The ghost junction

Published on 22 March 2022

The UK's only motorway that didn’t meet an ordinary road finally got its own interchange in 2019. But it's not open, because it doesn't go anywhere. Welcome to the M49's ghost junction.

Opened in 1996, the M49 has spent quarter of a century being the only British motorway without any junctions and the only one in the UK that didn’t touch the ordinary road network at any point. It met the M4 at one end, the M5 at the other, and had no way on or off between those points. But in 2019, a new interchange was completed, M49 junction 1. It ticks almost all the boxes.

✓ Full access to the north and south
✓ Built to full motorway standards
✓ Ideally located to serve the large industrial and distribution sites at Avonmouth
✓ Clearly signposted from both directions on the M49

✗ Connected to any other roads at all

Almost all the boxes.

The idea was that Highways England (as it was then called) would build it, while South Gloucestershire Council would then work with the developers of the adjacent distribution park to build the link road leading to it, as part of the agreement for the development to go ahead.

Imagery © 2022 Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Maxar Technologies, The GeoInformation Group, Map Data © 2022 Google
Imagery © 2022 Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Maxar Technologies, The GeoInformation Group, Map Data © 2022 Google

Highways England spent £50m of public money and, over two years, built the junction. But we're still waiting for the link road. In the meantime, Avonmouth is home to a very strange thing: a whole motorway junction, complete in every detail, with no road in or out. We thought it was time to have a look.

Ghost tour

Find your way to the Central Park business estate in Avonmouth and the new motorway junction isn't hard to find. You just follow the sign pointing towards the M49. It's here, at the Goldcrest Way roundabout, gesturing across a patch of scrubby brownfield land towards the motorway. This is where the unbuilt link road will start.

This way to the M49! But only on foot. Click to enlarge
This way to the M49! But only on foot. Click to enlarge

You can also find it from the M49, of course, but you won't be able to reach it since the sliproads are blocked by lines of concrete barriers. All the signs exist - you can see the backs of some of them here - but are obscured by black coverplates. They're likely to signpost the exit for Avonmouth (A403), but that can't be confirmed until the covers come down.

The new northbound exit from the M49, with blanked out signs and temporary barriers. Click to enlarge
The new northbound exit from the M49, with blanked out signs and temporary barriers. Click to enlarge

Since we can't get there from the motorway, let's follow the path from Goldcrest Way instead. A shared footpath, cycleway and bridleway crosses the M49 at the new junction - in fact, it always did, and the junction incorporates the bridge that was provided for it when the motorway was built. Once you get up close you can see the stub for the other end of the link road which stops, rather improbably, in mid air.

A stump of embankment supporting a stub of road. Click to enlarge
A stump of embankment supporting a stub of road. Click to enlarge

The path passes under the roundabout and then climbs up to bridge level with an unusual looped ramp.

The footpath and cycle track loop around on their way up to bridge level. Click to enlarge
The footpath and cycle track loop around on their way up to bridge level. Click to enlarge

From up here, the view from the stub of link road shows just how absurdly close the junction is to reaching Goldcrest Way and the rest of the business park. The gap between them is just 150m (490ft).

From bollard to bollard, a distance of 150m is all that separates the new junction from the road. Click to enlarge
From bollard to bollard, a distance of 150m is all that separates the new junction from the road. Click to enlarge

It's worth acknowledging the innovative way this junction was built. Rather than a traditional sloped embankment, the roundabout and sliproads are supported on retained banks. They're built of earth, like an ordinary embankment, but packed tightly and built almost vertically upwards, with the surface held together by two layers of wire mesh. Over time the surface will be populated by grass and other wild plants, which are already beginning to take hold; that will stabilise them and prevent the soil eroding away.

