The missing (M)

Published: 14 January 2020

There were high hopes that England's biggest road project in years, and Highways England's flagship road scheme, would open as a motorway. And then, in December, it didn't. Cambridgeshire has the A14 but no (M).

It's been a quiet couple of months here on Sometimes real life gets in the way, and it's been a busy period behind the scenes even without Christmas, so updates have been thin on the ground. The good news is that there's lots to come in the near future, including the list of schemes for RIS2, the end of Operation Brock, and of course work continues apace on the next set of Ringways pages. But before anything else, we should catch up with something that happened back in early December.

We need to talk about the A14.

Turning blue

We wrote about Highways England's plans to designate some fast A-roads as "expressways" back in October 2018. In short, the idea is that many rural A-road dual carriageways are inconsistent in standards and treatment, and HE want to standardise them, with the ultimate goal for the busiest routes being to provide separate routes for non-motorised traffic and then designate the roads as motorways. These blue-sign expressways will have Ax(M) numbers.

The timing of that blog post came about because Highways England had just announced their first motorway-class expressway, which would be the new A14 Huntingdon Southern Bypass. They wanted their flagship £1bn road scheme to have all the bells and whistles of a Smart Motorway, so they planned to restrict it to motorway traffic, fit it with electronic signs and variable speed limits, and call it the A14(M).

Examples of blue signs for the A14(M), produced by Highways England to illustrate the proposal

Examples of blue signs for the A14(M), produced by Highways England to illustrate the proposal

To do that, they needed to get the Planning Inspectorate to say yes to the change - since the scheme was already in progress and motorway status had not been in the original planning application - and then get the legal paperwork in order.

A motorway isn't a road, you see. It's a Special Road. Special Roads were first created in the Special Roads Act 1949, and now defined by its successor, the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. The difference is subtle but important.

  • An ordinary road, like - say - the A14 is open to everybody and all classes of traffic, unless legal orders have been published that say a particular class of traffic is banned or restricted in some way. Ordinary roads are public rights of way.
  • Special Roads are not public rights of way. They are roads that nobody has any legal right to use unless the legislation that creates the Special Road specifically permits them.

You can't just put blue signs on the A14 and call it a motorway. You have to publish some legislation - scrutinised and signed off by Parliament - to declare it a Special Road and state which classes of traffic may use it. Only then, like an angel getting its wings, may it be granted its (M). And therein lies the problem.

Going green

In October 2019, Highways England made an announcement. The project's completion date of December 2020 remained unchanged, but the long length of new expressway that forms the Huntingdon Southern Bypass would open to traffic a year ahead of that date on 9 December 2019. There would be one other change too.

"To take advantage of the early opening, the road will open as a best-in-class A road rather than a motorway as originally planned, but the design will remain the same."

Highways England, 11 October 2019

Hooray, cried the press office: the road will open a year early! Hooray, it will be just as good as we promised! Hooray, opening as an A-road instead of a motorway will make no difference! It's nothing but good news! Hooray!

It was only in October that green signs were erected on the A14 and surrounding roads, with SABRE members closely following the works reporting that no signs were up for a long time, despite all the supports and gantries being in place, and even tales of signage contractors being sent out to do busywork on public footpath diversions that would normally be left for low-priority tidying up after a new road opens. It looked rather like procurement of the green signs had been left until the very last moment, in the hope that blue ones could be ordered instead.

Green signs for an A-road, seen just east of the Great Ouse Viaduct during a charity event shortly before the new A14 opened. Click to enlarge

Green signs for an A-road, seen just east of the Great Ouse Viaduct during a charity event shortly before the new A14 opened. Click to enlarge

Now that the road is open, as the A14 and not A14(M), and despite HE's claims, it does make a small difference that motorway regulations are absent. Traffic Regulation Orders have been applied to prohibit most non-motorway vehicles from the road, so in that sense there is little difference. However, vehicle class speed limits differ on A-roads and motorways (see our guide), so buses, coaches and goods vehicles are all subject to limits 10mph lower than they would have been. There's also the consideration that variable speed limits cannot currently be applied to non-motorway roads and new legislation will be required to apply them - so, as it stands, the A14 doesn't operate like a Smart Motorway and limits shown on its electronic signs are only advisory.

So, why not make it a motorway? The answer, oddly, has a lot to do with the railways.

Crossing the tracks

The "early" opening of the A14 Huntingdon Southern Bypass is nothing of the sort. It opened right on time, in December 2019. The overall project is due to finish in December 2020, but to meet that deadline, it was always necessary for the new length of road between Alconbury and Fen Drayton to open a year in advance. This is why:

  • The new road must open to carry A14 traffic before the old A14 through Huntingdon can be closed.
  • The old A14 has to close to enable the Huntingdon Viaduct to be demolished.
  • Demolishing the viaduct is a part of the overall project and has to be done by December 2020 along with all the other works.
  • The viaduct spans the East Coast Main Line railway, carrying 125mph express trains, so demolition can only begin when a safety raft has been built across the tracks to protect trains and overhead wires from falling debris.
  • Installation of the safety raft could take several days and requires a lengthy closure of the railway, but the ECML is a critical line that is only rarely closed.
  • The only planned closure of the ECML that provided enough time for the raft to be installed was between Christmas and New Year.

