Dealing with daily congestion

It's Suffolk's lifeline to the Midlands and beyond. Yet the A14 is also a source of major frustration, blighted by blockages and delays. Today in the first of a two-part series, MICHAEL HUGHES talks to people whose working lives revolve around this artery that weaves its way across the county, from Felixstowe to Newmarket.

It's Suffolk's lifeline to the Midlands and beyond. Yet the A14 is also a source of major frustration, blighted by blockages and delays.

Today in the first of a two-part series, MICHAEL HUGHES talks to people whose working lives revolve around this artery that weaves its way across the county, from Felixstowe to Newmarket.

A Highway Agency manager's view

MOTORISTS on the A14 may feel they face more than their fair share of hold ups and delays, given the on-going press coverage.

Yet they only need look to the M25 and M1 to realise how well off we are here in Suffolk, by comparison.

Of course, being employed by the Highways Agency, Bob Kent couldn't possible comment. Yet he spent 28 of his 32 years with Hertfordshire police in the road traffic department and so has seen it all.

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He agrees, however, that when lanes on the A14 do have to be coned off, the ensuing mayhem is no picnic for road users. So the fact that it doesn't happen in Suffolk as often as in other parts of the south east is little consolation for anyone stuck in queues of stationary traffic.

Bob said: “Like everyone involved in these incidents, we just want to get the road open and the traffic moving - and get off for a cup of coffee.”

Normally, when there is an incident on the A14 - a breakdown or a serious collision - the police will first assess the situation and call on the Highways Agency's incident support unit to cone off the lane or lanes, put up warning signs and lights and, where necessary, diversion signs.

Apart from Bob as manager, the unit includes 12 cone rangers, working in pairs. They include Ron Adamson, Paul Hook, Carl Dipper, Richard Warren, Ricky Mills, Nick Sims, Kevin Atkins, Raj Jadhav, Dan Parsons, Andy Younger, Paul Tabrar and John Hugman.

The men will also clear away debris, help clean up after an incident and report any damage to the road surface, crash barriers or bridges to HQ. They can also call in additional response vehicles, such as road sweepers and gritters, when required.

The Suffolk unit, based at the Highways Agency's depot at Little Blakenham, on part of the former Blue Circle cement site, includes two Ford transit vans, one patrolling the A12 and the other the A14.

Bob reckons that each fully equipped van costs in excess of £30,000 on the road and, apart from the necessary stacks of cones, each carries up to 28 different signs to deal with all possibilities - road closure, diversion, directional, slow signs and so on.

“You can't possible carry all that in the back of a police car.”

Suffolk is also the first county in the country to have CCTV cameras fitted to the roof of its vans, which allows the engineers at the control centre to monitor any damage to the carriage way or the surrounding area.

“Previously, pictures had to be taken and reports of damage made over the phone,” explains Bob.

“Now the engineers can control the CCTV cameras from their offices and see for themselves exactly what is involved.”

“Between April and the end of December 2007, there have been 700 callouts on the A14 - that's an average of three a day - and not including the potentially dangerous situations the guys deal with in the normal course of their working week,” says Bob, who also acts as the Highways Agency's police liaison officer.

“Serving policemen seem to get on with better ex-policemen than they do with contractors, for some reason,” he adds.

On their regular patrols the teams will stop and deal with any problems they come across along they way. These may be seem minor in themselves, but often have potentially catastrophic consequences for road users - dead animals, items off car roof racks and debris from passing transporters - tarpaulins, bits of class fibre roofing and the metal foot off the leg of an HGV trailer were among recent encounters. Even litter can pose problems.

They will fill in pot holes and report back to area control when they come across any damage, such as that to signage, cat's eyes or the white lines. The vans also carry snow shovels which, apart from their intended use, are also used for clearing stones off the carriageways, especially where lorries have ploughed off the outside lane into the stone-filled drains alongside, strewing the contents along the road.

“The guys are very pro-active and they are very well-trained, as they have to deal with whatever situation they find themselves in - traffic management, road safety, first aid, fire precautions,” says Bob.

“The job is not far from being a road traffic officer - although they don't have to do the paper work or arrest people.”

A trucker's view

LETTERS in the press complaining about the apparent attitude of lorry drivers to other road users really get up Steven Battle's nose.