The near vertical face of the unusual earth embankments. Click to enlarge
The near vertical face of the unusual earth embankments. Click to enlarge

This method of construction was partly chosen to keep costs down, but it also serves to minimise the weight placed on the very soft ground underneath. The new bridge, on the north side of the junction, is fairly low cost too; it has just one span to cross the motorway and rests on walled embankment at each side so it's as short as possible. The walls overhang the edges of the earth banks, which looks odd now but will be less so when the banks are covered with vegetation.

The new bridge, a model of extremely economical design. Click to enlarge
The new bridge, a model of extremely economical design. Click to enlarge

The south side of the roundabout is carried by a bridge of a completely different style, made up of three spans supported by ordinary sloped embankments. It's original to the M49.

An older bridge of a completely different style, intended for a bridleway and appropriated for a roundabout. Click to enlarge
An older bridge of a completely different style, intended for a bridleway and appropriated for a roundabout. Click to enlarge

At the other side of the junction, there's another stub of road that ends in mid air. Some warehouses have started appearing on the east side of the M49, so this will presumably be connected to a further expansion of the distribution park into the fields visible here.

Looking east from another stub of road, promising more warehouses on the empty fields. Click to enlarge
Looking east from another stub of road, promising more warehouses on the empty fields. Click to enlarge

When it opened in 1996, the M49 was effectively just a set of extra-long sliproads between the M4 and M5; there were no intermediate junctions. The new interchange will change that, and end its claim to being the only UK motorway without any exits. It'll also end another related anomaly.

Sign me up

If you visit our Motorway Database pages, we start every page with the appropriate sign. On the M1 page, you'll see a blue sign at the top of the page with the motorway symbol and the number "M1". It's the familiar indication that you're joining a particular motorway.

At the top of the M49 page, you'll see the same blue sign, and the same motorway symbol, with the number M49. Nothing strange there, except that - because there has never been any way to join the M49 from outside the motorway network - that sign has never existed for real. It's the only UK motorway that could only be reached from other motorways, and that made it the only one without its own start-of-restrictions sign.

Well, now it has its own junction, and for the first time in its quarter of a century history, it has its own start-of-restrictions signs too.

An M49 start of restrictions sign, the unicorn of the UK motorway network. Click to enlarge
An M49 start of restrictions sign, the unicorn of the UK motorway network. Click to enlarge

There's two, one for each entrance sliproad. It rather feels like the M49 has finally come of age, graduating to become a real motorway in its own right and not the butt of road enthusiast jokes.

Or at least it will come of age, if the new junction ever opens.

Stuck in the works

Back when the junction was finished, South Gloucestershire Council stated that the link road was for the developers to build. That meant Severnside Distribution Land and Delta Properties, who own the land and are developing the estate of warehouse facilities. But they didn't.

News reports suggest there was some sort of dispute ongoing about who was liable to pay for it - and of course nobody would volunteer to pay if they thought it might be someone else's job. Delta Properties released a statement in early 2021 saying it had "no legal obligation" to pay for it. Perhaps what South Gloucestershire Council had was an informal agreement and not a contract. We may never know.

In February last year, the West of England Combined Authority said it had found £1m of public money to build the link. This was remarkable, first because the taxpayer had already paid £50m for the junction and the rest was supposed to come from someone else, and second because it suggested the price of the simple two-lane road would be more than £6,000 per metre - or, if you prefer, nearly £67 per centimetre.

This way to the motorway you can't join yet! Click to enlarge
This way to the motorway you can't join yet! Click to enlarge

Construction will not be simple, since this is a flood plain, and the embankment would have to spend the best part of a year settling before a surface could be laid. But that still seems pricey. Maybe the land, currently owned by the development companies, comes at a premium.

The latest change is that, in October last year, South Gloucestershire Council announced it had reached a "deal with the Government" to build the link, but refused to release any details of the deal, or its decision, or the confidential report it had commissioned into the matter. There has been no news since then. We don't know what the deal is.

