What goes up must come down

Published: 19 September 2019

Nothing lasts forever, but a temporary thing made permanent can last longer than you think. This week, after 43 years, the "temporary" Army and Navy flyover has been given its marching orders.

Spanning the Army and Navy Roundabout on the east side of Chelmsford in Essex, you'll find the flyover of the same name - if you're quick, that is. It links the A1114 Essex Yeomanry Way to the A1060 Parkway, a connection designed to let traffic heading in and out of the city centre to avoid the busy roundabout.

The Army and Navy Flyover, as narrow and lightweight as flyovers get. Click to enlarge

The Army and Navy Flyover, as narrow and lightweight as flyovers get. Click to enlarge

Flyover closed. Click to enlarge
Flyover closed. Click to enlarge

It was notable - famous, even - because it's a single lane flyover, decidedly spindly in appearance, operating a tidal flow system to carry cars and other light vehicles into Chelmsford in the morning and out in the evening.

It was built in 1976 as a temporary solution to traffic congestion at the Army and Navy Roundabout, when that roundabout was on the A12. It lifted commuter traffic up and over the busy trunk road, helping to shift more traffic on the bypass. A more permanent solution for the junction - as part of the A12 being dualled and upgraded - was supposed to follow.

The A12's upgrade eventually arrived in completely different form, with the construction of a whole new bypass around the south and east of the city in the mid-1980s. The trunk road had gone, and with it any prospect of a major upgrade. The temporary flyover became permanent.

This year, the Army and Navy flyover turns 43 years old - not bad for a temporary structure, but it was never designed to last this long. Indeed, it might have had the name "Army and Navy", but it was always more Dad's Army in style.

They don't like it up 'em

The trouble is that, at 43, the flyover is only fit for retirement. (It's doing quite well when you compare it with its peers, though: the footballer Ronaldo is 43 and he retired back in 2011.) Major repair work was carried out in September 2018 in the hope of rescuing it, involving a month-long closure of the structure, but this year's hot summer seems to have finished it off. As a bridge designed only to last a few years, no amount of maintenance will keep it standing forever.

In July this year the flyover was closed to traffic when heat-related expansion of the metalwork was found to have caused significant and dangerous amounts of movement. A detailed engineering appraisal has now concluded that, as well as the movement, its concrete foundations are also defective.

The flyover is no longer safe to use and can't be fixed. On Monday it was announced that it would not re-open and will instead be demolished.

Behind bars: temporary fencing now surrounds the flyover, presumably as a safety measure. Click to enlarge

Behind bars: temporary fencing now surrounds the flyover, presumably as a safety measure. Click to enlarge

Today, while Essex County Council make arrangements for its demolition, the Army and Navy flyover is living out its final weeks as a sort of bizarre sculpture, fenced off from every possible angle and free of any purpose.

We're doomed

If you're watching the reaction from the County Council, you could be forgiven for thinking that the demise of this little single-lane bridge marks the end of civilisation as we know it.

"This is an emergency situation," according to the council's deputy leader Cllr Kevin Bentley, "and I would ask for patience and understanding during this challenging time." He has also bravely pledged that he will "not place any Essex resident in danger". If you listen carefully you can hear his superhero cape rippling in the breeze.

Meanwhile, plans to deal with the roundabout itself, and the traffic congestion resulting from the closure of the flyover, are already in hand with the thrillingly-named Army and Navy Taskforce. That sounds like a special ops brigade of elite soldiers and marines, the sort of people who enter a room by dropping through the ceiling on a wire like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible. Sadly it's actually a joint working group involving the council, a firm of consulting engineers, local residents and the city's MP who have spent the last year holding meetings to talk about how bad the traffic is.

Keeping traffic off the flyover pushes it onto the roundabout below. Click to enlarge

Keeping traffic off the flyover pushes it onto the roundabout below. Click to enlarge

Hyperbole aside, though - and there has been plenty of it - the closure of the flyover does present some problems. 60,000 vehicles pass through the Army and Navy Roundabout each day, and a further 10,000 used to bypass it by sailing over the top. 10,000 more vehicle movements have just been dumped on a small signalised roundabout that Essex County Council consider to already be running at capacity. The Taskforce need to think carefully about how to replace the existing junction.

Do you think that's wise, sir?

One thing Chelmsford is unlikely to get is a new flyover. The existing one serves cars and other light vehicles moving in and out of the city centre - in other words, it overwhelmingly serves commuters who drive to work. And Chelmsford has a problem with driving to work.

Cars everywhere. Is it a problem? Click to enlarge
Cars everywhere. Is it a problem? Click to enlarge

As cities go, Chelmsford is not huge; just over 100,000 people live in the city and the urban area is only about four miles across whichever way you measure it. But within that very compact area, half of all journeys to work are trips less than 5 km (3 miles) in length that are made in private cars. That's not just inefficient (though it is plainly inefficient): it's also rather a stark failure of planning and transport policy. Most people of working age should not need a car to travel three miles, so why is everyone driving?