Therefore, Network Rail's closure of the ECML between Christmas and New Year dictated not just the time the safety raft was installed, but also everything else, up to and including the new A14 opening in December 2019.

The viaduct at Huntingdon, structurally unsound and propped with steel beams, will be demolished as a matter of urgency. Click to enlarge

The viaduct at Huntingdon, structurally unsound and propped with steel beams, will be demolished as a matter of urgency. Click to enlarge

That was fine, because the new A14 was finished in good time, but its Special Road orders had not been through Parliamentary process and had not been published. They had been bogged down for the best part of a year in the wider Government traffic jam caused by Brexit preparations, and - in the face of the UK's chaotic departure from the EU, changing prime ministers, ministerial reshuffles and all the rest of it - a polite request to redesignate 20 miles of road in Cambridgeshire never got anywhere near the top of the Westminster to-do list.

To get the road open, Highways England did the pragmatic thing, and binned the motorway orders. They have since started work on the legislation that will enable a non-motorway road like the A14 to operate Variable Speed Limits, though that is presently facing the same hold-ups that the motorway orders did. The only difference is that the road can be open to traffic, in the meantime, without it.

U-turns on the motorway

The obvious next question is whether that's it for the A14(M), or whether it'll come back later. There are two things to consider.

The first is whether the will really exists at Highways England to designate expressways as motorways. The answer to that appears to be yes. Every insider we've spoken to at the DfT and elsewhere has been quite convinced that the concept of designating expressways as motorways is alive and well - it's just that this one missed the boat. The demise of the A14(M) was not a change of heart, it was just a necessary step to get the road open on time, after the legal orders to designate a motorway had vanished beneath the Whitehall quicksand.

The second is whether it will ever be worthwhile to go back and redesignate this specific expressway as a motorway, now that it's open and the deed is done. On that point, the only honest answer is that nobody knows.

The Great Ouse Viaduct carrying the new A14 Huntingdon Southern Bypass. Will it ever carry a motorway? Click to enlarge

The Great Ouse Viaduct carrying the new A14 Huntingdon Southern Bypass. Will it ever carry a motorway? Click to enlarge

Counting against it is the fact that the road is now open, different legal orders have been made, legislation to allow Variable Speed Limits without motorway regulations are being pursued, green signs have been manufactured and paid for, and changes to the status quo will cost money and cause disruption. In its favour, though, the A14 Huntingdon to Cambridge scheme is a Highways England pet project, watched closely by its senior management, and when Highways England particularly want to do something they have an uncanny knack for finding a pot of money to make it happen.

Whatever happens is not going to happen immediately. Cambridgeshire has its new road, one needed for a very long time, and that is no bad thing. It is, in fact, rather a fine new road, if you have the opportunity to go try it out.

And if anyone seems likely to come along and stick an (M) on the end, we'll let you know.


AlexontheA14 14 January 2020

I frightens me how interesting I found that. Good work.

Mikey C 14 January 2020

What happened with that section of the M25 near Rickmansworth that was originally opened as the A405, was that opened as a special road from the start or as a normal road?

That length, and the M25 between J23 and 24 which also opened as an A-road, were both ordinary all-purpose roads when opened, as far as I can tell. Certainly in the case of J23-24 the road had not been progressed as a motorway scheme and the decision was only taken very late on to reclassify it, and legal advice had to be obtained by what was then the Department of the Environment about converting it into a Special Road so it could beSo come a motorway after opening.

Those two lengths of motorway might provide a precedent (there are others too, of course) for reclassifying a road as motorway after it's already open. But I don't think the question is whether it can be done; the question is whether the DfT and HE are sufficiently bothered about its status to change it now the road is open. I'm not holding my breath.

Adam Edwards 15 January 2020

Did the bridge safety raft get installed as planned and assuming yes, when will the bridge start to come down? Its a horrid eyesore and it will be great to see it go. it's a shame the local authority are keeping the bit of the road at Godmanchester over the river as that is horrible too.

Yes the 'mobile protection deck' as it's called did get installed over Christmas last and preliminary work has commenced on the removal of the viaduct. The central span section (the crucial bit) will start to come down towards the end of next month (February). The old A14 (renumbered A1307) remains over the River Great Ouse at Godmanchester to provide much needed relief to the Old Town Bridge over the Great Ouse.

Andy S 15 January 2020

I wonder why we cannot just extend the designation of the M6 for the A14(M)? surely its just a contination from the Catthorpe Interchange?

The short answer is that it wouldn't be a continuation of the M6. The A14(M), as proposed, would have ended almost 40 miles away from the start of the M6.

You'd either have to renumber all the junctions on the M6, or use negative junction numbers

It could possibly be extended from the M11, the road as it currently stands is a continuation of that road to the A1, but I don't know of any precedent for this.

Me 16 January 2020

A1 between Bramham and Wetherby was upgraded online to A1(M) so there's no reason A14 couldn't be upgraded to A14(M).

Thomas in Texas 17 January 2020

1. As somebody who has sat in on detailed, deeply-bureaucratic discussions about re-designating US Highways to Interstates on this side of the pond, I found this story fascinating.
2. What is the purpose of that big box on the left side of the gantry in the picture above?

The picture was taken before the road opened and the gantry wasn't fully fitted out at that stage. The box on the left now has a large electronic matrix sign mounted on it; the reason it's so bulky is so that the electronic signs can all be serviced safely from within the structure.

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