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 Roads.org.uk. 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.

Comments

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.

The section of A405 between Hunton Bridge and Maple Cross was definitely all purpose at the time of opening as I cycled along the hard shoulder and there were no restriction signs at the entry point in Hunton Bridge. The traffic volumes were quite light then, so the enterprise was not quite as mad as it would appear now.

Although not evidence as such, the AA maps in the handbook at the time had "all purpose road to be redesignated as M25" or something similar as an annotation.

I always assumed that this part of the North Orbital was built with motorway designation in mind as the road standard was much higher than the rest of the North Orbital and the then terminal junction at Maple Cross was built as slip roads down to the large roundabout with the mainline clearly pointing on towards Denham.

That is certainly right at the Maple Cross end. At the Hunton Bridge end, the original layout did not include any provision for what is now J19. At this point they didn’t know how they were going to extend things further east.
It definitely had green signs from opening in (?) 1976. I used it a lot from Reading to the A1. Very little traffic!

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.

Mark Schueler 21 January 2020

I am going to write to my MP, Tom Hunt, to state the case that this road should be given the (M) designation as soon as possible. What benefits to Motorway regulations should I state in the letter to properly make the case?

Other people will have their own views, but some good arguments for motorway status would be the higher vehicle class limits for vans and coaches, which will save time on a lot of journeys, most significantly for commercial vehicles; the much clearer rules that apply, rather than the very complex signs at entry points now that will cause a lot of confusion; the preference that route planning software often gives to a "higher" class of road; and the clearer indication on maps of the quality of the route and the restrictions that apply to it - not just useful for drivers but it also signals the quality of the new infrastructure to potential investors.

Hi both - this was my list:

  • Light goods vehicles are restricted to a slower speed on non-motorways when compared to special roads. This causes goods to move less efficiently, and creates an additional speed differential
  • HGVs may use the outer lane on non-motorways - which may lead to them overtaking three abreast - again, this creates a speed differential and could cause additional driver frustration, with the HGV in the outer lane being restricted to 90kmh under current legislation, while at the same time cars are permitted to travel at 112kmh
  • Learner drivers will be permitted to travel on the new route without professional instructor accompaniment, while at the same time they will be able to drive on the new road without a dual control car. Clearly, the amendments to allow them on motorways did so with the safety of other road users in mind in such high traffic busy situations
  • Road signage on "A" roads uses different fonts and spacing to motorways. Motorway signage uses the Motorway Permanent font to allow directions and numbers to be read clearly at motorway speeds. The new permanent signage that has been erected travelling eastbound to Brampton Hut, however, is confused and cluttered, and it is less easy to discern the correct lane approaching the interchange as a result of this
  • It is my understanding that special roads provide exemption from the application of local charging schemes based on vehicle emissions under the road traffic act (Note that in Scotland this has been made explicit in the Transport Scotland Act 2019). It is proper that such a strategic route is protected from attempts by local councils to create low emission zones - any such charging on strategic routes must come from national government as part of a unified charging scheme, if there is appetite to enact them and not as separate local schemes
  • It is not permitted to bury utilities in the road for special roads - while there is no suggestion that there are presently utilities in place in the road, it is difficult to put planning restrictions into place to avoid any utilities companies applying to do so in future
  • Different protections are in place alongside motorways to prevent future low-standard applications for additional site accesses that may attempt to gain planning along on the route.
  • A complex array of signs has been required at entrances to the new section to prohibit a similar range of traffic that is prohibited on motorway roads; and there are ambiguities particularly at the maintenance entrances, which may allow prohibited users (such as horses and pedestrians) onto the road as the restrictions applied are not comprehensive

Finally, in route planning and navigation terms, here's technically no difference on a map or satellite navigation between this new road and the very substandard A505 between Royston and Baldock, both being marked as primary Class I dual carriageway roads. A motorway designation would facilitate better routing of traffic, after all, to all intents and purposes this road is a de-facto motorway, and traffic should be encouraged to use it rather than less suitable alternative routes. A blue line on the map is also important in showing that the region is open for business and investment, and this new route would connect an existing isolated piece of motorway (the A1(M) from Huntingdon to Peterborough) to the main motorway network.

In light of all of the above, and on the grounds of common sense, I would ask that the motorway designation is re-considered and that an application is made again - given that you will need to put through a statutory instrument to allow the imposition of variable speed limits in any case, it does not seem that it would take additional time to put through legislation to class the new road as a special road.

It should be noted that a response I received was that the cost of changing all the green signs is "not insignificant".

Cheers
Chris

Mark Cleave 24 January 2020

Thanks, a useful commentary and easy for me to understand. I once worked with a traffic engineer involved with the A55 around the headland at Llanddulas and tried to understand his interpretation of the Special Road status that road apparently has. Its gateway signs are the massive horse and cart patches etc on green signs, and bilingual as well! He suggested it wasn't a motorway as the slip roads were too short due to the congested corridor. It'll need a few more readings though before I feel confident spouting the differences when talking to friends in the pub!!

Matt Pryce 26 January 2020

What does the new A14 mean for the stretch of A14(M) from the A14 Spur to the A1(M)? Will it be renumbered or downgraded?

It’s just a spur of the A1(M) now. But I guess you could call it the A1307(M) if you really want. I sent HE an email regarding this and they told me the latter it is definitely A1(M). Google maps just calls it the A1307 but it should be A1(M).

Chaz429 6 February 2020

I drove this road for the first time the other day and I can't help but be a little disappointed. You can see in the photo with the cyclists that although there is enough room under the bridges for a hard shoulder, the barriers and signs have been placed right against the nearside verge and there is no nearside strip at all. If you breakdown here, you will be forced to stop in the live lane. The River Ouse viaduct is only just wide enough for 3 lanes so when (not if!) the road needs a 4th lane, huge disruption and cost will be incurred.
Highways England say this road is 'best in class'. Does this mean that all future motorways will be built with no hard shoulders?

Yes, under the current policy, that is correct. Highways England no longer build hard shoulders on any type of road.

JANAK 12 February 2020

A14 from Catthrope Interchange to Felixstowe should be known as A14 (M) motorway not as normal Green A Road and all signed on A14 should be Blue

Even if one accepts that proposition (whereof I'm not convinced) it couldn't be done without first redesigning/rebuilding the B660 junction (Catworth/Molesworth). The sliproads are far too short and tight to meet current motorway design standards.

As well as the B660, I forgot to mention the at-grade staggered junction with the B663 (to Keyston and Bythorn respectively) plus the unclassified road to Titchmarsh. Your suggestion cannot fly until there is grade separation at these locations.

Yes. And not forgetting; B669 (J4), Woodland Hospital (J6), A509 possibly (J9), A510 poss (J11), A6166 (J12), Cambridge Lane, Staunch Hill, Spaldwick, Woolley Hill (Easton), Ellington poss (J20), J30, J37 poss, J45, J47 poss.

Howard 21 March 2020

Travelling Northbound on the A1 at Brampton a week ago March 14th large temporary signs have appeared with a large number of prohibited categories 8 I think. Does this mean the scheme will be designated a motorway later or is this just a stand in for a permanent sign?

That’s just a temporary version of the sign that will eventually be installed, showing the restrictions put in place on the A14 instead of motorway regulations. Similar permanent signs are already up at most entry points to the new road. 

Ironworks11 28 July 2020

Is there any difference between motorways and A roads in respect of CCTV monitoring and gantry sign requirements to deal with stationary vehicles in live lanes where there is no hard shoulder?

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