No tears will be shed in Kent for the end of Operation Brock, the scheme that saw the M20 turned into a semi-permanent lorry park. Is that it for the much-hated contraflow?
The M20 has been used as a temporary lorry park for years. Operation Stack, the plan that sees the motorway shut entirely to make space for queueing lorries when channel crossings to France are disrupted, has been deployed every now and then since the late 1980s.
Last March, we reported on the start of Operation Brock, which is like Operation Stack except that it puts through traffic onto a 13-mile contraflow between junctions 8 and 9, and uses the coastbound carriageway as a lorry park. Brock was designed to make the lorry park semi-permanent, while keeping the motorway open, and was set up in case of complications at the border following Brexit.
Solid as a Brock
What set Operation Brock apart was its installation, which involved rebuilding the verges of the Londonbound carriageway of the M20 and bolting down a Varioguard crash barrier to separate the opposing flows of traffic. It was not, we observed in March, an installation that could be easily or cheaply removed, and Brock was therefore going to be with us, whether it was needed or not, for a long time.
The kit was originally installed ahead of the UK's original date for departing the EU on 29 March 2019, but of course that date came and went without any trouble at the border because the UK remained in the EU. At the end of April, we reported again on the lifting of Operation Brock, but the reprieve was only temporary because a new date for departure would still be set.
The barriers remained, and Londonbound traffic continued travelling at 50mph in two narrow lanes with the bolted-down barrier in the way.
The UK's second departure date was 31 October 2019, and in preparation Highways England reinstated the contraflow and the lorry park on 25 October. But of course, we were soon to find out that EU departure dates are less reliable than the Northern Rail timetable, and another extension was granted. Operation Brock was lifted again just five days later on 30 October.
Get your Brocks off
What has changed since October last year is that, following the General Election, the UK's new Government has a comfortable majority and no shortage of confidence about its ability to finally exit the EU. So - as part of a raft of other initiatives to stand down disaster planning and show that it was business as usual - the Government ordered the end of Operation Brock on 10 January this year.
This time it's not just moving coastbound traffic back to its own carriageway. This time, the barrier has actually gone. And - as predicted - that was no small operation.
Work to clear away the contraflow barrier and reinstate the motorway in its original formation began on 13 January, and continued for the rest of the month. A total of 15 overnight closures, lasting ten hours each, were necessary to dismantle the barrier; 1.5 km (0.9 miles) of metalwork were lifted from the road and moved away each night. Work was finally completed over the weekend.
It's not Brocket science
What hasn't been mentioned anywhere, as far as we can see, is where all that barrier has gone. Because, while taking it away will make an awful lot of hauliers and commuters much happier, we are not yet at the point where we can be certain that Operation Brock is redundant.
If, a year from now, the UK's new relationship with the EU remains undecided, or a free trade deal hasn't been achievable, delays at the border might become a reality and we might, once again, need somewhere to keep an awful lot of lorries.
Making the whole thing more tricky is the issue that has loomed over Operation Stack, the M20, and indeed the whole of Kent since the late 1980s - namely, where can a permanent facility be established to park lorries without closing the motorway?
For many years there was no answer at all. In 2015, a year when Operation Stack was deployed for much of the summer, pledges were made that a permanent solution would be found. For a long time Manston Airport was the frontrunner - a closed airfield in north-east Kent that was in reach of the M2 and Dover.
Manston Airport was, in fact, part of Operation Brock, though not one that was ever put into use: if space on the M20 filled up, vehicles for Dover would be sent to Manston, and the M20 used just for the Channel Tunnel.
Now, though, a planning application is in the works for a private developer to re-open and expand Manston Airport for commercial flights; a decision is now due by the end of May. If the airport is no longer available, we are back to the familiar situation of having nowhere but the M20 to stack up lorries if something goes wrong.
For now, Operation Brock is gone and the M20 is back to business as usual, and that's no bad thing. But let's hope Highways England have held on to all those Varioguard barriers. If the situation changes, they might yet need them.
With or without Operation Brock, every time I have been coming back from a holiday on the "Continong" the whole of the M20 seems to have been on 50 mph speed limits, (or less) ! ! Just what is it about this road that Highways England can't maintain the usual 70 mph ?
About time too, looking forward to not being hemmed in for fifteen miles between junction 9 and 8.
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- Operation Brock activated by 28 October 2019: "Weekend work to activate Operation Brock", Highways England, 25/20/19.
- Operation Brock stood down on 30 October 2019: "Operation Brock to be deactivated", Highways England, 29/10/19.
- Removal of barriers, 13-31 January 2020: "M20 Operation Brock barrier to be removed from next week", Highways England, 10/01/20.
- Commercial development at Manston Airport: "Manston Airport planning decision deadline extended", Department for Transport, 16/01/20.