Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

Tackling congestion by making better use of England's motorways and trunk roads (HC 134-i)

Public Accounts Committee 8 Dec 2004

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Evidence given by Mr Archie Robertson OBE, Chief Executive, Highways Agency.

Q11 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Mr Robertson, this report makes very depressing reading, does it not, particularly if you are a motorist? Would you agree or not? There is not an innovation in sight.

Mr Robertson: I think what this report shows, and I am grateful for the recognition of the National Audit Office, is that there are a number of things that we are doing which are up with the best. The innovation, if you want one to think about, is the introduction of traffic officers, which is unique, in terms of this agency.

Q12 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I cannot say that I have really noticed that when I have been stuck in congested traffic jams. What did you say it was called?

Mr Robertson: The Highways Agency is launching a traffic officer service. It is rolling out in the Midlands now and by the end of next year they will be patrolling all of the motorways.

Q13 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Patrolling. So when I am stuck on the Western Bypass they will get me out of a traffic jam, will they?

Mr Robertson: What they will do is they will clear the accident that currently detains you for a long time.

Q14 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): They cannot be much slower than the police are. I will come to that, in a minute or two. You said there are more vehicles than anywhere else and you have quoted that, I think. But you have done less about it than anywhere else, have you not?

Mr Robertson: Let me clarify ----

Q15 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You have been in the job a year, Mr Robertson. What have you done in that one year that you have been in the job to improve the traffic situation - congestion?

Mr Robertson: It is important just to clarify, in terms of flows, that the last measured numbers that we have and that we have been able to compare with our colleagues in other agencies show that UK motorways take an average of 73,000 vehicles a day; Dutch roads take an average of 68,000 vehicles a day, and other roads in France, Germany and the US are handling between 32,000 and 50,000 ----

Q16 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I am not bothered about that. Honestly, I could not care less how many cars are on the road in France and I could not care less how many cars there are on the roads in Holland; all I care about is that when I drive up the Western Bypass to bypass Newcastle and Gateshead I get stuck in a traffic jam which is usually about four miles long. That traffic jam is there virtually every day of life. You get so sick that sometimes you lose the will to live when you are sitting in a traffic jam. Yet nothing has been done, certainly nothing that I can remember; it is just getting worse and worse and worse. What have you done to help me when I am stuck in a traffic jam sitting for 30 minutes not moving? What have you done to help me?

Mr Robertson: This year we have put a very significant amount of our investment into new road schemes on the M1 going north, particularly north of Scotch Corner. So we are building new roads.

Q17 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I did not ask you that question; I said "What have you done to help me in my predicament?" I could not care less about the M1; I very rarely go on it. What worries me as I go to Newcastle, possibly twice a week when I am home, is that I sit in a traffic jam for 30-35 minutes and I never move. What have you done to help me on the Western Bypass? Nought.

Mr Robertson: If you look at our website you will find information on all the places that are going to be congested and, at the very least now - it may not encourage you too much - you can think about when you might want to travel; perhaps not at the same time as everybody else.

Q18 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): If I have an aeroplane to catch at nine o'clock it is no good going at 11 o'clock because I will have just missed it by two hours. It is a load of rubbish, to be quite honest, to say I should decide when I am going to travel. The vast majority of people travel when they have got to travel. If I do not have to travel I do not travel at all. So the fact of the matter is if I want to go to Newcastle airport in order to catch a 'plane at 10 o'clock to get down here, I have to travel at that particular time, but I have got to set off two hours beforehand because I know if I take the Western Bypass I am going to be stuck. It is getting worse and worse and worse, and your organisation is doing nothing about it; not a thing. What are you going to do about it?

