The zombie motorway rises again

Published on 07 June 2018

It's been proposed, designed and binned over and over again. Now the Western Orbital, a western bypass for the West Midlands running between the M42, M5, M54 and M6, has risen from the dead yet again. Has its time finally come?

This week, a new report was published called the Long Term Midlands Motorway Hub Study - tempting bedtime reading, if you're anything like me. It comes from an organisation called Midlands Connect, a new-ish umbrella organisation of local authorities and other "partners" in the West Midlands that is meant to help deliver the Midlands Engine, a plan to accelerate economic growth in the Midlands, rather like the much better publicised Northern Powerhouse.

Midlands Connect is taking a very serious interest in transport. While they won't build new roads and railways themselves, their recommendations will be taken seriously by the Government bodies that will, and what they set out here stands a good chance of becoming policy in the years to come.

The strategy suggests a number of things that need to happen so that the motorway network in the West Midlands can support economic growth over the next couple of decades. That includes some new Smart Motorway projects, some motorway widening, some park and ride sites and some incentives to encourage more traffic on to the M6 Toll. It also includes, much more ambitiously, an entirely new motorway route, running around the west side of the West Midlands built-up area between the M5 and M6. They call it the Western Strategic Route.

A route that will support long distance movements from the North West to the South West through the Midlands, reducing congestion on the M5 and the north-western section of the Hub where conditions on the M6 are some of the worst in the country. Evidenced by a comprehensive origin-destination survey carried out around the box, there are a significant proportion of trips travelling between the network southwest of the box and the network northwest of the box. Transforming connectivity will unlock housing and employment growth in locations such as the Black Country.

Long Term Midlands Motorway Hub Study, 6 June 2018

Their research suggests that the new motorway would take away about 20% of the traffic currently using the M5 and M6 through the West Midlands, which would be enough to make a noticeable difference to traffic levels on two very congested sections of road. It would also have a "transformative" effect on the economy of the Black Country, which is currently not particularly well served by transport links of any kind.

The Western Orbital appears in Midlands Connect's diagram showing its plans for the West Midlands. Click to enlarge
The Western Orbital appears in Midlands Connect's diagram showing its plans for the West Midlands. Click to enlarge

You might well ask whether a brand new motorway being proposed now has a reasonable chance of being built in the next 20 years, and you'd be right to be sceptical no matter where that route was being proposed. But here - well, this road has been through the mill so many times that when the Midlands Connect report was published, Friends of the Earth described it as the "zombie Western Orbital Motorway".

A long, long, long history

Before we get to the erstwhile Western Orbital Motorway, we might ask how long ago a motorway was first proposed on this line. The answer is 1923, when one of the very first motorway proposals was drawn up by a private company who wanted to operate a 200-mile toll road between London and Lancashire, called the Northern and Western Motorway. It would have run around the south of Birmingham and west of Wolverhampton on its journey through the Midlands. It was not supported by the Government and the plans were abandoned in about 1924.

Not to worry, because it was back in 1929, when a new national network of motorways was proposed, including a route between London and the north west that again passed south of Birmingham and west of Wolverhampton. That didn't get much Government support either, and fell by the wayside in the financial crisis of the early 1930s.

In 1942, in the depths of the Second World War, planning was carried out for the rebuilding of Britain once hostilities ended. The Ministry of War Transport thought a national network of high-speed roads would help economic recovery enormously, and their plans included a route - you have probably guessed this - running south of Birmingham and west of Wolverhampton. It reappeared in plans drawn up in 1949 and 1951. There were other ideas too, at various times, borrowing the concept of a motorway along the same line. By the time the war was over and money was finally available for roadbuilding, though, priorities had changed to inter-urban routes and a sweeping bypass of the Black Country was off the cards.

Proposals for motorways published in 1948 by a group looking at transport in the West Midlands, and proposing a Western Orbital motorway. A bit like the current study. Click to enlarge
Proposals for motorways published in 1948 by a group looking at transport in the West Midlands, and proposing a Western Orbital motorway. A bit like the current study. Click to enlarge

What eventually got built in the 1960s and 70s was a network of motorways that met north-west of Birmingham at Ray Hall Interchange, with the M5 and M6 passing through the huge built-up area where they were easily reached. That was fine initially, but before long the mix of long-distance and local traffic began to cause huge congestion. And so the planners at Whitehall started to think about how to relieve the Midland Links. In fact the first sketches of a bypass to relieve those motorways were made in 1972, the year they first opened.