As a result, we've no idea when the road will be built, or when the junction will open. The whole thing is bound up in secrecy. But if you want to go and see a ghost junction on the M49, now's your chance. Take a picnic if you like: even when the diggers arrive, you'll still have a year of embankment settling time before the delivery trucks can finally reach the motorway.

Comments

Fraser 22 March 2022

Seems to me that South Glos Council should be paying interest on the £50 million spent by Highways England on this moribund junction.

UK roads and c… 22 March 2022

I love the fact that the M49 has a junction but I hate the fact that no one is taking responsibility to finish and open the junction, I made a video about the M49 but it has yet to be released on YouTube

Esteban 25 March 2022

Is there any good reason that the M5 stub at junction 18 is not labelled/signed as the M49. It would avoid the slight anomaly of the stub, and provide the M49 with a more conventional terminus.

Nick Gregg 26 March 2022

Reminds me of the ghost junction on the M1 at J45 near Leeds - that had bin bags on the matrix signs and concrete barriers at the junction for years until the A63 East Leeds Link Road opened.

Damian 28 March 2022

There are also a couple of unused bridges further south on the M49 (or there were a few years ago)

The M96 is in the motorway database here, but you might need to be a little clever to find it

lukys 28 March 2022

Now you know how cyclists feel when cycle lanes just end.

Larry 28 March 2022

So how come you can look at the M49 on google maps and see traffic on it?

Looks like there actually is a van on the junction, on the South Eastern curve.

There is, but stopped sideways across the roadway, so it's a works vehicle - it's certainly not traffic.

Leif 28 March 2022

Why are the ramps blocked off? Wouldn't it be nice to just have it as a place to turn around if you entered the M49 by mistakes?
It could probably save a few km for emergency vehicles so they didn't have to go to the end to go back.

Because it'd be camped on by travellers or used as a drifting ring by youths.

Cloggy 30 March 2022

https://www.roads.org.uk/sites/default/files/blog/2022/ghost-junction/n…
I love the way they have wired the embankment, but how much natural resources have they used to do this? Isn't it about time we crushed plastic into tightly compressed bales, and hid them underneath all of this? Why are we still using rock cages, when we could bury our rubbish under a motorway construction, and help save some of our natural resources, after all, they say that the plastics last forever!

Granted its better to do as you suggest than to put them in traditional landfill, or let them end up somewhere littering the environment, but ultimately we shouldn't ever be "disposing" of plastic, we should always strive to re-use or recycle it if we can. Every bale of compressed plastic you bury under a motorway slip road is a bale of plastic that inevitably has to be recreated from raw materials, which is much worse for the environment than melting down that bale of plastic for recycling purposes, and further depletes our already increasingly scarce oil reserves.

A better candidate to 'hide' under a motorway slip road would be something like crushed reinforced concrete from a demolition project: essentially un-recyclable, and extremely energy intensive and expensive to properly dispose of, but actually makes a very good foundation...

Needless to say, there's all sorts of rules concerning materials used for foundations and it wasn't that long ago that the UK signed up to a much stricter EU doctrine because they weren't happy with us using the wrong size of crushed concrete, even!
Therefore I imagine that apart from the environmental consequences mentioned here in another comment, the powers that be would have kittens if bundles of squashed plastic bottles were suggested. No matter how tightly baled they'd been, there'd just be too much movement over time/ingress of rainwater/rodents which would lead to the up-to 44 tonne lorries ripping up the tarmac road surface above.
Not a valid ”reduce, RE-USE, recycle" option I'm afraid.

Terry Trumpets 2 April 2022

For an historical precedent, see M1 junction 33. It was built in the mid-60s but didn't connect to anything until 1976, when the Sheffield Parkway was extended to meet it, and the Rother Way was added in 1977.

It's a excellent example of cooperation between local councils and the ministry - not least because the northernmost part of the Sheffield Parkway lies in Rotherham MBC. I can't imagine a similar kind of agreement happening these days.

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Published22 March 2022

Last updated22 March 2022