October 24 2014 Latest news:
Monday, August 11, 2014
They cost nearly £1 million each – but the electronic road signs on the A14 in Suffolk are only in operation less than 10% of the time, an investigation by this newspaper has shown.
The 72 signs were installed along the road between Felixstowe and Catthorpe in Leicestershire at a cost of £70 million as part of the previous government’s attempts to stimulate the economy between 2008 and 2010.
We submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Highways Agency asking how many times the signs had been activated to inform drivers of hazards and problems on the road rather than just telling them how far they were from a certain location.
In reply we were sent details of every time every sign was switched on and off by the Highways’ Agency or its contractors – a total of 1.6 million lines of data!
However we focussed on one sign on the westbound A14 between the Copdock Mill and Sproughton junctions during a six-month period between April and October last year.
Over a period of 195 days it was switched on for 430 hours an 25 minutes. That is an average of two hours and 12 minutes a day.
Its use varied from being switched on for less than five minutes to warn drivers of a short-lived queue ahead to being on for up to eight hours to warn drivers that a section of a road ahead was closed for planned overnight repair work.
There were a significant number of occasions when the sign was switched on to give early warning of congestion on the section of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon – the section of the road that is due to be replaced by a new £1.5 billion road within the next few years.
The signs are managed by the Highways Agency and its contractors who put up the messages as issues happen on the roads.
The system was well on the way to completion by the time the coalition came to power in 2010 – but Suffolk MPs Ben Gummer and Dr Therese Coffey have not yet learned to love it,
Mr Gummer said; “I felt it was a waste of money at the time, and I still think it is a waste of money. It was part of the Labour government’s stimulus – but it could have been far better spent.
“I use the A14 all the time and I don’t think I’ve ever used the signs. Most drivers have a GPS SatNav in their vehicles or listen to traffic news – this was totally unnecessary.”
He accepted that now the signs are erected they should be used – but said they remained a monument to the folly of the previous government.
Dr Coffey said: “The signs were really put up to help the lorries going to or from Felixstowe, but they all have GPS installed to tell them what the situation is on the roads.
“I am sure that Suffolk motorists could think of far better ways that £70 million could be spent on the county’s road network.”
A spokeswoman for the Highways Agency said: “Variable message signs (VMS) are just one of the tools we use to give information to road users.
“They allow us to give messages to motorists directly affected by an incident and to advise of incidents further away – so that road users can make journey choices in plenty of time.
“We combine this with information in broadcast media, our website and social media to give as much information as we can.
“We carried out some research in 2013-14. 63% of respondents found them accurate and the most important message type was warnings of accidents ahead. Also ranked highly by respondents were warnings of queues and warnings of delays ahead.”
The minister responsible for putting up the signs was former Ipswich MP Chris Mole when he was at the Department for Transport.
He still backs the decision: “As an ordinary road user, I find it very useful to know when there is trouble ahead. It’s all very well to say the money could have been better spend, but what else would they want it to have gone on?
“The decisions we made at the Department of Transport are still be implemented – like the hard-shoulder running on the M25.” he said.