Traffic officers who patrol the M62 smart motorway have admitted even they think the system is “unsafe”.
Insiders have warned of staffing problems, drivers getting ‘stranded’ after breaking down, faulty signals and lane closures signs being ignored.
Following a government decision to ‘pause’ the construction of new smart motorways which include the use of the hard shoulder as a working lane, the Manchester Evening News you have spoken to traffic officers who patrol the region’s roads.
The latest concerns raised by staff come after the admission last year of a series of technical faults and oversights, many of which have now been addressed.
READ MORE: Not such a smart motorway after all? The ‘unsafe’ glitches and faults plaguing Greater Manchester’s M62
Although National Highways (formerly Highways England) admit that some signals are still broken, they deny there are staffing problems, insisting that, despite the impact of Omicron, they have ‘well-rehearsed protocols to ensure adequate staffing levels…help keep motorists safe. ”
However, traffic officers maintain that insufficient monitoring of CCTV means drivers are having to wait in lives lanes to be spotted by either them or fellow drivers.
One insider told the Manchester Evening News: “I’ve seen smart motorways unroll and I’ve seen smart motorways unravel.
“They are not a good idea, full stop. They are not safe.
“We are pulling our hair out, the control room just aren’t picking up breakdowns on the CCTV.
“We are forever on different radio channels to different regions because they are covering and they don’t have the local knowledge.
“Sometimes the control room in the South-West is dealing with our calls.”
The traffic officer says this lack of ‘local knowledge’ means controllers can send patrols that are further away from the incident than the nearest available crew.
They also claim they are frequently told to park up rather than patrol to avoid ‘generating new jobs’.
They added: “It’s not the control room’s fault, there just aren’t enough of them and stuff isn’t getting spotted.
“They are not picking up broken-down vehicles until someone driving past reports it in.
“They are supposed to be spotting them, not waiting for another driver to notice. They end up looking for it on the screen after it’s been reported.
“Drivers are regularly picked up after long waits on all-lanes-running sections.
“All the smart motorways in this region are monitored by the same shift of staff and it’s affecting them all.”
Another insider added: “I’ll go out to breakdowns and someone will have passed through a line with a red ‘X’ and I’ll say ‘didn’t you see the sign?’ And they will say ‘what sign?’
“Even when the technology works they aren’t safe, because smart motorways are only as safe as the weakest link.”
Drivers on the smart motorway are alerted by more than 200 digital screens to potential hazards including changes in the speed limit, lane closures and incidents.
Where there is no hard shoulder, such as on the M62 throughout the 10-mile section between junctions 10 and 12 and between junctions 18 to 20, these screens become more important to avoid accidents.
In October, the MEN highlighted that 24 of 37 roadside message signs were broken between the Croft interchange and the Eccles interchange – less than a year after they came into operation.
National Highways have said these have now all been fixed, but admitted two signals – used, for example, to close a lane or give a speed limit, between Warrington and Manchester – were still broken, ‘to be fixed as a matter of priority’ .
They said when one part of the system is broken ‘other parts remain active to help keep traffic moving safely’.
A spokesman also accepted they were still experiencing issues with ‘remotely operated roadwork signs’ but maintained there were ‘mitigation measures’ in place, including hard signage.
They said rolling road blocks were also used to ‘keep traffic moving’ during roadworks.
A key concern for insiders is that the technology has floundered so rapidly.
In April 2020, the M62 between Warrington and Manchester opened with four lanes and a 50mph speed limit in place while signaling and signs were installed and tested.
From November 2020 to March 2021, only some of the technology was up and running.
So all the technology has only been in operation for less than a year.
On staffing, National Highways initially denied there was a problem, adding: “Sickness or absence may vary from shift to shift.
“We have a dedicated rota team ensuring we maintain the correct level of cover. We also have contingency plans in place for other Regional Operation Centers to take over call handling should this be necessary.”
When pushed again on this point, Alan Shepherd, North West Regional Director for National Highways responded.
He said: “Like every organization our staff have been impacted by the pandemic, including the Omicron variant.
“We have robust measures in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our control room and we continue to follow government advice.
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“Safety is our number one priority and we have well-rehearsed protocols in place to ensure we have adequate staffing levels for both our teams working on-road and in our control rooms to help keep motorists safe.”
Meanwhile, the Department for Transport (DfT) has said it will halt the expansion of the motorways where the hard shoulder is used as a permanent live traffic lane, until five years’ worth of data has been collected to assess whether or not they are safe for drivers.
The decision follows a recommendation by the Commons Transport Select Committee which said there was not enough safety and economic data to justify continuing with the project.
Despite, this, the half-finished M6 smart motorway from junction 21A to junction 26 will be going ahead.
National Highways said they were completing schemes ‘in construction’ and that leaving traffic management in place for the duration of the ‘pause’ would lead to ‘significant disruption’.
They said this upgrade will include stopped vehicle detection radar (SVD), mandatory variable speed limits, CCTV coverage, emergency areas, queue detection, automatic signaling and driver information on overhead gantries and cantilever signs.
Jim McMahon, Oldham West and Royton MP and former shadow transport secretary, who has campaigned against smart motorways, said: “Having campaigned for the pause of the smart motorways program with families of those tragically killed I pay tribute to their dedication.
“This pause is obviously a welcome move, but now ministers should go one step further, prioritize passenger safety and reinstate the hard shoulder.”