In the 1970s, work began on the M42, which runs around the south and east sides of Birmingham between the M5 and M6. In the early 1980s planning began on a route around the north and east of the urban area that eventually became the M6 Toll, opened in 2003, providing the West Midlands with something like two thirds of an orbital motorway. As soon as that was in planning, any fool could see that plans would be made sooner or later to finish the circle. Sure enough, in the late 1980s the Department of Transport's plans showed a motorway around the west side of Wolverhampton and the Black Country. It was called the Western Orbital Route.

A fully formed motorway

The story of the Western Orbital and the details of its route are on our sister site Pathetic Motorways, and it's well worth a read. The sketch version is that the Western Orbital would have run from the M5/M42 junction, around the west of Stourbridge and Wolverhampton, crossing the M54 and linking to the M6 and the motorway that became the M6 Toll. The plan included other road improvements to help the other roads in the area cope with the new motorway connection, including an ambitious series of bypasses forming a new route between Kidderminster and Halesowen.

It's nice round here: Camp Hill Road, Staffordshire, close to the proposed Western Orbital, and the sort of view that locals do not want disturbed by new motorways. Click to enlarge
It's nice round here: Camp Hill Road, Staffordshire, close to the proposed Western Orbital, and the sort of view that locals do not want disturbed by new motorways. Click to enlarge

The plans lasted until 1996 - in which time they went through some detailed design work and public consultation exercises - before being scrapped. A watered-down version came back, briefly, in 2001. What killed it most recently were a combination of the cost - it's a lot of motorway that would have to be built effectively in one go, because it couldn't usefully be broken into separate schemes - and opposition from the people who live in the countryside west of the Black Country, who quite like their rural surroundings as they are, and are not particularly keen on giving them up to solve someone else's traffic problems.

If they're wanted, though, those 1990s proposals give Midlands Connect some ready-made plans that show what a "Western Strategic Route" might need to look like.

An idea whose time has come?

In the past, the Western Orbital and its predecessors have always fallen by the wayside because there have been other, more pressing concerns. Back in the 1920s those concerns were about whether the railways would prevent road freight becoming a profitable business. In the mid-20th century, road links within the West Midlands were a higher priority than bypasses around the outside. And in the 1980s and 90s, the greater need was for relief to the east and south, with the northern side of the orbital route only affordable because it charges a toll.

Today the picture is a bit different, for a number of reasons.

  • First, the West Midlands have the other strategic roads already in place, so there aren't any other motorways in the queue ahead of the Western Orbital (sorry, Western Strategic Route).
  • Second, the motorways that already exist are a cause for increasing concern. Long lengths of the M5 and M6 are elevated, which makes them impossible to widen, and using the hard shoulder as a running lane is complicated. The elevated structures that support them are pushing towards 50 years old, requiring serious, disruptive maintenance and repair work so they can remain in service. There is no significant extra capacity if traffic levels increase.
  • Third, the West Midlands is now being pushed to grow its economy significantly, which means more residents, more commerce, more freight, more traffic.
  • And fourth, we are now in an era when much larger sums of money are being invested in new roads, and the planning process for major infrastructure projects has been smoothed out to make them easier to build.
There's little chance of any further capacity being squeezed out of the M5 and M6 Midland Links. Time for a bypass? Click to enlarge
There's little chance of any further capacity being squeezed out of the M5 and M6 Midland Links. Time for a bypass? Click to enlarge

All of that means a very compelling case now exists to provide a bypass for traffic traversing the West Midlands, and to provide new links that serve the hard-to-reach western fringes of the urban area. It also means the Government is more receptive to ideas like that than at any time in the last few decades.

Does that mean the Western Orbital's time has finally come? Well, no, not necessarily. The countryside it would traverse is still populated with people who really don't want it, and who will fight it just like they did twenty years ago. Midlands Connect think the new motorway would also enable the creation of new "garden villages" to allow another 45,000 people to move into the area - that's not going to go down well with the locals either. The environmental case against new roadbuilding remains strong and well supported. The cost of road schemes like this has only gone up since the last time it was being discussed, and the difficulty of securing the political will and the money to make it happen will still be a major challenge.

Perhaps nothing will happen. But then, we live in interesting times, and a year ago if you'd asked about the Western Orbital you'd likely be told it was utterly dead, never to be seen again. It's come back from the dead countless times before, and Midlands Connect have just successfully - and very publicly - resurrected it yet again. The question is whether history is going to go on repeating, or whether this time the zombie will stay upright long enough to see the light of day.

We don't yet know what parts of Midlands Connect's strategy will be adopted as policy, though undoubtedly at least some of it will be. We await the next steps of this process with interest.


