Hard-shoulder scheme to go nationwide

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A jam-busting scheme allowing motorists to use the hard shoulder during peak periods could be rolled out around the country, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly announced today.

Following the success of a motorway congestion trial on the M42 around Birmingham, a feasibility study will be carried out to consider if similar schemes could be implemented.

And new ways of managing motorway traffic will be implemented as part of a £150 million scheme on the motorways around Birmingham, taking in parts of the M6, M42 and M40.

The M42 trial - which saw improvements for motorists, the environment and the economy - allowed drivers to use the hard shoulder in peak periods, and saw average journey times fall by more than a quarter on the northbound carriageway.

Ms Kelly said: "The M42 trial shows that using innovative thinking to help drivers beat motorway jams really works.

"New traffic management techniques, like hard-shoulder running and varying speed limits, offer practical and cost-effective solutions to cutting congestion, and I now want to explore whether other motorways could benefit from similarly creative measures.

"Other important benefits are less disruption from roadworks, reduced environmental impact, better information for drivers, and a faster, more effective response to accidents."

Launching the study and the Birmingham scheme at the Highways Agency's West Midlands regional control centre, Ms Kelly said the traffic management scheme was beneficial for both the motorist and environment.

"It's a win win situation," she said.

The study's findings will be presented to Ms Kelly in Spring 2008.

Emergency refuge spots to be used in the event of an accident are situated every 500 metres along the M42, and the extra monitoring means emergency services are able to reach the scene quicker, she said.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Ms Kelly said the hard-shoulder extension could be used on the M1 and M6.

The Transport Secretary also insisted the policy move was not a soft response or second best choice following the Government's climbdown from introducing national road pricing.

Tolls could still be introduced in the bid to tackle congestion on Britain's roads sometime in the future, but it was more of a long-term possibility.

Ms Kelly continued: "I think there will always be a need for road widening where there is a huge and severe congestion problem because in those situations you just need to maximise the number of cars that can drive on a particular stretch of road.

"But what I am doing today is asking the question are there bits of the network, and it could be bits of the M1 or parts of the M6 for instance, where an active traffic management approach... might not be a better way to get more people to use the motorway network and improve how reliable their journey times are."

The announcement was met with some reservations.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) said investment was essential if the scheme were to be rolled out, and raised issues over the emergency services.

Kevin Clinton, head of road safety for the charity, said: "If this scheme is rolled out to more locations, it is essential that there is the same level of investment in infrastructure."

He said that there needed to be careful consideration about emergency refuges, overhead gantries with active speed limit signs and instructions to drivers about when they can and cannot drive on the hard shoulder.

He continued: "Our reservations about using the hard shoulder are that in a major incident it may take emergency services longer to reach the scene as well as the practicalities of where drivers are able to stop their vehicles if they break down.

"There are also maintenance issues, including the need to keep the hard shoulder free of the debris that typically builds up there."

Gareth Elliott, policy advisor to the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), welcomed the plans as a "forward thinking" way of tackling congestion.

He said: "In a new survey conducted by the BCC, the effects of congestion are now costing British business a staggering £18 billion per annum...

"However, using this scheme in conjunction with investment in other methods of increasing capacity is the only guaranteed way of locking in the full economic and environmental benefits of extra capacity."

The £150 million Birmingham scheme will involve sophisticated technology needed to control and monitor speed, and in setting up a control centre to watch over the roads.

It will see hard shoulder driving in peak times and varying speed limits on parts of the M42 and M6.

Parts of the M40 around Birmingham will also see varying speed limits, but drivers will not be allowed to use the hard shoulder.

Construction is expected to begin next year but will not be fully up and running until 2011.

The M42 trial, which has been in place for just over a year, discovered that 84% of drivers felt confident about using the hard shoulder.

Weekday journey times improved by 27%, and overall fuel consumption reduced by 4%. Vehicle emissions fell by up to 10%.

The trial, which took place between junctions 3a and 7 of the M42, also saw the personal injury accident rate fall from 5.2 per month to 1.5 per month on that section of motorway.

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