Smart motorway riddled with glitches: TWO THIRDS of M62 message signs are broken meaning drivers must stick to 60mph while two overhead gantries have not worked for a MONTH
- Failures were recorded between junctions 10 and 12 of M62 west of Manchester
- National Highways insiders described situation as ‘not very funny standing joke’
- It follows a six-week undercover probe by the Mail which exposed many failings
- Inquiry launched by Boris Johnson but no announcement on findings yet made
A stretch of smart motorway on the M62 is being plagued by technology failures and staffing issues and is putting drivers’ lives at risk, whistleblowers have warned.
Along the affected section, between the Croft and Eccles interchanges just west of Manchester, a staggering 24 of the 36 roadside message screens are broken while two overhead gantry signs stopped working for a month.
Describing the situation as ‘dire’, National Highways insiders warned that the lapses in technology are leading to delays in the control room which deals with break-downs.
One employee at the body – which manages Britain’s motorways – said some cars had been left stuck in live lanes ‘for over an hour.’
National Highways said today that it was investigating the allegations ‘urgently’, adding that safety was its ‘top priority’.
Smart motorways have long been controversial because their hard shoulder is either scrapped permanently – known as ‘all-lane running’ – or operates as an additional part-time lane of traffic during peak hours – a ‘dynamic hard shoulder’, meaning broken down vehicles can become stranded in a live lane of traffic.
It comes after a six-week undercover investigation by the Daily Mail, which ended last month, found serious issues across the smart motorways network – leading to an intervention by the Department of Transport and Prime Minister Boris Johnson. However any findings from the inquiry have yet to be shared with the public.
An insider told Manchester Evening News (MEN): ‘Road traffic officers are fearing for their own safety, as well as that of all other road users, meanwhile the official reports are deeming Smart motorways amongst the safest of them all.
‘The situation is dire. Traffic officers are requesting signals for lane closures, speed restrictions or warning legends and too often the reply from the control centre is that the signal prior is faulty.
Smart motorways have long been controversial because their hard shoulder is either scrapped permanently – known as ‘all-lane running’ – or operates as an additional part-time lane of traffic during peak hours – a ‘dynamic hard shoulder’, meaning broken down vehicles can become stranded in a live lane of traffic. (Pictured: The M3 smart motorway near Camberley in Surrey)
On the stretch of smart motorway between the Croft and Eccles interchanges west of Manchester – junctions 10 to 12 on the M62 (pictured)- two thirds of the roadside messages are broken
There are plans for about 800 miles of smart motorway by 2025, up from just under 500 miles currently (Pictured: The M62)
‘It’s becoming a not very funny standing joke. This is happening regularly. Some signals have been faulty for months on end.
‘There are so many broken signals traffic officers are now having to perform rolling road blocks in order for recovery services to safely leave the emergency bays.’
It comes amid plans for about 800 miles of smart motorway by 2025, up from just under 500 miles currently.
More than 200 digital screens inform motorists on the smart motorway of potential upcoming hazards, including speed limit changes, lane closures and collisions.
But on the stretch between the Croft and Eccles interchanges – junctions 10 to 12 – two thirds of the roadside messages are broken.
It means until they are fixed, drivers must stick to a 60mph speed limit.
National Highways said: ‘Of these 37 signs, 24 needed repairs which will be completed as soon as possible.
‘We are urgently addressing a potential manufacturing fault with the particular type of sign we have in operation just on this one section.’
Two overhead gantry signs were also left broken for over a month.
National Highways said today that both have now been repaired.
Insiders said when such errors occur, their jobs are seriously hindered.
They also claimed that breakdowns in ‘live lanes’ regularly go unseen by the control room, with vehicles often left stuck for ‘over an hour’.
National Highways said it did not have data on how many vehicles had been stranded for more than 30 minutes over the past six months, reported MEN.
A picture of the National Highways East Regional Operations Centre based in South Mimms. Screens at the front of the control room are used to monitor the network and big incidents.
The body, previously called Highways England, said it would be installing new ‘stopped vehicle detection’ technology on the particular section of the M62 to compensate for there being no hard shoulder.