Harry Ray 8 June 2018

What an amazing idea! The M5 & M6 are extremely busy around the Birmingham area, and time has come for a new motorway, especially since many people in the west have to go through central Birmingham to get to those motorways. Surprising to think it's been on the cards and yet declined for so many years...

Tahrey 8 June 2018

If they're going to do it, they'd better do it soon... I've looked over the maps before doing a bit of fantasy planning and there are some places where the needle would already need to be threaded extremely carefully. If there's any further urban development the space to build the road might disappear.

It does make a huge amount of sense, though - essentially it's a Yang to the M6 Toll's Yin, and the entire loop around including the south and eastern M42 arms could be given its own number (and do away with that Toll nonsense). The big issue with the M6 through the West Midlands, and the northern part of the M5, is that they run straight through the middle of a huge conurbation, and end up mixing local commuters with long distance traffic. Build the western arm, make the toll road free to use as it's had plenty of time to earn the build costs back, and keep them as permanent 70 (or, hey, why not 80?) to further encourage people travelling past the area to use the bypasses, leaving the roads that go into the cities for people who are actually headed that way.

I would go so far as to say it's not ambitious enough, though; the M6 has been showing massive overloading to the north of Birmingham for some time now, and widening schemes and ATM can only go so far. A certain slice of the traffic heading up that way isn't interested in going to Stafford, Stoke, Macclesfield, Manchester, Warrington, Preston, etc, but are heading to Liverpool, The Wirral, Chester, Wrexham, Crewe, and all points along the North Wales coast ... yet they have to mix together, and the result is chaos. Plus that map doesn't show any connection to the M54, even, other than at J2, which would mean anyone heading from the south towards Telford, Shrewsbury, West and North Wales would either have to backtrack at that junction (if provision was even made for that), or end up piling onto the single-carriageway A41 to pull on at J3, or even head further up it.

So... Let's make the orbital's connection to the M6 and Toll Road a spur, and instead send the mainline north, vaguely shadowing the A41. Make a couple of wide turns to skirt Newport and Whitchurch, and hook on to the A55 and the base of the M53 at the east side of Chester. Anyone heading to any of those listed places can now get there much quicker (including Liverpool, through the Mersey Tunnels), in fewer miles, and with less stop-start on both that road and the relieved M6, meaning much greater efficiency and lower emissions as well as greater productivity, and better use of the surrounding and extended road networks.

The M56 and its interchange with the M6 is less hammered, the interchange between it, the M53 and A55 becomes far less of a dangerous logjam, ditto the M62 and M58 and the junctions between them and the M6, the A41 itself is relieved from all the traffic that already uses it as an alternative to heading twenty miles east then back (to access the M6) only to sit in a queue anyway (and even in the late 90s/early 2000s, my university open day and then studying days, my parents often used to cut off the corner when taking me to Bangor by coming off the M6 a long way short of the M56 and cutting across to the A41 anyway, to avoid traffic; Lymm and the like have only got worse since). Plus, locally to the Birmingham/Black Country conurbation, there's a sensible link up to the M54.

If they also finally build a motorway class link from the M42 down to the M50 shadowing the A46 at the same time, we can also renumber things sensibly; the M42 then goes from somewhere southwest of Nottingham down to Strensham (or maybe the whole thing can become either M42 - or M50 - all the way down to Ross ... or even compromise on M46, seeing as the M69 doesn't look like it'll change name any time soon) --- and the M40 (possibly more correctly numbered the M41, as it already follows the A41 much more than the A40) from London all the way up to Chester, if not in fact taking over the M53 and running right up to Birkenhead. At the same time, reroute the M6 proper along the Toll Road and give the old route a downgraded number. M34 or something. Alternatively, give the full orbital an appropriate number, leave the M6 as it is, and have all of the M42, M40 and new M41 (and M46...) as spurs coming off it (with the M42 being truncated where it hits the current M6 Toll; perhaps it could be properly expanded north of Measham and the junction numbers shifted along, or inverted?).

(Alternative wider bypass, of course: Upgrade and occasionally realign the current A46 down past Coventry, run a little new road to link up with the dual carriageway that goes around Warwick to the M40 to avoid the somewhat messy confluence with the A45, extend its dualled section beyond where it ends after the M40, bypassing Stratford and Evesham on at least partly new lines, meeting up with the M50... much like the M42 extension, it gives traffic from the Northeast an alternative way of getting down towards South Wales, and indeed just the Southwest in general, without having to deal with the bottleneck of Catshill and the M5 down to Strensham, but this way it doesn't have to cram along either the already overloaded M42 or the single carriageway bits of the A46 (and then either use a short section of M5, or go through the middle of Tewkesbury), in exchange for not being a motorway throughout but a Cumberland Gap style high-quality dual carriageway, maybe even under a 60mph limit... for the time saved by cutting off that corner, and avoiding the traffic, it'd be worth it.)

