative to 18 months of lane closures, narrow lanes and speed restrictions along with more than 100 overnight closures.

Additionally, plans are being drawn up to complete major improvements to the A47/A11 junction outside Norwich via one full nine-day closure and a limited number of overnight closures using innovative off-site construction methods. This would be as an alternative to almost three years of lane closures, contraflows and 30mph speed limits.

Full road closures of roads – normally for a maximum of two weeks – will remain the exception rather than the norm for National Highways. This is in recognition of the potential short-term impact on local communities and businesses as well as disruption to nearby roads caused by diversion routes.

However, project managers are being asked to consider the approach as part of the planning for forthcoming schemes.

Separately, the company is also carrying out multiple maintenance works together on the same stretch of road to maximise the benefit of a closure. A recent example of this was between two junctions on the M53 when routine cyclical maintenance and reactive works were grouped together, meaning exposure of the workforce to moving traffic was collectively reduced by 5,000 hours and there were 10 fewer occasions where cones and other traffic management was required to complete the works.

This comes as National Highways nears the half-way point of the government’s second Road Investment Strategy (RIS) – a five-year, £24 billion programme, which includes more than 50 major upgrades of the network.

The potential increase in full closures forms part of a package of measures designed to minimise the disruption linked to roadworks which must be carried out on the network every day to improve safety and reliability.

Other measures include:

  • a further increase in the use of the “Highest Safe Speed” approach to roadworks – often involving 60mph speed limits past work sites, from 50mph previously – this approach first introduced two years ago, has already been adopted for most major schemes but will be expanded to smaller-scale projects in 2022/3 where it is deemed safe to do so after detailed assessments showed it led to journey time savings as well as greater compliance with the new limit
  • a new approach to diversion routes, with a customer-focused toolkit issued to project teams and new signs due to be trialled on the network
  • improved roadside communication to drivers, including more detailed information on electronic message boards which explains why drivers may not see people physically working on the road all the time
  • new guidance to project teams to declutter work sites at roadsides, including the removal of signage deemed unnecessary to improve the local environment and improve the driving experience
  • enhanced self-service reporting tools to enable drivers, passengers, local communities and businesses to more easily report issues on the network

The details are set out in National Highways’ updated delivery plan for 2022/23 which is published today alongside the company’s annual report.

Laura Baker, Customer Service Director for Major Projects, said: “Our roads are the most heavily used in the country and millions of people rely on them every day for business, leisure and visiting friends and family. It’s vital that we undertake an intensive programme of maintenance and improvements to keep them as safe and reliable as possible. We already aim to carry out this work in the least disruptive way possible by prioritising times when traffic levels are low, including overnight and at weekends. However, prolonged roadworks can be stressful for drivers and local communities so we’re committed to exploring other ways to further minimise the impact.”

Currently, most work on the network is carried out via multiple overnight or weekend closures of roads. Additionally, National Highways makes use of lane closures to complete schemes while keeping roads partially open.

As part of the change, National Highways could close motorways or A-roads completely for longer than a weekend to minimise overall levels of disruption over the long term. Local communities will be consulted prior to any full closure and project leaders will consider the appropriateness of diversion routes and the impact on homes, businesses, hospitals and nearby events before doing so.

The use of full road closures to complete major road schemes supports the vision set out by Project Speed – the government initiative announced in summer 2020 to speed up work on infrastructure projects and stimulate the economy in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Kate Jennings, policy director at Logistics UK, said: “Logistics operators are the lifeblood of the UK economy and to support industry effectively, need to provide efficient, timely deliveries. Network disruptions impact their ability to deliver the best service to their customers, so Logistics UK welcomes today’s announcement.

Reducing the overall time spent working on the network to complete a scheme, supported by an improved approach to diversions and roadside communications, should result in a better experience for both drivers and operators.”

Mark O’Doherty, director UK line haul, DHL Express UK, said: “We welcome National Highways’ plans to reduce the impact of works on their network and improve the two-way communication with road users. Each year we run over 150,000 time-definite movements on the strategic road network, supporting our customers to trade with international markets in over 220 countries and territories worldwide.

Every minute counts when shipments need to connect with a departing aircraft, so having a reliable and an efficient strategic route network is absolutely critical.”

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