The main thrust of the argument seems to be that they haven't a clue about what it is like to be behind the wheel of a car. If they did, then our roads might be that much safer.

In truth, the boot is probably on the other foot - lorry drivers undertake a great deal of training and are constantly updating their qualifications.

“All lorry drivers are also car drivers and a high proportion of them ride motorcycles, too,” says Steven.

“We know it from both sides. Yet few car drivers drive lorries.”

Steven works out of Felixstowe, from the H&P Freightways depot on the dock, carrying out seven to ten delivers a week across the UK.

He drives an articulated lorry pulling bulk liquid containers of hazardous chemicals, which makes him a bit special, as some of his loads fall into the “high consequence” category.

This means that his lorry could be a potential terrorist target and, if stopped on the road by anyone at all, even the police, he must remain firmly locked into his cab, until he has verified their ID.

“If there is anything the least bit suspicious, I stay put.”

Steven gets pulled in by the police on a regular basis, usually about once a month. They check tyres, brakes, lights, fire-fighting and first aid equipment, and they might even quiz him on the rules and regulations surrounding the transportation of hazardous chemicals.

Not that he minds. It goes with the territory.

But you can understand why he is irritated by that small but vociferous group of complaining car drivers.

“If they knew anything about lorries, they wouldn't cut in front of us from the fast lane to a slip road - the Copdock interchange and the Lowestoft turn-off are notorious - when they have misjudged the distance, or left it too late to do so in reasonable safety.

“They don't seem to realise that you can't just slam on the brakes of a 44-tonne lorry, especially if the road is wet.”

Yet Steven agrees that there are a number of problems with the A14 that need addressing - although he reckons it is no better or no worse than any other A-road in the country.

It does, however, carry a high proportion of HGVs (an estimated 3,000 a day), being the main access road to Felixstowe Docks.

“Little has been done to improve the A14 to meet the increased demands on its use.”

He suggests lengthening slip roads and introducing variable speed limits at peak times.

“If everyone was travelling at the same speed at peak times, the traffic would keep moving without the problems of some going faster than others. It works elsewhere in the country, especially on the M25.”

“When there is a crash, it tends to mess up the whole area, because there are few alternative routes.

“Norwich has a ring road; Ipswich doesn't and it is impossible to re-route traffic from the A14 through the town.”

Then there is the nightmare of “stacking” which is something the residents of Felixstowe know all about. This occurs when high winds at sea close the port, the dock gates are locked, and the lorry traffic grinds to a halt, stacking up on the A14 and blocking access to the town.

For Steven this can be particularly frustrating, as on occasions he is prevented from driving the last few miles to the H&P Freightways depot on the dock, because it is wrongly assumed that all HGVs are heading for the ferries.

Still, he believes that a little more patience and understanding among fellow A14 suffers wouldn't go amiss.

A14 capacity

The A14's maximum capacity is about 2,000 vehicles per hour per lane - 4,000 per hour per carriageway. At present it is between 2,750 and 3,200 vehicles on the Orwell bridge per carriageway at peak times.

Highways chiefs say traffic flows over approximately 1,800 vehicles per hour per lane would be unstable and would be liable to random queuing. Such a situation happens on many major roads, including the A14 around Cambridge.

The figures refer to peak times and there would be quieter periods, too. About 30,000 vehicles a day use the A14 around Ipswich at present.

Highways experts say the extra traffic from port expansion at Felixstowe - one million more lorries a year in the next 15 years - will not be enough to tip the balance, but the growth in car ownership, increase in population and visitors will push it to maximum capacity by 2012.

The A14 and A12 have been closed for more than 350 hours in the past two years, mainly due to accidents involving lorries, which are often serious and take time to clear up.

A14 construction

54,000 vehicles a day now use A14 between Cambridge and Ipswich

1981 was when construction started on the 5km south-western (eg past Belstead, Wherstead) and south-eastern (Nacton, Levington) sections.

7.3m is the width of each carriageway

280mm is the depth of the concrete road surface, laid over a cement base for most of the road's length. The remainder has a 100mm hot rolled asphalt surface and a 210mm road-base over the cement.

700,000 cubic metres of earth were removed for the south-western section near Ipswich - much of it landscaped the embankments of the Orwell bridge to disguise its height