Additional fantasy piece to finish off the bottleneck and missing-link erasure: a similar HQDC class link road coming north off the M5 at Ray Hall (specifically, the link roads to/from M6 South/East), threading another extremely tight needle through the outskirts of Walsall and Aldridge, crossing the A452 at or near to its junction with the A454 (with which it may or may not interchange), meeting up with the A38, (and possibly A5, and M6 Toll, though there'd be little value in any direct links between it and the latter, and maybe even the former) where it makes the sharp right turn just southeast of Lichfield. Which will take some of the traffic that would otherwise still plague the eastern end of the urban M6, as well as the surface parts of the A38 and some of the M42 north, that's either coming from within the conurbation and heading up the M5 initially, or coming from the south but doesn't want the detour of having to go around the western orbital then the M6 Toll (or alternatively, all the way around the M42) on its way to the A38 and points north reached from there, including along the M1 and A50 (and, via the A50, Nottingham, and the A46 northeast of the City). Not sure what you'd number it, A538(M) or something, but you'd then have a nice neat setup with an orbital ring, and the two main motorways heading into it crossing in the middle, rather than forming a T-junction, with one of the main spur roads that the North-South member is obviously pointing towards not being cut off/deflected at the point where it hits the orbital.

Tahrey 8 June 2018

(oh, and of course ... further bypass Coventry to the south with an extension to the M45, which would undo the development that's happened along the line of what was itself meant to be a bypass, but has become a congested, traffic light riddled mess thanks to not actually being a motorway proper... spurring off the end of the existing M45, going to the south of the airport in order to avoid the whole A45/A46 scramble, then joining on to the A-road west of the city where it has a nice clean run all the way to Birmingham; in fact, fill that out to 2x2 with hard shoulders, put a single carriageway service link alongside where needed, improve the already fully grade separated junctions to motorway standard, spur off again around Stonebridge to briefly bypass the airport and M42 mess and give a direct line towards Birmingham (plus a simple two-way link to/from the M42 south, but any traffic that wants to go north or to the airport, NEC, maybe even A452 etc has to come off onto the old A45 first), joining back up basically just after the airport freight hub junction, and slap an M on the whole lot... there's space for all this, just, at the moment... this would complete the effective "double tracking" of the M6 from the M1 as far as the M62. In fact, it probably only needs to go as far as the M42, and have 2-way on/off to the *north*, because from there you can segue onto the M6 north just as traffic from the M6 itself turns off onto the M6 Toll, with the respective slip roads missing each other by a half mile or so, rather like the situation with the Toll Road and M54 at the moment, if you follow me. Like, traffic from the M45 (or M1; say going from Northampton to Ellesmere Port) would run along the old motorway (and then on to the M54, and then onto the M41), instead of having to go around the bottom of the orbital loop, and traffic from the M6 (or A14; say, going from Felixstowe to Manchester) could run along what is currently the Toll road, and never the twain would have to meet. 6 or more lanes of simultaneous grade-separated running in both directions, making the best of what's currently available with a fairly limited amount of new build...)

Fraser Mitchell 8 June 2018

If HS2 can be built through the Chilterns AONB, surely a failry short motorway west of the West Midlands conurbation is possible despite the NIMBYs , not forgetting the BANANAs (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything)

maurice b andrews 14 June 2018

I recently travelled on the M6/M5 to Dudley, mid week morning. Absolute hell trip. If the do build this proposed road DO NOT make it a privatly run toll road. Despite all the efforts to make people use the M6 toll it remains under-used and runs at a loss. People in Britain do not like over-priced toll roads.The Dartford crossing is bad enough. Nationize the M6 toll, not a bail-out of another failed private enterprise, that will help in the short term.

Ted Thomas 29 June 2018

Can we make Tahrey above Roads Minister please!!!

And the Western Orbital makes so much sense it hurts - as any journey on the M5/M6/M42 during the hours of 6am to 7pm physically hurts daily - I know I do it!

Yorick 13 November 2018

Or they could just remove the toll from the M6. The Black Country suffers enough from urban sprawl and congestion at the benefit of Birmingham, and this will only stamp it even further into the ground.

Richard Soul 9 September 2019

Get this built it will allow job growth in the area the M6 toll derived an entirely different area

Karan Dusara 29 September 2019

Tahrey, can someone make a map of what you said. I think you're onto something

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Published7 June 2018

Last updated8 June 2018