We've reached the end of the strangest year anyone can remember - what a time for Roads.org.uk to have taken a break from regular blog posts. We'll be back with a full service soon, but for now, here's a quick look at what's happening on the roads.
Operation Brock is back
If you've seen any news at all in the last six months, this will be no surprise whatsoever - but Operation Brock will return. The lorry stacking system is a bellwether for the state of Brexit negotiations. It was first installed on the M20 in Kent in March 2019, then removed in April 2019, then re-installed in October 2019, then removed again in February 2020. It was due to be installed once again on the 27th and 28th December.
Setting up is quicker than it used to be since a moveable barrier was installed on the M20: a specialised vehicle now travels the road at slow speed, lifting and moving the barrier across a lane at a time. It has to make two passes to move the barrier two lanes across from the central reservation, forming a contraflow with two lanes each way.
But the disruption has already started. Across south east England, electronic signs on Monday carried the message "M20 closed J9-11 Operation Stack". That's because Operation Brock was overtaken by an emergency closure of the coastbound M20 under Operation Stack rules. Emergency storage for lorries bound for Dover and Folkestone was required more quickly than the barrier could be set out, because all Channel crossings have halted since France closed its borders with the UK.
Whether or not that restriction is lifted, Brock probably continue to be required for some time to come. You might like to read our guide to the measures from 2019.
Update: Since this post was originally made, Operation Brock was rolled out to the M20 overnight on 21 December, and has been in force since the morning of 22 December.
Stonehenge Tunnel is go... probably
The A303 in Wiltshire is now on track to get an upgrade that's been literally decades in planning: a deep bored tunnel to carry it under Salisbury Plain, hiding it from Stonehenge and carrying traffic under, rather than through, most of the World Heritage Site. And its approval came in unusual circumstances.
On 12 November, Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, officially approved planning consent for the project - but he did so despite the Planning Inspectorate, who have spent months reviewing the project, recommending that he refuse. In his decision letter, Shapps wrote that he considered that the urgent need for the scheme outweighed any harm it would cause.
Campaigners are now putting together a legal challenge, though the grounds on which they can do so might be limited. Similar challenges against HS2, Heathrow's third runway and the RIS2 roads programme have all come up against the same issue. It turns out that the Government is obliged to consider the impact of developments on climate change and heritage, but free to overrule those concerns, as long as they have been considered.
Legal challenge or not, Highways England is certainly sounding optimistic - they are looking at a start date of Spring 2021 for preparatory work on site, with the tunnel (and associated Winterbourne Stoke bypass and Countess Weir flyover) opening to traffic in 2028.
Lower Thames Crossing will be the A122
HE's other controversial tunnel scheme is having a harder time at the moment. On 2 December, the Development Consent Order for the Lower Thames Crossing was withdrawn, because the Planning Inspectorate weren't happy with the application and it was likely to be refused.
Planners are now trying to get it in shape for a resubmission in early 2021. Among the areas of concern were technical issues, like a lack of detail on landscape and ecology management, but also some thornier issues like concerns from local councils about how the consultation had been carried out.
What has emerged in the paperwork (and spotted by eagle-eyed SABRE members) is that Highways England have now chosen the number A122 for this brand new and very high profile road. It will not be a motorway, even though consultation documents issued back in October 2018 said it would be. This discovery follows draft legislation for the A303 Stonehenge Tunnel that indicates that it too will be an ordinary A-road, and a 2019 U-turn on motorway orders for the A14 Huntingdon Southern Bypass.
We think HE's much-vaunted "Expressway" concept is now dead - or at least the idea is dead that "Expressways" would ever get blue signs and the letter M. It was a nice idea that suffered from a terminal lack of commitment and support.
The tunnel itself isn't not dead, though. If HE can answer all the Planning Inspectorate's concerns, their 2021 application will probably be signed off by the Minister without much fuss - but they are now cutting it fine to start work in 2022 as anticipated.
A9 dualling inches forward
Further north, Transport Scotland's epic project to provide a continuous dual carriageway on the 100+ mile journey between Perth and Inverness is plodding on, though not as quickly as hoped, and the ambitious completion date of 2025 is looking ever more shaky.
2020 saw delays to the only part currently under construction, Luncarty to Pass of Birnam, as workers were ordered to down tools and stay home during the first national lockdown. Work has resumed but completion will be delayed.
Elsewhere, a programme of works that was originally hoped to be straightforward work in extremely sparsely populated terrain is proving to be difficult to push through. Of the nine remaining schemes, four have completed the consultation process and have orders published, but no work has yet started. Among the rest is Pass of Birnam to Tay Crossing, which has slowed to a miserable halt.
That five-mile length passes through Birnam and Little Dunkeld, and residents there were deeply unhappy with all the options Transport Scotland presented to them. In an attempt to get things moving, a "co-creative" process was launched, where local representatives collaborated with engineers to design a scheme that they considered appropriate. The result is a proposal for the A9 to run in a lengthy cut-and-cover tunnel past the village and stop for what will become the only roundabout between Perth and Inverness. It looks for all the world like a fabulously expensive way to make an inadequate road.
No preferred route has yet been announced for that length, perhaps because the project has reached a strange and unprecedented stalemate.
New Ringways pages are on the way
Finally, here's a bit of good news for fans of our extensive Ringways pages. The next group of pages to be published will be the Western Radials, covering the A41(M), A40, M4 and M3. In our original timetable they were supposed to be online in the summer, but access to Government archives has been extremely difficult this year so everything stopped.
Thankfully, there's been some movement during the autumn, and some of the text is now written and images are in place. More research needs to be done, which has to wait for archives to reopen. Spring 2021 might be a realistic date for publication, which would mean that the Southern Radials pages should follow in late Summer; "Driving the Ringways" and "London with the Ringways" should appear in late 2021; and the Secondary Road Network will be online in early 2022.
But if this year has taught us anything, it's that all plans are subject to change. Our current publication timetable is listed on the annoying "this page isn't available yet" placeholder, and will be updated if things change, just in case you want to check whether we're even further behind with our homework than we hoped.
One thing we do plan with some certainty is that Roads.org.uk will return to a more regular posting schedule next year, after a fairly patchy Autumn.
Until then, have the best Christmas you can, and we'll see you in 2021.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you Chris.
Can't wait for the next installment of Ringways. And that photo looks awfully similar to the M4 Chiswick Flyover
Thank you for all this extremely interesting content this, no, last year, and I look forward to so much more this year! This website has quickly become one of my most-visited!
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- Operation Brock to be reinstated: "Post-Christmas work to activate Operation Brock", Gov.uk, 18/12/20.
- Stonehenge Tunnel approved: "Stonehenge A303 tunnel plan approved by transport secretary", BBC News, 12/11/20.
- Lower Thames Crossing DCO withdrawn: "Revealed: Reasons Lower Thames Crossing plans were pulled", New Civil Engineer, 27/11/20./blog/when-motorway-not-motorway
- A9 Pass of Birnam to Tay Crossing most popular route has tunnel and roundabout: "Co-creative process", Transport Scotland; plan of Route A, most popular option in co-creative process [PDF].
- Artist's impression of Stonehenge Tunnel released under the Open Government Licence.
- Lower Thames Crossing artist's impression is extracted from "The route - the crossing", LTC Statutory Consultation, October 2018.
- Artist's impression of A9 at Birnam is a still from a Transport Scotland fly-through of Route A.