The UK's latest motorway

Published on 19 March 2018

The new A1(M) between Leeming and Barton in North Yorkshire is now, finally, nearing completion. The much-delayed upgrade work will finally connect Tyneside and Teesside to the national motorway network. It's been a long wait.

The A1 is never really finished. Through North Yorkshire, the old Great North Road was upgraded to a dual carriageway in the 1950s and 60s by laying a second road alongside the first, but by the 1990s that was no longer adequate. Successive governments have had the intention of upgrading it to a motorway, closing the gap between the English motorway network and the isolated length of A1(M) that runs from Darlington to Gateshead, since the late 1980s - but it's taken a long time for that to happen.

In fact, this final section, now being finished off, was not just delayed by years of indecision and changing political will. Even once construction started it's been beset by one problem after another - making it not just the latest motorway, but also one of the most late-running.

The long road to a new motorway

Upgrading a section of A1 to A1(M) is never simple, but the section between Leeming and Barton has proved more difficult than most. Here's a whistle-stop tour of the journey so far.

  • In the early 1990s, John Major's Conservative Government adopted a policy of upgrading the whole A1 to motorway between London and Newcastle (by which, in the manner typical of grand policy announcements, it actually meant the M25 and Gateshead). A start was made: that policy gave us the A1(M) between Walshford and Dishforth, now roughly junctions 46 to 49, which opened in 1995 as an isolated stretch of motorway.
  • The policy was then scrapped in a spending review in 1996, so North Yorkshire kept its long length of plain dual carriageway A1 and an ever-worsening safety record.
  • In the early 2000s, the Highways Agency revived plans to upgrade the remaining sections of A1 in North Yorkshire to motorway standard, and progressively upgraded the lengths between Darrington (just south of the M62) and Walshford. And in about 2003, a scheme called "A1(M) Dishforth to Barton" entered the trunk road programme, promising an upgrade to three-lane motorway for the remaining 24-mile stretch. A consultation was held in 2005.
  • The start of work on this epic upgrade scheme was pencilled in for 2008, but slipped backwards twice, and the Highways Agency then divided the scheme into two halves that would happen one after the other to make it more "deliverable". Work began on the southern half, Dishforth to Leeming, in 2009, just as the financial crisis really began to bite.
  • While work was under way, the then Chancellor, George Osborne, came looking for savings. He saw half a motorway project that hadn't yet begun. In 2010 the Leeming to Barton scheme was abruptly cancelled.
  • Funding was found for the Leeming to Barton motorway scheme in late 2012, the plans were dusted off, and work finally began on site in 2014 - presumably in something of a rush so that nobody would have time to cancel it again.

A deceptively difficult project

Getting this upgrade project under way was one thing. Finishing it has been quite another.

Work ongoing at Catterick in September 2017 - three months after the motorway was due to open, but with work still to be done. Click to enlarge
Work ongoing at Catterick in September 2017 - three months after the motorway was due to open, but with work still to be done. Click to enlarge

The projected timescale for the works (as still listed in CBRD's Road Schemes section) was March 2014 to June 2017, a period of more than three years. Building a road will normally take two years, but this was an on-line upgrade of an existing road with some tricky work to be done while live traffic ran through the work site, so extra time was needed. But the extra year was not enough - in fact the scheme is still under way now and it's likely finishing works will continue beyond June 2018, making this one of the most delayed road schemes in recent memory.

Among the various causes for the late running were unexpected archaeological finds (around Catterick, which has been settled since Roman times), occasional flooding, and difficulties stabilising embankments and earthworks around the River Swale. Carillion were one of the partners in the joint venture contracted to build the motorway, but Highways England have been quite clear that the collapse of the company was the one unforeseen disaster that didn't affect timescales.

Almost open for business

Motorway regulations have applied to the southern half of the new motorway - between Leeming and Catterick - since late February, and that part is now all but complete. The northern half is still a worksite, but the end is now at least in sight. That's why we've now updated the A1's Motorway Database page to show the new motorway configuration in the exit list, complete with new junction layouts, numbers and markerposts.

When the cones are finally cleared away, the A1(M) will form a continuous motorway from Darrington, south of the M62, to Birtley, just south of Gateshead -  a distance of 93 miles. If that section were a motorway in its own right it'd be the seventh longest in the UK, ahead of the M40 and just behind the M62. And the North East will, for the first time, get a motorway connection to the rest of England - something that's been a work in progress for about half a century now.