On staffing issues, it said plans were in place for different regional control centres to share the workload if necessary.
National Highways also confirmed a car collided with traffic officer’s vehicle this summer as it passed under a red ‘X’ on the overhead sign.
Jim McMahon, Oldham MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, told MEN: ‘We’ve met with families of victims who have died on smart motorways and many of these deaths could have been prevented had a hard shoulder been in place.
‘It’s not just people at risk if they break down in the hard shoulder, it’s the delay in people receiving treatment because an ambulance can’t get to them because every lane is blocked.
‘The Government has been warned they are not fit for purpose, there are too many holes in the system – the CCTV, the overhead gantries, the adequacy of radar equipment, staffing at monitoring stations – it’s all been well-rehearsed.’
He added that ‘enough lives have been lost’, and called for the ‘immediate suspension of smart motorways and the re-introduction of the hard shoulder.’
Alan Shepherd, North West Regional Director for National Highways, said: ‘Smart motorways work as a system, with technology and infrastructure working together.
‘If there is a problem with any one part of the system, other parts remain active to help keep traffic moving safely.’
National Highways chief executive Nick Harris told Mail Online: ‘Safety remains our top priority and our motorways are the safest type of road in the country.
‘Data shows fatalities are less likely on smart motorways than on conventional ones, but we recognise concerns continue to be raised.
‘We are determined to do all we can to help drivers feel safe and be safer on all our roads and we are investigating these allegations as a matter of urgency.’
It comes after a Daily Mail reporter spent six weeks under cover at a control room and discovered alarming problems on Smart Motorways.
The reporter was working under cover at the South Mimms ROC in Hertfordshire, responsible for sections of smart motorways on the M25, M1 and M4.
They found that more than one in ten safety cameras were either broken, misted up or facing the wrong way.
Claire Mercer’s husband Jason was killed in 2019 on a smart stretch of the M1 – in which the hard shoulder is used as a ‘live’ lane of traffic (pictured: Claire Mercer)
Jason Mercer, 47 (pictured right) and Nargis Begum, 62, tragically died in separate crashes on a stretch of the M1 near Sheffield, South Yorks
Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed on a section of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield, protests outside South Yorkshire Police HQ in Sheffield, where she is calling on the chief constable to prosecute Highways England over her husband’s death
The Department for Transport and Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered an inquiry into the staggering revelations – of which there have been no findings yet announced (Pictured: The scene of a crash in June 2019)
In one terrifying incident a worker said: ‘We’ve got no signals, you’re all going to die. Whichever God you believe in, start praying now.’
Almost half the cameras on one of the busiest stretches of the M25 were failing on September 17, the day of the Mail’s audit.
Control room staff were unable to check reports of broken-down vehicles, meaning motorists faced being stranded in high-speed traffic.
The Department for Transport and Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered an inquiry into the staggering revelations – the findings of which, if any, have not yet been announced.
Earlier this year the Mail revealed that 53 people had died on smart motorways in the four years to 2019.
Eighteen of the fatalities were blamed at least partly on the way the roads operate.
The Mail’s investigation also found that:
- One in four cameras on junction 34 of the M1 near Sheffield, where there has been a spate of fatalities, were broken or facing the wrong way on September 17;
- One in four cameras were broken or obscured on the smart motorway section of the M3 in Surrey the same day;
- The software used to close lanes went down several times in the six weeks the reporter worked at one of six regional control rooms;
- Bosses admitted in internal emails that there were CCTV ‘blackspots’ on the M25;
- In one control room staff reported an average of almost two CCTV and technological failures every day for 2020;
- Faulty and outdated hardware including CCTV boxes from 2004, are in use, making it hard for operators to locate stranded vehicles;
- Workers said smart motorways were a ‘scam’ and warned there were not enough emergency bays or signal gantries;
- A systems failure during our reporter’s first shift saw staff unable to implement vital lane closures or change mandatory speed limits until more than 30 minutes had passed;
- Another, struggling with outdated technology, said: ‘We’ve got a lot of faulty c***.’
Following the findings, Mike Penning, who as roads minister authorised the expansion of the programme in 2010 after a trial on the M42 near Birmingham, called on the Government to act.
