Highwaymen working the A14

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 final part of our 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 final part of our 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 TRAFFIC POLICE OFFICER'S VIEW

IF you are one of those people who think that the police have nothing better to do than nick speeding motorists, then in some ways you are right.

But then Jeff Cribb and his colleagues have repeatedly witnessed the abject horror caused by thoughtless, careless or outright dangerous driving.

“Yes, it's all very salutary,” he agrees, his customary smile fading for a moment.

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“The number of unnecessary deaths that have occurred because of speed, not wearing safety belts or using mobiles phones… we don't use the word accident, as this implies no blame, which is not always the case.”

Before joining the collision investigation unit, based at Suffolk police's HQ, Martlesham Heath, Jeff was a road policing officer for six years, covering the A14 from Felixstowe to Stowmarket, either in a patrol car or on a motorcycle.

Today, too, he is out on the A14 almost every working day - so knows his stuff.

He said: “We concentrate on the morning and evening rush hours, because that's when a broken-down vehicle has the greatest impact on the flow of traffic.

“We would normally close one lane, leaving the other lane open. But this does create a bottleneck, causing tailbacks and delays - as everyone knows only too well.”

Despite popular belief to the contrary, the aim of the police is to get the traffic moving again as soon as possible. Yet how long this takes depends on the circumstances.

According to Jeff, if officers can use their own vehicles to clear the road they will do so. If not, however, they must call upon the services of a specialist recovery firm.

“How long it takes for the recovery vehicle to get there will have a major bearing on how long everyone has to wait. It can be a slow old journey through lines of stationary traffic.”

But do the police have any sense of the frustration motorists feel just sitting there often not knowing what is going on or how long they will have to wait?

Jeff laughs, “Of course we do.

“On the hottest day of the year in 2006, there was a massive hold-up on the A14 near Newmarket. My wife and child were stuck in the traffic and, believe me, I was made well aware of how frustrating it was!”

In the case of serious collision, when one or more vehicles are strewn across the carriageway, the police have little option than to close the road completely, in one direction at least.

“If it's a straightforward damage-only collision, we can clear it swiftly. But where there are paramedics, the fire service and the highways people, as well as the police on the scene, we do have to consider their safety,” he says.

“It's not unknown for cars to plough into the rear of patrol cars, stationary beside the road.”

In the case of a fatal or potentially fatal collision, or what the police call “a life-changing collision” leading to amputation or paralysis, then complete

closure of the road is unavoidable - meaning delay and diversion misery for those caught up in the traffic.

This is when the Collision Investigation Unit swings into action.

“People don't always understand why the road has to be closed. But we will be doing a forensic investigation of the collision, looking for all sorts of evidence, which can include very small marks on the road, small scrapes, tiny scuff marks and bits of debris - evidence that would soon be destroyed by passing

traffic.”

Then there is the problem of contaminants or spillages on the road, either from vehicles and, sadly, sometimes from people, which have to be cleaned up.

“It might not seem like it, but we are always conscious of how irritating it can be. But safety remains paramount.”

Jeff reckons that motorists sometimes don't appreciate the speed at which vehicles are travelling on the A14. Drivers assume the road ahead will be clear, which is something of a dangerous assumption.

“Most drivers are law-abiding people and only want to get safely to their destinations. They are frustrated by a small number of people who drive poorly.”

EYE IN SKY PILOT'S VIEW

ADY Powell and the air operations team view the A14 from a completely different perspective to the rest of us.

They cover all the county's roads from high in the sky, being scrambled when speed is of the essence, when an eagle-eye view is required, or when a helicopter's unique ability to search and find is needed.

“We are able to beam back television pictures from the aircraft to the operations room, so they can see for themselves what is going on,” explains Ady.

“We can also make recommendations to HQ at Martlesham Heath or even direct to the officer-in-charge on the spot.”

The Air Operations Unit was formed in October 2000 by a consortium including the Suffolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire police forces.

Each force has its own helicopter and operates from its own county base. In Suffolk, this is RAF Wattisham, which now includes an in-house engineering centre where the county's Eurocopter EC135 is maintained - as is the Essex aircraft and soon that of Cambridgeshire, too.

Of course, Suffolk's two main trunk roads, the A12 and A14, figure prominently in the unit's day-to-day work.

“Roads do have to be closed when there is a serious incident and, despite what everyone seems to think, the aim is to get them cleared and the traffic flowing, as soon as possible,” says Ady.

The helicopter team photographs the scene from above, often revealing valuable details that might not be obvious on the ground. This can help speed up the investigation, get the road open again and provides valuable information for an inquest,

At the same time, the helicopter crew will monitor the blockage, keep an eye on any official detours, as well as unofficial ones - “we all find them, don't we” - and report any further blockages on the diversion routes.

The helicopter will also “over-fly” the tailback to make sure people stuck in the traffic are OK.

“A couple of summers ago, a van carrying oxyacetylene crashed on the A14 near Newmarket and the road had to be closed for 24 hours.

“It was the hottest day of the year and people were suffering. Anyone can signal us if they are in trouble and we can radio back and get help - first aid or an ambulance.

