The end of the A601(M)

Published on 15 March 2023

One of the UK’s strangest little motorways, the A601(M) in Lancashire, has just been downgraded into oblivion.

All the most delightful oddities get straightened out eventually. You could argue that the UK road network had few motorways stranger than the A601(M) - it was, for example, the subject of our first Imperfectly Odd article a few years ago - so perhaps it was inevitable that it couldn’t last forever.

The short version of its history is that it was built as the M6 Lancaster Bypass, making it part of the fourth oldest motorway in the UK. It then got a single-carriageway extension, making it one of the few single-carriageway motorways and also one of the few to be disrupted by a roundabout part way along. Its number was shared with the A601 Derby Inner Ring Road, a bizarre choice (or an unwitting duplication) for which there was never any explanation. And its eastern terminus was a T-junction where the motorway gave way to a B-road.

The A601(M) at the height of its glory, 1987 to 2020
The A601(M) at the height of its glory, 1987 to 2020

Back in 2020, Lancashire County Council, who are responsible for the road, redesignated the single carriageway section as a new B-road, the B6601, removing at a stroke several of its most striking anomalies. This was so that some new commercial premises could be built using the road as their main access.

The writing has been on the wall for the remaining bit of A601(M) for a long time now - there has been talk for years of building a junction part-way along it to service more new commercial development at the northern end of Carnforth. That project seems to have faltered, but the council is still keen to downgrade the road in order to reduce its ongoing maintenance costs.

Carnforth Interchange, and the A601(M)'s midway roundabout, seen from the M6. Click to enlarge
Carnforth Interchange, and the A601(M)'s midway roundabout, seen from the M6. Click to enlarge

In July 2020, a plan was announced that would include demolition of Higher North Road bridge, which carries a minor road over the motorway. It would have been replaced with a signalised junction. The idea was that the cost of demolishing it, and rebuilding the site as a flat crossroads, would be cheaper than the total cost of maintaining the ageing structure over the next 30 years.

In January this year there was a change of heart, not through nostalgia for the strange little motorway (that would have been our reason for a rethink, of course, but then we’re not paying to maintain it), but because the bridge carries a high pressure gas main and re-siting the pipe would have been far more costly than first imagined. As a result the calculation has now tipped in favour of keeping the bridge, with maintenance costs over the next 30 years expected to be cheaper overall than demolishing it and installing a new crossroads.

The downgrade is still happening, though, with the Department for Transport providing £9.2m of funding for the necessary alterations. Lancashire County Council propose to dig up and grass over the hard shoulders, reducing the total carriageway width (and the volume of waste water run-off it produces, and the amount of surface to be maintained), and also plan to introduce a new 50mph speed limit, which should reduce wear on the road and permit a less strict maintenance routine.

Start of motorway, two-way traffic: the oddball motorway as it once was. Click to enlarge
Start of motorway, two-way traffic: the oddball motorway as it once was. Click to enlarge

Ahead of those physical works, the status of the road has to be changed, and that has now happened. SABRE member Solocle spotted the publication of the legal notice in the Gazette, which is the official record of such things: the Lancashire County Council (A601(M) Partial Revocation) Scheme 2022 came into effect on 23 February, from which date the A601(M) ceased to exist.

In its place is now a length of ex-motorway dual carriageway, which has been classified as a short extension of the existing A6070, and a short length of ex-motorway single carriageway, downgraded a couple of years ago, which remains B6601. The signs on the ground have yet to be changed, so for the time being it still looks much as it did, but over the coming months the road will start to look progressively less and less like a motorway.

See you later, A601(M). All the most delightful oddities get straightened out eventually, and you really were one of the oddest.

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IAN SMITH 15 March 2023

Another motorway has gone! Together with the probable downgrading of the A1077 (M) and M32 at some point, coupled with the fact that no new motorways will be built in the foreseeable future, the amount of motorway miles will actually reduce in the UK for years ahead. What a sorry state of affairs!

Sad thing is, all these oddities are nothing but an inconvenience to everybody but road enthusiasts

Richard 16 March 2023

Its down to the fact that Motorway has become a dirty word. The public(who lets face it can be very fickle) have fallen out of love with Motorways, just like sixty years ago they had fallen out of love with the railways. And as Jim Hacker famously said "I am their leader and I must follow them", which sums up our politicians who are responsible for our transport infrastructure!

Craig Evans 16 March 2023

Rest In Peace, A601(M)... Gone but not forgotten! I hope our remaining little single-carriageway motorways at Orrell (off M6 J26) and Walton Summit (off M61 J9/M65 J2) remain.

The Orrell Spur is doomed the second the Wigan link road is built, which leaves just the Walton Summit Motorway.

