Ten slow years on the road to hell

The unwary go in circles round it. Others are glad if they are going at all, James Cusick says on the M25's unhappy birthday
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The Independent Online
"Aaaahhh! I hate it." A circular road celebrated its 10th anniversary yesterday and nobody wanted to say "happy birthday".

Paris might have its chic peripherique. But nothing complementary rhymes with M25, which is just as well. Only on the car radios of the schizophrenic or in the dreams of fantasists will you hear the words "And on the M25 this morning everything is flowing well".

Yesterday the birthday road did not disappoint any of the 7,000 regulars who travel part of its 117 miles between 6am and 10am every day.

AA Roadwatch, as important to M25 motorists as jungle drums were to Dr Livingstone, began the day as usual with bad news. "Things are very slow our end of the roadworks between junctions six and 10, both clockwise and anti-clockwise. Nineteen miles of contraflow are still operating there. And it's single-file anti-clockwise at junctions seven and six. The M23 northbound at the junction with the M25 is busy - that's very slow between junctions 23 and 24."

The misery continued.

The man at the AA was very nice. Very, very nice, about the weather, the traffic and motorists. But had he in five years of traffic broadcasting ever said anything nice about the M25? Had he ever not even mentioned it in his traffic jam round-up?

"Not since I have been doing this job," he said. "No, I think I mention it every day. Yes, every day."

The M25, which is also officially named the London Orbital Motorway, has become the road to hell. In 1995, according to the most recent AA survey, the single most-asked question about the M25 was how to avoid it. That is understandable given that on any Monday throughout the year the M25 will deliver 73 miles of traffic jams. Remember, it was built to alleviate traffic problems.

If you had wanted to wish the M25 a happy birthday yesterday by phoning the appropriate government department, you would have found difficulty. The Department of Transport said: "No, you need to phone the Highways Agency." The Highways Agency said: "Yes, you need us but nobody is here at the moment. Phone the Department of Transport."

Asking resting motorists at South Mimms service station on the motorway if they wished to wish the road a happy birthday, produced some improbable responses. Mr Wright from Kent, who had articulated lorry, said: "I don't usually see this road in daylight. I like to hit it around 4am before the traffic builds up. Half-an-hour late and you're two hours late, know what I mean?"

Two Danish girls travelled to South Mimms yesterday - by accident. One said: "We didn't realise the road was, er, round, very round, until it was too late. We think we may have been here before."

Another motorist said: "It's British - you get used to British things after a while. I'm from Winchester and if you are writing this down, put this: `I hate this road.' Put that."

The M25 is "landscaped" with 2.1 million trees, not that anyone in the lorry, Volvo, VW or Toyota would have noticed. The Department of Transport carefully reminded the Independent that one-third of the vehicles that daily use the M25 do so to by-pass London.

"So that means two-thirds use it not to by-pass London," I asked. "Now that you put it that way," said the DoT, "it doesn't sound very positive really."

The operations-room at Barnet police station, whose officers patrol the M25, were very positive about their local road. "Put it this way, sir, where would you put all the traffic if you didn't have the M25?"

Another officer said London's own peripherique was either "beautiful" or "solid" - you either loves it or you hate it, he said, without stating his own choice.

The M25 is supposed to be the world's longest city by-pass. To complete it the Government held 39 public inquiries and by the time it was finished in 1986 it had cost the taxpayer pounds 1bn. It may also be the only motorway in the world with a cricket club on top of it. The Epping Foresters have their ground directly above the long M25 tunnel near Epping Forest.

At South Mimms, Gwen Catling has the unenviable job of daily answering questions on behalf of the English Tourist Board information service. At her desk yesterday, as she has been for the last five years, she said the most-asked question of the M25 was "Am I going the right way round?"

And if the M25 wasn't there? She answered: "I'd have to stay at home because you wouldn't be able to get out here for the chaos."

Mrs Catling could form a splinter group of one - the M25 fan club. "I like the road. In fact I think we should have built what was originally intended: a double-decker motorway, not just anti-clockwise and clockwise, but up and down."

Last night AA Roadwatch was taking a back seat on M25 information. On BBC Radio 5 Live a competition was in progress. A reporter was despatched to the M25 with listeners phoning in to guess how many miles she could complete between 4pm and 6pm. And they say the Italians are road crazy.