Sir Mike said: ‘The Mail has found real evidence that the current system isn’t working and it’s just too dangerous.’
When he gave the go-head to the expansion of the scheme, there were safe stopping points for motorists every 600 metres – but now some refuges are 2.5 miles apart.
The Department for Transport admitted last week it had received an ‘initial update’ from the National Highways inquiry – but would not give further details on its findings.
But relatives of victims who died on the roads have said they ‘want answers’.
Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed in 2019 on a smart stretch of the M1 – in which the hard shoulder is used as a ‘live’ lane of traffic – said last week: ‘It’s just carnage.
Undercover footage obtained in the National Highways control centre in South Mimms shows staff speaking of their safety concerns
An experienced operator working at the East Regional Control Centre in South Mimms told an undercover reporter there are serious shortfalls in the technology used by the firm including dodgy
‘We know their claims [that smart motorways are safer] are false and the least we deserve is to see them answer these questions again, this time truthfully.’
Mrs Mercer, 44, urged MPs on the committee to ‘sit up and take notice’ of the Mail’s chilling findings.
Naiz Shazad, 33, the son of Nargis Begum, 62, who was killed on the M1 near Sheffield three years ago, added: ‘Their claims must be reassessed following the shocking failures the Daily Mail discovered.’
The Mail’s findings contradict evidence given by Transport Minister Baroness Vere and Highways boss Nick Harris to cross-party MPs investigating the safety of smart motorways in June.
The roads minister insisted operators working in control centres could bring up any CCTV camera ‘in a flash’.
National Highways boss Mr Harris also boasted to the transport committee that smart motorways had ‘more than 100 per cent’ CCTV coverage.
Mrs Mercer is organising a protest through Parliament Square on November 1.
Meanwhile Labour’s transport spokesman Jim McMahon last week urged the Government to ‘reinstate the hard shoulder while proper scrutiny of the failings exposed in the system is carried out’.
How Whitehall’s drive to save cash had deadly results
By Miles Dilworth
Since the turn of the century, the cash-strapped Department for Transport has been searching for cost-effective ways to ease growing congestion.
In its eyes, the conversion of the hard shoulder into a live lane to provide extra road capacity at minimal cost is the panacea for jammed motorways.
And, following a successful pilot on the M42 in 2006, ministers could argue these ‘smart’ motorways would be safe, too.
Pointing to trial data that showed a drop in the accident rate from 5.2 a month to 1.5, then Labour transport secretary Ruth Kelly claimed ‘the safety fears that some people have haven’t materialised at all’.
The trial had been aided in part by sensors that triggered signs asking drivers to slow down in traffic, but, crucially, there were also emergency refuge areas every 500 metres. These allowed motorists to park safely if they broke down.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted in February that ‘mistakes were made’ over smart motorways
So £150million was spent to create ‘dynamic hard shoulders’ on the M6, which could be opened and closed to ease congestion.
A review would also consider expanding the scheme to the M1, M25, M4 and M20 in future. But it didn’t take long for it to become clear that the opening and closing of the hard shoulder was wreaking havoc.
At least four coroners have raised questions over safety following fatal collisions, with one even asking prosecutors to consider corporate manslaughter charges against Highways England.
It has also been revealed that both South Yorkshire and Derbyshire Police warned road chiefs in 2013 that their plans to permanently scrap the hard shoulder on parts of the M1 would cause deaths. Nine motorists have been killed since the schemes went ahead, including Jason Mercer in June 2019. His widow is seeking a judicial review of the smart motorway network.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted in February that ‘mistakes were made’ over smart motorways. But his department still plans to expand the network to 800 miles by 2025, up from just under 500.
The 68 miles of dynamic hard shoulder will be phased out and converted into all-lane running. The spacing between refuge areas will be reduced and the rollout of vehicle detection technology will be accelerated.
The Government says fatal collisions are a third higher on conventional motorways by traffic volume and points to safety improvements gained by introducing sensors and cameras – in the words of transport minister Baroness Vere ‘eyes in the sky’.
But campaigners say this technology is patchy at best and does not justify the decision to axe so many emergency lanes.
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