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A38 Burton

Volume 884: debated on Monday 13 January 1975

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9.41 p.m.

I offer my sincere thanks to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment for allowing me the opportunity to raise the question of safety of that part of the A38 which passes through the Burton constituency. I was only given the opportunity of raising the matter in this debate at 7.30 this evening, and the hon. Gentleman cannot have heard about it until about an hour after that.

It says much for the efficiency of the Department and the Minister's desire to be helpful that I am able to raise the subject now at such short notice. I know much about the hon. Gentleman's kindness and diligence in this House in relation to the question of rates.

If one wished to drive south from Derby towards Birmingham, one would be tempted by the road map to take the A38. For much of its length it is a good enough road. Some part of it has recently been improved to almost motorway standard. As one enters the Burton division, however, and certainly as far as the Lichfield turn-off, one is in a zone of considerable danger. That part of the road which runs through Burton is a potential and, I am afraid, too frequently for tolerance, an actual death trap.

Dual carriageway it is, but the carriageways are narrow, the road surface is ever altering and is almost entirely bumpy, being witness to frequent, almost continuous road works of one form or another. It is, as I can vouch from personal experience on many occasions, absolute hell to drive over this stretch of road at night if the road is wet or damp.

The carriageways are separated by a few feet of grass reservation with no safety barrier at all, unless it be at one part by a short, wooden type of fence which could well impale one if one catches it on a motor bike at an angle. The iniquity of this stretch of the road is that it is fast and derestricted, and it seems almost incredible that we should still have such roads with the weight, speed and size of modern traffic, without any central safety barrier along the middle.

There is an extremely tight turn on the flyover at Branston, which brings traffic out of Burton, and a mile or two in the direction of Birmingham there is a right-hand turn-off to a large, prospering and lovely suburban village called Barton-under-Needwood.

The inhabitants of Barton-under-Needwood work to some considerable extent in Burton, so the journey from Branston flyover on to the A38, two miles to the turn-off to the right, takes place once or twice a day. Here the left-hand turn takes one to Walton-on-Trent, which, because it is outside my constituency though beautiful, is not quite as beautiful as Barton-under-Needwood.

Further down the A38 there is a right-hand turn to the small hamlet of Wychmor and further still there is a turning to Alrewas which has also been the scene of accidents, although the details I have not seen since I confined my parliamentary Question at an earlier stage to the Burton division.

That junction of the A38 has also been the scene of accidents. Along the A38 thunder day and night heavy articulated lorries and a steady stream of private cars. At peak hours commuter traffic turns from or into the villages I have mentioned.

Over the years there has been much carnage, a good deal of which is avoidable. There were plans to alleviate the situation over a number of years, but little of substance has been done and accidents continue to occur. Cars turn right and wait in long queues well out into the fast lane. They jam up the junctions while undecided motorists decide what to do. Heavy lorries come out across the road before their drivers have adequate vision. Cars brake suddenly as a function comes upon them far too soon. Drunk or harassed drivers career across the central reservation or collide with traffic going in the other direction.

I understand from an answer to a Question on 20th December that the Department of the Environment informed me that in 1971 there had been two fatal accidents, five serious accidents and eight slight accidents at Branston junction, Barton and Wychnor Turns. In 1972 there was one fatal accident, three serious and five slight accidents at those positions. In 1973 there was one fatal accident, five serious and three slight accidents. It is true that there were no accidents at Barton Turn from January to September 1974, but for most of that time part of the junction was closed while Walton Bridge was being rebuilt.

Local people did not believe me when I told them that there had been only four fatal accidents, 13 serious accidents and 16 slight accidents in three years. I realised my mistake and discovered that several more accidents had occurred in the distances between junctions. A grotesque and tragic illustration of the point occurred on 30th December, just two weeks ago, when three people died, a woman, a man and his 10-year-old daughter when his car crossed the central reservation and overturned in the path of an articulated lorry.

Is it any wonder that local people are asking how many more must die or be maimed before something effective is done? We must remember that these figures are figures of actual accidents. We shall never begin to know the number of near misses which might so easily have resulted in death or injury. It is true that the road has been the subject of safety proposals. The Department of the Environment informed me on 20th December that
"It is intended to provide grade-separated junctions"—
by which I take the Department to mean flyovers—
"at Alrewas Turn and also at Barton Turns and then to close all central reservation gaps between Alrewas Turn and the Branston Interchange."—[Official Report, 20th December, 1974; Vol. 883, c. 665.]
The county council has told me, and the local newspapers have said, that
"Work on building a flyover on the A38 on Barton Turns is all ready to start."
I quote from the Burton Observer and Chronicle. An official of the county council said:
"We have completed all the administration and design work … We are waiting for the Department of the Environment to give us the money and say get on with it."
The official said that the scheme would cost about £1 million, and the authorisation for it would have to come from the headquarters in London and not from the regional office. Once the money had been allocated it would take about four months before work could start. The scheme would then take about 18 months to complete.

The spokesman said:
"This is a very bad junction. There have been a number of fatalities. Everyone within the county is very keen to get this scheme started. Administratively there is nothing to hold the thing up."

When the hon. Gentleman referred to "the spokesman', I missed the point. Is he referring to the county spokesman or to a spokesman from my Department?

I meant the spokesman of the county council.

May I add to that plan some other proposals which I urged the Department of the Environment to consider? First, before a flyover junction at Barton Turns is constructed, some danger signposting at Branston Junction might be erected. Secondly, some danger signposts might be erected between Branston Junction and Barton Turns—in fact, on the whole stretch of that road. Thirdly, there could be a speed limit of 30 mph along the whole stretch of that dangerous part of the road. Fourthly, much longer turn-off lanes to the junction could be constructed, so that more cars can queue without sticking out into the fast lane. At present we have the situation that if a line of cars wishes to turn right across the A38 at Barton, we get one or two in the actual junction space and perhaps another two or three cars back on the graded entry to the junction. There may well be 10 cars, with the last three or four stuck out into the fast lane of a narrow dual carriageway.

