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Lord Andrew Adonis: motorway tour diary

Image: Lord Andrew Adonis

18 September 2009

Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis today embarks on a tour of the motorway network to get the commuter experience and to witness first hand the range of improvements and innovative projects being implemented by the Government to increase capacity and improve journeys for motorists.

5pm Toddington service station

It was too good to last. After a near complete tour of the M25 without traffic jams, and three motorway service stations exceeding expectations, it was time for less palatable motorway experiences and they duly came.

First, South Mimms services. The toilets were closed - with no explanation given - and we were all directed to a hotel next door where chaotic scenes ensued as hundreds of people queued, and queue-jumped, for the totally inadequate facilities despite the valiant efforts of the staff. I was at the service station for more than two hours, meeting representatives of the AA and RAC over sandwiches, and the toilets still weren't open when we left. Welcome Break have some explaining to do, since service station operators are expected to make toilets available 24/7.

Then the M25 clockwise seized up as we set off for the M1.  Fortunately we were travelling the other way, but the RAC Foundation's chairman, who came to meet me at lunch, was not so lucky. He has just texted to say: 'M25 eastbound has been closed since just before we left [3.25] for an accident involving two lorries  My driver and I have wended our way over highly congested Hertfordshire country lanes, finally reaching Enfield by 5pm, whereupon I have abandoned the car to get a train!.'. In fact, there was at least one person seriously injured in the accident and the police clearly had no choice about closing the motorway - but the impact on traffic was huge.

I had Jeremy Vine of Radio 2 with me during these vicissitudes, which has given him plenty of material for his story about my motorway travels next week. More positively, I was able to explain to him the ambitious programme of motorway widening, and hard shoulder running, which is about to start on the M25 and M1, which will improve conditions for motorists considerably.

At South Mimms I met a patrol team responsible for checking lorry safety. They now have powers to levy on the spot fines - and were fining a Macedonian driver £260 as I arrived for failing to take the necessary breaks when driving, and for having no functioning brake lights or indicators. We have increased funding for lorries to be checked at ports, so that dangerous lorries like this don't get onto the motorway network in the first place.

Now about to embark on the last part of my journey, up the M1 to Watford Gap, and thence to the national traffic control centre in Birmingham. Then back to London - on the train from Birmingham New Street. A very useful day on the motorways, warts and all.

12pm

12 noon, at a Holiday Inn just off J28 of M25 following a road safety presentation by the excellent Essex Casualty Reduction Board, a partnership between the county council, the police and the ambulance and fire services, set up with government funding to reduce the number of serious injuries and fatalities on the county's roads. By focusing on visible enforcement, they have helped bring the serious casualty rate down by a third from 992 in the year to August 2009. The non-wearing of seatbelts, by drivers as well as passengers, is a serious problem, as well as mobile phone use by drivers. Our hard hitting THINK! campaigns are getting the message through and this sort of enforcement activity backs that up.  Police patrol units stop motorists as necessary and give them road safety advice one-to-one, including simulators which I tried out.

Before that it was the Dartford Crossing, including a tour of the control centre which manages the complex operations of the two tunnels (which take traffic northbound) and the bridge (for southbound traffic), as well as the 27 toll booths. An increasing proportion of drivers now use the electronic 'Dart Tag', which gives a one-third discount on the £1.50 toll (and more for local residents). The congestion was not too serious today - we went straight through the toll booths with only one HGV ahead - but the southbound bridge had just been closed because of a pannier which had come off a motorbike which had to be checked and retrieved. About 150,000 vehicles use the crossing each day, and such mishaps can cause huge tailbacks.

Andrew MacKinlay, MP for Thurrock, met me at Thurrock services to discuss ways of reducing congestion at the toll booths and the options for a possible second Dartford crossing bridge. This is a vital trade route - nearly a third of the traffic is HGVs - and there are three serious possibilities being considered.

Thurrock services have been greatly enhanced by the recent arrival of M&S with a 'Simply Food' outlet. But there wasn't time to stop for a sandwich. I'm now about to start on the last stretch of the M25 to South Mimms and the junction with the M1.

9am Friday

My latest voyage of personal experience of the transport system is a day on the M25, M1 and M42, so that I can drive around the entire M25 and get the commuter experience and also visit the section of the M42 where a successful pilot has been in operation to use the hard shoulder in periods of congestion, with appropriate safety measures.

I'm now at Clacket Lane service station, near Westerham on the southern stretch of the M25, after exactly an hour on a free flowing M25 anticlockwise from J21 with the M1. That's about half of the 117 miles of the motorway, in commuter time, without incident or delay beyond the 50mph limit where widening is taking place between J18-20. There was one section of variable speed limit, down to 60mph, but nowhere has the motorway slowed down much below that.

So far so good, then. The service station is fine too - clean, efficient, and with two breakfasts for £10, not bad value. Adam, the restaurant manager, tells me that turnover is down by about a third on this time last year, and trade is very tough. They don't therefore know when the refurb of the 15 year old facilities will take place. But they are well maintained - including the toilets - and a great deal better than those in most of the railway stations I visited on my rail tour earlier in the year.

Now it's off to the Dartford crossing and the other half of the M25 up to the South Mimms service station before setting north on the M1.

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