Mr Robertson: I am happy to take another look at the particular route that you are talking about. We are going to be investing significantly in ----

Q19 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You see, you do not even do that. You do not even have on the motorway a sign which says: "Don't come on to the motorway because there's a five-mile traffic jam. Why don't you take an alternative route?" At the moment, you do not know that; you guess that you are going to hit the traffic jam but you pray to God when you come on the slip road, "I hope there's no traffic jam." You get on it and you fly down it at 69 miles an hour, you fly down for three or four miles and then suddenly, whack, you hit it. Your organisation has never told me that there is going to be a traffic jam three miles down there and I am going to be stuck in it for 35 minutes. The only thing I know is that it has got a square sign which says "FOG" as you are going through. Everyone knows there is fog when you are getting to it, because you hit it, but you have a sign which I think was put up in the 60s which says "FOG. Travel at 30 mile an hour." That is the only information you have got. Why is there no information? I would have thought it was the simplest thing in the world to do to just put a bit of information up to help me, because I would rather travel 20 miles extra, right round the lanes of Durham and Northumberland, than to go on to the motorway and hit a four-mile traffic jam.

Mr Robertson: I recognise that once you are on the network your options are greatly reduced. That is why the National Traffic Control Centre has, as part of its mission, the delivery of information to local TV and radio and, indeed, to the website because those are, we know, the methods that most people use in order to do their journey plan. There is significant investment in that enhanced quality, and I would hope that any blockage on the Highways Agency network was identified and informed to you via local radio.

Q20 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): You mentioned about this new organisation you are going to have. What I have also noticed, particularly on the Western Bypass because that is the one I use all the time, is that there is an accident every day - sometimes two a day on this stretch - and once there is an accident that is the end of it. Just as the accident takes place, for the first ten minutes or whatever it is, you can get through - people manage to get through. Then the police arrive, and there is total chaos; nobody can get through. You are stopped and you are stopped there until they have taken statements, and you are not there for 35 minutes you are there for two hours. What is your organisation going to do to improve on what happens now?

Mr Robertson: We will release the police to do their scene of crime investigation quicker, and while they are doing their scene of crime investigation ----

Q21 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): But will they still have the seven police cars and the 24 policemen there taking statements?

Mr Robertson: That is up to them but they will not be there to do traffic management because we will be doing that.

Q22 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I want to go on to the other point that I really wanted to raise, and I have wanted to say this for so long and maybe this is the opportunity. Lorries, Mr Robertson: lorries on the motorway and on the trunk roads. At one time, when I first got a motor car, the lorry drivers were, perhaps, the best drivers on the road; now they are appalling. They are the worst drivers in the world; they have no respect at all for anybody else on the road, and they have great big, huge lorries which thunder down. Why is it that they are allowed, first of all, to overtake so often? They overtake on inclines which means that nobody can pass them for miles and miles and miles because they are fighting each other to keep side-by-side; neither will give way. When are you going to do something about that? When are you going to make them stay in a dedicated lane so that they do not come out of a lane? Lorries do not need to be doing 90 miles an hour, thundering past your car so that it shakes all the time. When are you going to do something about that?

Mr Robertson: We are undertaking consultation right now on the M42 with a view to trying it out. It has already raised the concerns of the Freight Transport Association and others, as you might expect, but we do believe, particularly as a means of keeping traffic moving up hills, that there is something to shoot for here and we will lead, I hope, for trials on the M42 very shortly. I have every sympathy, and not necessarily every answer ----

Q23 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): It is no good having sympathy! You are a very sympathetic man, you can tell that, and you are a very compassionate man, but that does not help me when I am stuck behind a bloody lorry doing 70 miles an hour and another lorry is doing 71 miles an hour. Nobody can get past, the muck is coming over your windscreen, and they are never going to get past because there is an incline and it is a two-lane road and nobody does anything about it. It has been going on for years.