The A1 and A1(M) are covered in detail in CBRD's Motorway Database. The A1(M) Leeming - Barton upgrade scheme can be tracked in CBRD's Road Schemes pages.


Toby 23 April 2018

Great article as usual.
Just a comment - the first bullet mentions the ambition to upgrade the A1 between M25 and Newcastle, maybe worth mentioning the Cambridgeshire A1(M) section that was built/opened in 1998?

Richard 18 May 2022

That stretch of A1(M) in Cambridgeshire is IMHO completely OTT. Ive only used it once and I just couldnt believe how nice it was, but it did seem a bit OTT for the amount of traffic that was using it, and why four lanes? Its not as if lorries will be struggling up hill!

Richard 1 July 2022

A couple of days after the announcement that the A1 was to be made a motorway all the way from London to Newcastle I was driving along the A1 near Newark. I spied someone filming from the verge at the side. A few days later BBC East Midlands had an item on the motorway upgrade and lo and behold there was film of me driving along! Now this was in 1993, and it may have been asked before but are there any plans to upgrade the non motorway stretches of the A1 between Doncaster and London?

The simple answer is no. There was a study looking at the length between Baldock and Alconbury, which considered an offline motorway bypass, but that idea has been kicked into the long grass too. Red House-Darrington (roughly Doncaster to the M62) is still an active project that may receive funding for a start between 2025 and 2030, but that is the only A1(M) project in the pipeline.

I thought that may be the case. I cant help wondering why in the sixties with the mania for building motorways they didnt just carry on with the M1 all the way to Newcastle. After all the M6 went to Carlisle in 1970.
And why doesnt the DfT see sense and name the A1(m) from Leeds to Newcastle M1?

When the A428 Black Cat to Caxton Gibbet scheme opens this will only speed up traffic on the current A1 between Sandy and Brampton. Resulting in the A1/B661 roundabout becoming a major bottleneck and disrupting the free-flow of traffic, if only they'd upgrade the A1 between Black Cat and Alconbury to motorway!

I watched a 3 part series on Motorways on BBC2 a few months ago. The 3rd part was about how weve fallen out of love with motorways in this country. It seems that people seem to want motorways, but they dont want them in their area! Shades of the NIMBYS. But places such as Norwich, Plymouth and Aberdeen could really do with a motorway connection. And hasnt there been talk of making motorway driving part of the driving test or perhaps part of the pass plus scheme?

There are now calls by locals in Lincolnshire for the A1 to be made a motorway from Blythe to Peterborough. Apparently since 2015 there have been approximately 1000 accidents on that stretch of the A1.

People call for those things all the time. There has been lots of pressure to convert the A34, Shrewsbury's MP wanted the A5 to be converted, and of course at one stage David Cameron promised us that there would be lots of Ax(M) "expressways". None of these calls ever lead to anything but a few headlines, they couldn't even convert a few miles of the A14 to avoid a spontaneous motorway, so the idea that somebody will be able to add a major length of new motorway to the roads programme is just wishful thinking.

And of course back in 93 the grand plan was for the whole of the A1 to be made motorway all the way from the M25 to Newcastle. But less than a year later Kenneth Clarke had a major round of spending cuts, they had already started on the stretch round York so that was continued. And of course the stretch around Peterborough went ahead.

Richard 31 January 2023

I cant understand the new layout at Catterick. Before the upgrade there was a junction and you went over a bridge and you were in the south of Catterick village just by the entrance for Marne barracks or as some of us remember RAF Catterick. Now that bridge has gone so there is only one junction for Catterick and Brompton. And if you want to get to the south of Catterick you have to in effect do a 180 degree turn and use a side road to get to the south of the village. It all seems very odd to me.

Richard 5 July 2023

Why is there no junction 54 or 55 on the A1?

Because the junction numbers were allocated long before most of the North Yorkshire section of motorway existed. When first allocated the motorway stopped at J38 north of Doncaster, and resumed at J56 at Barton.

Over the decades that followed the motorway was progressively filled in between those points, but it has two fewer junctions than were anticipated, so two numbers had to be skipped.

I don’t think it’s known where all the junctions were expected to go. There was no detailed plan at the time the numbers were first allocated so it was probably no more than a rough guess at how many numbers would be needed for the unbuilt sections.

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