Revealed: Highways England's long-awaited plans to avoid Orwell Bridge wind closure chaos
PUBLISHED: 16:00 22 January 2020 | UPDATED: 12:51 23 January 2020
Highways chiefs have outlined the next steps to reduce wind closures on the Orwell Bridge - and include options for single-file traffic and slower speeds.
In documents seen by this newspaper, it reveals the results of the nine month aerodynamic study of the bridge carried out between October 2018 and July last year.
READ MORE: Ipswich MP hopeful of solutions by next winter
It follows a series of costly closures due to high winds, which plunge Ipswich into gridlock, causing serious economic damage to the town.
While stopping short of concrete proposals, an initial presentation published ahead of next week's Ipswich Borough Council scrutiny committee said:
- The authority will undertake a feasibility study for running traffic in lane two - the inside lane - heading in both directions during high winds, although it is not clear if that will include HGVs.
- A review of implementing a 40mph speed limit during high winds will get underway.
- A study in allowing the eastbound carriageway to stay open entirely will also take place.
- That further wind tunnel testing would be carried out to investigate the potential for parapets on the side of the bridge.
According to Highways England: "The difference between travelling at 40mph is considerably different than at 60mph" and added: "The parapets at the edge of the deck may provide significant wind shielding to vehicles, and needs further experimental testing".
The presentation documents said that lane one of the westbound carriageway was most at risk during high winds, which is why Highways England plans to further assess keeping the eastbound lanes open.
What Ipswich MP Tom Hunt thinks
On Tuesday, Ipswich MP Tom Hunt said he was "buoyed" by a meeting with Highways England in which he read the full report.
He said: "I was pretty encouraged by the meeting.
"There are some short term solutions they have and long term solution they have as well.
"They seem to be pretty determined to try and do something, and hopefully do something that certainly by next winter we are not in a position to have to close the bridge to all vehicles in high winds."
READ MORE: Your Orwell Bridge questions answered
The full aerodynamic study report has not yet been made public, with the papers unveiled today only a basic overview of the study which will be discussed at next week's scrutiny committee.
How many times has the bridge closed?
Data provided in the presentation revealed the bridge had closed 18 times since October 2013 as a result of high winds, with the total time well over 125 hours combined - 5.2 days.
Among those closures were two occasions below the 50mph threshold - January 23 2018 and January 13 this year.
On those two occasions, the bridge was shut for a combined 10 hours.
READ MORE: Wind tunnel testing considered for Orwell Bridge
Based on the Ipswich Central estimate that a bridge closure costs the town's economy £1million per day, that means that Ipswich has taken an £18m hit in the last six years alone.
That doesn't include closures as a result of accidents or breakdowns.
What was involved in the study?
The wind speed closure thresholds have not been reviewed since the bridge opened in 1982, according to the report.
The study, carried out by experts at City, University of London, featured detailed modelling of the bridge and use of computational fluid dynamics (CFD) to model wind movements - the kind of technology used by Formula 1 teams in developing their cars.
A timeline on the next stages of work have not yet been outlined in the documents available.
A date on the full report being published has also not yet been disclosed.
READ MORE: What are Highways England considering for the Orwell Bridge?
Why has the study taken so long to come to light?
Highways England had originally been expected to publish its findings last autumn, and came under criticism for the delays.
It also meant that no solutions would be in place in time for this winter, which has already seen three wind related closures totalling nearly 23 hours.
Speaking during the closure on January 13, Ipswich Central chief executive Paul Clement said: "Businesses, their customers and their staff continue to be united in their frustration at the continued closures of the bridge while other similar structures around the country remain open.
"We have calculated our businesses lose up to £1million every day the bridge is shut and given this, the highways authorities completely unnecessarily delay is unforgiveable.
"The current situation is just utterly ridiculous and doesn't happen elsewhere."
READ MORE: Nine big issues in Suffolk being decided in 2020
What has been done to date?
Highways England did carry out some short term improvements to its closure protocol a couple of years ago, which now means it can close or re-open the bridge within 20 minutes, instead of the 50 minutes previously.
It also reduced the length of the closure to the length of the bridge itself, rather than several junctions before and after which diverted traffic into town earlier.
Elsewhere, it has updated its methods of communicating bridge closures, including a frequent presence on social media and a dedicated web page, as well as encouraging the Port of Felixstowe to cancel truck movements to keep HGVs off the road.