Mr Robertson: I have just told you what we are proposing to do about that. You need to recognise that, again, just putting this into an international context, we carry more freight on our roads than just about any other country. We carry little freight by sea round the coast and inland waterways and we carry even less by rail. That gives us all, whether as road-users or people responsible for looking after the highway, a very, very demanding environment in which to work. As far as accidents with trucks are concerned, we have already begun working with the Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association to point out the blindingly obvious, which is that if they do not have accidents they will not be stuck in the queues behind them. We are providing them with information about individual accidents suggesting that they go away and work out how it is not going to happen.

Q24 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So they are going to regulate themselves?

Mr Robertson: They are regulated by others, they are not regulated by the Highway Agency. What I am suggesting to them is that if they think of straightforward economics, if they run their fleets better they will be able to run longer because they will not get stuck in their own accident count.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I look forward to another year of you being in the job, Mr Robertson, and when I am stuck on the Western Bypass I shall remember your name. You might get a few letters.


Q121 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Like Mr Williams, I get the impression from your answers that you are very complacent. It may well be that you just have this very relaxed way of dealing with things, but I am sitting here almost as frustrated as I am when I am in a traffic jam, because you seem to have given no positive answers to any of the questions that we have asked. Usually you go away from these meetings feeling at least as though perhaps something might be done, but I get the impression from you that still nothing is going to be done; you are still going to continue in the same sort of relaxed way. I am sorry if I am flogging a dead horse, but on the lorry issue, you have been asked about the lorry issue on a number of occasions, and I am not the first one to mention it, yet you keep saying, "It's nothing to do with me, guv. It is an enforcement issue." But it is something to do with you, because it does not have to be an enforcement issue. There are such things as dedicated lanes, which presumably you are entitled to bring in after whatever regulations you have to go through, and that would probably solve the problem. There is an example of what I see as complacency: "It's nothing to do with me, guv. It is an enforcement issue," but it is not. That is the first example, and I would really like a positive answer that you are actually going to do something about it. Mr Curry asked you a question, the answer to which seemed to me very complacent. We know where the black spots are in terms of traffic coming on to motorways and trunk roads. We know that going down the western bypass, certain junctions are going to cause huge problems. You seem to say, "Well, the only thing that would happen if we did something about it would be that it would cause a knock-on problem to the minor roads", but surely this proves that you do not have any liaison with the local authorities. I would have thought on those particular areas where you know there are problems, you would liaise with the local authorities on the minor roads and you would come up with alternative routes, and tell people there are alternative routes. You do not seem to do that. On page 39, paragraph 4.30, it more or less infers that there is just not enough liaison with local authorities to solve the problems before they actually happen. On the enforcement issue and on liaison with local authorities, I would like a positive answer.

Mr Robertson: Dedicated lanes: we have talked about the trial on the M42 on trucks, which we will do, if we can get the partners to come with us. We are going to be recommending high-occupancy vehicle lanes be considered by the Secretary of State, and that is going up to him very shortly. We are going to continue working with the sorts of initiatives that we have had, whether it is hogging the middle lane or whether it is the trailer lane pilot that we did on the M5. All of those things are happening now, and going on. We are going to continue to roll out the active traffic management pilot. I am sorry to repeat myself. We can put in all of those things, but we are not proposing to put any of them in in the sense that then channels a motorist or a truck down one piece of highway from which they cannot emerge until they get to the next junction, therefore we are going to be relying on trucks staying in the left-hand lane as an enforcement matter, although we will provide the signing; and with high occupancy vehicles lanes, we are going to be relying on enforcement to check that.

Q122 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So you are not going to have dedicated lanes? That is what you are saying.

Mr Robertson: These are dedicated lanes.

Q123 Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): That is not what I would call a dedicated lane. I am referring to a dedicated lane where a lorry comes on to the motorway in the inside lane and it says "You are in a dedicated lane now. You cannot go out of that lane until you are told you can."

Mr Robertson: OK, but if he comes out of that lane, it is up to him, and it is an enforcement matter.

Mr Bacon: I do not understand that at all. It is up to him but it is an enforcement matter? What do you mean?

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): He means it is up to the police to ensure it happens.

This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.

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