“In serious emergencies we can transfer people to the helicopter, which we are equipped to do.”

Ady was a detective sergeant with Suffolk police when he saw the post of Air Operations Unit manager advertised and thought it might make a nice change

“When I got here, I couldn't believe I'd landed the best job ever.”

The unit includes three pilots, all ex-army air corps, and seven air observers. Each flight includes a pilot and two observers and the value of being a consortium is that the three counties can call on each other for extra cover when needs be.

Ady is adamant that it is money well spent.

“It costs £350 an hour to keep the helicopter in the air.

“In terms of searching one square mile of open ground, it takes 450 officers one hour or one officer 450 hours.

“We can search one square mile in eight minutes and, of course, this releases resources back to HQ for other policing duties.”

The police helicopter can also have an impact on road safety and crime prevention, he reckons.

“What we try to do on the way back from jobs is to over-fly the county's main routes, including the A14.

“Hopefully drivers who are speeding, or using mobile phones, will see us and slow down and stop doing whatever they are doing, while those on their way to some criminal activity will be deterred, when they realise that they could be followed from the air.”

The helicopter unit also plays an important role in “operation stack”, when high winds close Felixstowe port and the lorries begin queuing up on the A14, from the dock gates back towards Ipswich.

“We take photos and videos from the air to support the multi-agencies dealing with the situation on the ground.

The team also monitors vehicles driving the wrong way along the A12 or A14 - “it happens more than you'd think” - as well as people or animals wandering on the carriageways.

“We can sometimes get their quicker than a police car or bike - that's where we have the advantage.”

LORRY PARK OWNER'S VIEW

KARL Rout and his family thought that running a lorry park on the A14 would be a doddle compared with their years in pig farming. How wrong they were.

For ever since they opened the Orwell Crossing Lorry Park, Karl, father Derrick and brother John, all joint-owners of the business, have had to battle with officialdom every step of the way.

The family have owned the farmland beside the eastbound carriageway at Nacton, near Ipswich, for more than 60 years.

Some time ago they leased out several acres beside the A14 on which a petrol service station and a McDonald's restaurant were built. When the service station closed, leaving McDonald's still operating from the site, the Routs were approached by the police anti-crime unit and other agencies.

“They asked if we'd open a lorry park, which was desperately needed, as lorries were being forced to park-up in lay-bys and on side roads all over the place, which was proving a crime-prevention nightmare,” explains Karl.

The Orwell Lorry Park opened in February, 2004, with the aim of attracting 250 to 300 lorries per night, about ten per cent of the 3,000 HGVs that use the A14 daily, although business at the moment falls somewhat short of this target, Karl admits.

“The trouble is that lorry drivers are given what is called night-out money - the industry standard being about £22 a night - which they regard as their money.

“So, instead of spending it in lorry parks, they park up in a lay-by somewhere, which saves them money.”

However, from day one, Orwell Crossing's bar and restaurant, respectively named Olive's and Dickie's after Karl's mum and dad, attracted an increasing number of private car drivers, which brought the Routs into conflict with the authorities.

“The site has a history of car drivers calling at McDonald's, which opened five or ten years before we did,” he says.

“Gradually people came to realise that we offer better food at a reasonable price and so started to drift in our direction.

“McDonald's is now closed, but the car drivers still turn up.”

The lorry park's licence states that only 'lorry drivers and bone fide users of the A14' can be served and the powers-that-be argued that most of the car drivers were making a special journey to visit the bar and

restaurant.

“When it opened, this section of the A14 was hailed as a by-pass for Ipswich, which is exactly what it was built for. So it's not surprising that the Highways Authority's own research shows 41pc of the traffic is local,” says Karl.

“Because it's so much quicker, people use the A14 to get around Ipswich, rather than drive through the town. So anyone on the A14 Ipswich by-pass must be a bona fide user.”

The conditions have at last been amended and Karl and partner Anne Blowers, manager and joint licensee, can now welcome car drivers and coach parties without fear of prosecution.

During weekdays about 75pc of customers are lorry drivers and about 25pc car drivers, mostly business people and sales reps. However, at weekends the balance tips in favour of car drivers, Sundays being the busiest days in the restaurant, with about 60 lorries and 150 cars - about 350 people in all.

The restaurant's carvery is proving hugely popular, especially with families, and it has been necessary to introduce a bookings policy for high days and holidays, including Mother's Day and Christmas Day, as well as birthday and retirement parties.

“We have to be careful not to overdo it, as the lorry drivers are very important to us. Many have become really good friends, and the last thing we want is for them to turn up and find huge areas roped off for private parties,” says Karl.

Now there is more aggro from the Highways Authority, which is claiming motorway status for the A14, although the A-road classification remains. Under motorway regulation, the sale of alcohol is banned.

However, the battle contiues as Karl has carried out his own comprehensive research on the entire length of the A14 and has prepared a dossier of the number of outlets along the road that sell alcohol, including petrol service stations, some of which advertise alcoholic drink alongside the petrol pumps.

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