Oh, I didn't know about this! Interesting, the plans for this new link road looks remarkably like a dusted off version of the original M58 extension plan, minus the Orrell Interchange flyover and with some extra roundabouts here and there, at least up to Wigan (obviously the extension of the M58 past Wigan is not included in this plan).

Whilst I suppose its always nice when an old plan is completed in spirit, it always seems a shame to me when they water down the plan so much. At the very least I feel like they could have included the M58 flyover, since the whole rest of the junction is already laid out for it, but I suppose that without the M58 going beyond Wigan the traffic forecasts probably don't justify the expense...

Richard Cook 17 March 2023

Another Motorway downgraded M10 motorway.

I spent the first 11 years of my life in St Albans so the M10 was in fact the first Motorway I ever travelled on.

Adam 26 March 2023

I realise this now raises the theoretical possibility of cycling along this route, assuming the end of motorway regulations is on the slip roads off the M6. Whether it's safe to actually do so is another matter.

The roundabout over the M6 was already downgraded, so yes the whole route is now cyclable in theory - assuming, of course, that a TRO hasn't been applied to keep them off.

A TRO has been applied to it - there's prohibition signs on the single carriageway bit and a new cycle track was built to connect to the Porsche dealers.

While that is clearly appropriate and a good move for active travel provision, one wonders how many customers for the Porsche dealership will ever turn up on a bicycle!

Drew 28 March 2023

The now A6070 (formerly A601(M)) is likely to return to a similar condition to when it was originally built, with 'soft' shoulders and concrete hard strips (at least in part). As I understand it, the central reserve hedges (a James Drake design concept that dates back to the time of construction) will be kept, which will mean it will end up being the only unmolested stretch of early motorway in the country, albeit with a 50mph speed limit. The article above is incorrect in one aspect - the junction mooted for the proposed development hasn't been shelved; the development itself is awaiting a planning decision and obviously no work will be undertaken on the highway until planning consent is confirmed.

Regarding the comments about cycling - the B6601 has TROs in place (which are signed at the Kellet Road end) to ban non-motorised users from the route. Due to the lack of width available on the bridge decks over the Lancaster Canal and the River Keer at either end of the former A601(M), I suspect that this order may be extended to cover the dual carriageway section as well.

Robert Gourley 24 April 2023

I sort of understand why the route has been downgraded from motorway since it's a comparatively low standard for a motorway and also because it would still serve as a through route to non-motorway traffic (from the sound of it, it may have a TRO in place banning non-motorised traffic although this likely still allows learners and invalid carriages on it). At the same time, I'm not entirely sure why removing the hard shoulder should be a priority. I know that in the case of the Republic of Ireland, hard shoulders are found on the majority of newer non-motorway main roads and I feel in the case of the UK that they should be kept where they already exist.

I also thought that I should share a link to a YouTube video I found showing the "sharp bend" sign at the north end of the Lancaster Bypass (where J35 is today) prior to the M6 being extended northwards:

I'm yet to see any on-the-ground pictures of how the temporary bend looked, but I do recall finding an old aerial image from the 1960s, with the bend and narrowing of the central reservation being pretty noticeable as though they clearly intended it to be a temporary design.

The removal of the hard shoulder will likely be a necessity for two reasons - firstly to prevent parking taking place on it (you can put all the restrictions in that you like, but who's going to enforce it, especially at night? HGV drivers could use it as a free alternative to Truckhaven, like they do with the existing lay-bys on the A6 just to the north, which are always full at night) and secondly to allow signs and barriers to be installed - the trees that line the route have encroached almost to the kerbline in recent years. The hard shoulder was obviously a later addition, dating from the time of the construction of the Broughton - Hampson Green Special Road, and as a result there is no level verge in a number of locations, with cutting or embankment starting immediately behind the kerb. Removing the hard shoulder will allow the road to be brought closer to D2AP standard, and have signs installed clear of the existing tree line without clearing huge swathes of trees.

As you say, 1960s aerial images of the route are available - anyone interested can find them on Lancashire County Council's 'Mario' map site (…), selecting 'Heritage Maps and Aerials' from the 'Map Categories' menu to the top right and choosing '1960s Aerial Photographs'. You can clearly see the changes in alignment and cross section, along with a long lost footbridge.

There are some interesting photos in the opening booklet for the 'Lancaster to North of Carnforth Special Road (Lancaster By-pass)', which show the bend, the route under construction and a number of the bridges. I can't find it online but copies exist at the Lancashire Archives.

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County Surveyor and Bridgemaster for Lancashire in the 1950s and 60s, Drake was instrumental in the motorway revolution.

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