The two simple answers are that driving is easy and the alternatives are rubbish. And the Army and Navy junction is the very embodiment of those problems.

  • The fast-moving multi-lane roundabout is intimidating even in a car, let alone on a bicycle or on foot.
  • There are no cycling facilities, even though cycle tracks approach the junction from the north and west.
  • Pedestrians are catered for by a low-ceilinged and uninviting subway beneath the road where bicycles are prohibited.
  • Meanwhile, over the top of the junction is a flyover specifically designed to shuttle traffic between a 70mph radial route and the town centre car parks.

The result? Driving in to Chelmsford is easy. Getting in by any other means is difficult.

Into the darkness: this pedestrian subway can't help feeling a bit claustrophobic. Click to enlarge

Into the darkness: this pedestrian subway can't help feeling a bit claustrophobic. Click to enlarge

The Army and Navy Taskforce (no, I still can't keep a straight face) are now considering how to provide a junction at this site that will reconnect the suburbs to the town centre for those not driving, accommodate the traffic displaced from the flyover and keep buses moving to and from the park and ride site at Great Baddow. It shouldn't be impossible, but it will take some careful design work. The greatest difficulty will be convincing those - and there will be many - who want the junction kept just how it is, flyover and all.

Be under no illusion, however, that there will be any like-for-like replacement. The days of car-only flyovers for the benefit of commuter traffic are over, as are the days of temporary flyovers of any kind, and the Department for Transport's funding offer for this junction is dependent on the new layout promoting a shift away from private car commuting and towards active travel.

But as much as Chelmsford needs to shake off its alarming driving habit, there’s something a bit sad about the demise of another stubbornly permanent temporary flyover. They're a strange little corner of motoring history, and we’ve lost quite a few in recent years.

Don't panic

The temporary flyover was first suggested in 1960, when the fabulously-named Major ER Strologo wrote to the Ministry of Transport inviting them purchase his invention, a re-usable temporary flyover he called the Carbridge. The first of them was installed, from a kit of standardised parts, at Camp Hill in Birmingham.

The famous Camp Hill Flyover took just 36 hours to build and was meant to be in situ for about ten years, but stood until the late 1980s. Like all the other temporary flyovers that followed, it turned out not to be temporary, and was far too old to dismantle and re-use when it was finally retired.

Others that followed included the Hogarth Flyover in West London - still there now, and the subject of a Roads.org.uk photo gallery. In East London, you can still visit and drive over the A13 Ripple Road and A127 Gallows Corner flyovers. All three were supposed to be swept away in favour of bigger junction improvements long ago, but are still going strong.

One of a dying breed. Click to enlarge

One of a dying breed. Click to enlarge

Gone by the wayside are others: one at Deansgate in Manchester; one at Lenton in Nottingham; the Temple Meads flyover in Bristol. The Army and Navy is about to join that list - temporary flyovers whose temporary nature has finally caught up with them.

Farewell, Army and Navy flyover. You did Chelmsford proud for 43 years. And don't worry, Chelmsford; you'll cope just fine without it. It's nothing a crack Army and Navy Taskforce can't fix. I expect they're going to parachute in any moment now.

Comments

Christopher 20 September 2019

Shouldn't the 'Add a new comment' form be retitled "Permission to speak, sir?" on this page, to keep in with the Dad's Army theme? ;-)

Jon Waters 20 September 2019

It will be interesting what they do for a replacement as there is no room thanks to selling land to aldi and travelodge, plus there is a high pressure gas main running through the middle of it. DFT have provided funnding from £10-40 million to do whats necessary

Roads & Maps 22 September 2019

When I first moved to the UK on a 2-year working holiday in 2014, this was one of the 2 most exciting experiences I had exploring the UK road network (the other being Rotherhithe Tunnel). I remember expecting a grade separation that was probably late 80s and hadn't time to grasp the gravity of the under(over?)taking as I rumbled up the ramp and barely kept my 70s Transit camper from scraping the guard rails! It was just like I was driving an old rollercoaster to the death and I felt just as brave as Cr Bentley as I stole glimpses at the contra-flow infrastructure as I came careering down the other side! It was very exhilarating for a 21y.o. Australian, fresh off the boat.

And so your 'bizarre sculpture' comment resonates with me: I think it should stay as a memorial of sorts. Perhaps with the removal of the ramps, the elevated sections could remain for posterity?

Fraser Mitchell 22 September 2019

All that will no happen is that the centre of Chelmsford will slowly die. There will not be any public transport improvements at all, and a lot of people cannot cycle. I look at videos of tramway cab rides in Holland on YouTube, and yes, you see a lot of people riding bikes, (its as flat as a pancake there, of course), but the lavishly engineered tram network is there, so no need to use a car. We have spent every decade since WW2 getting rid of public transport.

Charies 11 October 2019

I guess the Hogarth flyover is still going strong - this reminds me of that.

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