How to build a motorway

Published on 27 April 2019

We've just published an archive of nearly 500 aerial photographs of the M65 under construction, taken between 1994 and 1997. What for?

Any road construction project is a big job. Grading and laying a road surface is no trivial task, especially on the scale required for a new motorway. But before that can happen all sorts of other jobs have to be done too - earthworks, drainage, diversions to other roads and tracks, construction of bridges, viaducts and culverts, and much more. That work can take years, but it's not obvious to the passer-by while the work is happening, and it's perhaps even less obvious to the motorist who only experiences the finished road in a flash at 70mph.

Behind the cones: construction work at Tramway Lane to build a new bridge. Click to enlarge
Behind the cones: construction work at Tramway Lane to build a new bridge. Click to enlarge

The M65 between junctions 1A and 3, to the south and east of Preston, is the seven-mile length documented in the 466 pictures has just put online. It's actually a fairly ordinary length of road through undemanding terrain, built in the mid-1990s and opened in December 1997. But it’s precisely because it’s an example of an ordinary motorway that it’s worth studying. The story of building the M65 is the story of every motorway construction project. And if you've ever wondered even for a moment how it's done, or what goes on, here are the answers, delivered in full colour and in quantities you probably never expected.

It includes examples of overbridges, underbridges, long viaduct structures, vast embankments, rock cutting, buried culverts, demolition, temporary diversions, multi-level interchanges and even "direct action" environmental protests. The pictures span three years, in which time you can see every part of a major motorway construction project from every angle.

It's an incredible resource, the only one of its type online, and we hope you'll find it every bit as fascinating and valuable as we do.

M65 J3, Riley Green Interchange, seen in December 1997. There's 465 more where this came from. Click to enlarge
M65 J3, Riley Green Interchange, seen in December 1997. There's 465 more where this came from. Click to enlarge

Who's it for?

It may not be quite like any of the other features and articles on, but we hope it's still of interest to enthusiasts and professionals alike. There is a lot to take in, so we've tried to make it as easy as possible to get the most out of the pictures.

  • If you're not familiar with this length of the M65, there's a map view on the main page that can help you understand the geography of the project and the structures that had to be built.
  • We've assembled a page of highlights that show some of the key processes and can help you spot details in the rest of the photos, once you know what you're looking for. There's also a page describing the history of the M65 leading up to this project and another page about how these photos came to be taken and put online.
  • If you want to pick out a particular road, or structure, or viewpoint, or pictures from a certain date, or a combination of any of those, there are filtering tools to help you find what you need. Pictures are all categorised and captioned to explain what you can see.
  • And finally, if you want to see things develop over the life of the contract, the map view has clickable arrows that will take you straight to the 27 most frequently-photographed viewpoints, from which you can get the best idea of the project's progress.

You can find everything under "Features" in the main site navigation.

If you're a student of civil engineering we hope you'll find these pictures instructive and useful. If you're local to Preston or Blackburn, we hope you'll enjoy seeing how the landscape was changed to provide an important road link in your area. And if you're like us, and you just find roads fascinating, we hope you'll be as engrossed as we are by the endless possibilities to learn how something we all take for granted is brought into existence by countless skilled and tireless workers.


Niall 12 May 2019

Really interesting set of photos, I can remember as a child this motorway being built and being fascinated with it when it opened and still a regular user of it today. Is there any photos of the motorway under construction from junction 3 to 6?

I'm afraid not - what you see here is everything I have. J3-6 was built by a different company under a different contract, and I've no idea whether they even took pictures to record their part of the project.

Susan Batten 20 June 2019

When I was a teenager in the 1970's - late 1970's I suppose it was, I was old enough to vote, we lived in Blackburn, Lancashire. There was a public consultation about a new motorway to be built from Preston to Burnley, and there were I think 4 routes they were considering. We had to vote on the one we wanted, which I did.
The route we eventually got was not the one I voted for! But hey ho, my parents moved away in 1982. We did see the cooling towers at Whitebirk Power Station demolished, though, to make way for the motorway!

Craig Evans 30 June 2019

I really love this feature about the M65. There's so many great photos to look at and all the information of the M65 history is very interesting. Looking through the photos I was very surprised to discover how many things I misremembered from the 1990s. I was always certain that the A6 London Way was always dual carriageway but I can see from the photos it was only dualled in 1996. I also misremembered the A6-M61 J9 link road at Seed Lee being dual carriageway when in fact it was only single carriageway for its short life from 1987 to 1995. I also failed to rememberer the Gough Lane crossroads with the A6-M61 J9 link road as well. I also misremembered the A6-M61 J9 link road having an underbridge over Tramway Lane but I can see now from the photos that underbridge was only built during the final M65 construction.

Richard 17 May 2022

Not for nothing is this motorway called the road to nowhere! There were plans to extend it over the Pennines but I think they were only pipe dreams. I know the plan is to make the A66 dual carraigeway entirely from the A1(M) to M6 but something should be done further south to take the pressure off the M62.

Richard 30 December 2023

Anyone know what the speed limit on this motorway is??? I ask as when you join it east bound from the roundabout at Lostock Hall there is a 50 limit sign, and all the way along to Colne there are on national speed limit signs. So obviously I drive at 50 all the way to Colne!!!

It’s 70. At the Lostock Hall roundabout you’re not yet on the motorway and the limit is 50. Where you join the M65, the blue “start of restrictions” sign with the motorway symbol indicates both the start of motorway regulations and the start of the 70 limit. No other signage is needed to initiate a 70 limit on a motorway in England and Wales. 

Richard 2 January 2024

Thanks for that. But as I said after the 50 sign which is on the motorway after leaving the roundabout and the 50 repeater there were no other signs whatsoever to indicate a 70 limit. And I drove at 70 all the way Colne.

I can't see any 50 signs on the motorway.

When you leave the Lostock Hall roundabout, there are 50 signs here. This is still an all-purpose road (part of A6) and not the motorway, hence the green sign on the right. There's then a 50 repeater here, again still on an all-purpose road. Then as you turn the corner, you reach the blue start of restrictions sign with the motorway symbol and the number M65 here, which (as above) indicates the start of the motorway and the 70 limit. There will be no further repeaters after that point because none are needed to maintain a 70 limit on a motorway. If you can show me a 50 sign that is actually on the motorway, then that is different, but as far as I can see there are none.

Slightly off-topic, but I think there is an instance of this in Bristol, re M32. Approaching the motorway from the centre, the speed limit changes to 40 mph, and then after about 100 metres, the 'chopsticks' appear for the M32, meaning (implying) that the it is now 70 mph though further along said motorway there are 40 mph repeater signs until half way between junction 2 and the bus junction where there is a NSL sign

Richard 3 January 2024

Ah now that explains it.

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