Fifthly, there could be a closure of the turn-off junctions at Barton and Wychmor Turns for lorries. They would have to make the extra journey to Alrewas or Branston to turn round. Lorries are so bulky that they create a greater danger than small motor vehicles. Sixthly, and most urgently, crash barriers should be put up along the entire length of this part. Coupled with that we could afford to take away most of the central reservation and thus widen the road on each side of the dual carriageway part. We could narrow the reservation and widen the road on each side by two or three feet.

I shall shortly be meeting county council officials, the police and officials of the Staffordshire District Council and other interested bodies to agree a set of proposals. The Government must find the money to provide a safe road not only for those who live in the constituency but, since the A38 is a main arterial road linking counties, for people who merely pass along that stretch of road. I ask the Government most earnestly to do so immediately, before more people die.

9.55 p.m.

It was right for the hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence), in view of the early dispatch of today's business, to take the opportunity of raising a most serious matter affecting his constituency and his constituents. As he said, we have for some time been dealing with the question of rates, and I agree with him that, however much rates may be a matter of serious concern to his constituents, the question of human life is of far more serious concern.

I must apologise to the hon. Gentleman in advance since the time which I have had to prepare an adequate reply has necessarily been brief. I am not, of course, the Minister with specific responsibility for roads and transport. However, I have taken note of all that the hon. Gentleman said, and I shall relay it not only to my Department and to my fellow Ministers but to the regional office concerned.

To all intents and purposes, looking at a map and looking at the road itself, this is an ordinary stretch of rural road. Nevertheless, it has a very had reputation for accidents. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State responsible for transport gave an answer on 20th December and supplied figures for the three specific junctions about which the hon. Gentleman inquired. Looking at those figures, I must confess that I find them harrowing, bearing in mind that they deal with a stretch of road which is only about four or five miles in length.

The hon. Gentleman quoted the figures. There have been four fatal and 13 very serious accidents, according to the information supplied by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. What I did not know until the hon. Gentleman mentioned it tonight is that, in addition, there have been other very serious or fatal accidents along the stretch of road not necessarily at the junctions themselves. Then, of course, there was the tragic accident on 30th December when three people were killed, again on this stretch of road. These are very serious figures on a very small stretch of what appears to be ordinary road, and, therefore, account must be taken of them.

As the hon. Gentleman said, a number of accidents have occurred on this stretch. In the main they seem to have been caused by vehicles crossing the central reservation. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that sometimes the cause of an accident of this kind may be a stressed or harassed driver. At other times it may be a drunken driver who crosses the central reservation. The Department can take steps to deal with the stressed or harassed driver, but in the case of a drunken driver there is very little that can be done on a motorway or anywhere else because he will defy all the laws of road safety and of human nature and find a way to injure himself or other people by crossing a reservation or by committing some other utterly stupid act, so putting his own life or the life of others in danger.

I cannot accept, however, that all those involved in the accidents which have occurred on this stretch of road were under the influence of drink or that drink was responsible, although it may have been in one or two cases.

Some of the drivers may have been very tired. It is a long stretch of road between two large cities.

Driver fatigue is another problem, and it may be that the very fact that this is a stretch of ordinary rural dual carriageway in itself is deceptive to anyone driving along the road. He may feel safe, whereas he is anything but safe because of vehicles taking advantage of gaps in the central reservation to perform U-turns and because of the junctions themselves.

I understand that after what is referred to as the second accident—which I take to be the tragic accident on 30th December—the local Press contacted our regional office on the very subject of barriers which the hon. Gentleman has put as the most urgent and perhaps the most important and safest—

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Dormand.]

As I was saying, the hon. Gentleman suggested barriers as perhaps the safest things that could immediately be provided to prevent accidents on this stretch of road. My hon. Friend replied—and this is the position—that it is not departmental policy to put barriers on all-purpose roads, but he said he would consider whether this stretch of road had any peculiarities that demanded safety barriers. I understand that, having considered the matter, my hon. Friend came to the conclusion—this is what my brief tells me—that barriers were not necessary.

In view of what the hon. Gentleman has told the House—and this is the great advantage and glory of the House—I must confess that I am not satisfied with that reply, and I shall ask my hon. Friend to look again at the matter, to discuss it with the regional office at Birmingham and to consider the whole question whether safety barriers should be provided as an immediate measure to cut down the carnage on this short stretch of road. I give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that the matter will be looked at again in view of what he has told the House tonight.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there are schemes for grade-separated junctions. One is planned at Barton Turns, and work is due to begin later this year. The other grade-separated junction is the one that was suggested by my hon. Friend in reply to the hon. Gentleman at Alrewas Turn; that is the A38—A513 crossroads. It is important to close gaps in the central reservation between Alrewas Turn and the Brandston interchange. This again may be a helpful move.

The hon. Gentleman nut only posed the problems to the House but put forward a number of solutions to try to cut down the accident rate on this stretch of road. I am not competent to deal with whether those are proper solutions for this road, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that all his suggestions will be considered by our transport division, by the region and by my colleague the Minister responsible for transport as a possible means of reducing the large number of accidents on this stretch of road.

I do not know whether the imposition of a speed limit is the answer, because I have no evidence that the accidents have been occasioned by the speed of the vehicles concerned. I suspect—and I can only suspect—from what the hon. Gentleman said that some of the accidents may have occurred because of vehicles unexpectedly turning in gaps in the central reservation at points where motorists travelling in the opposite direction would not expect a vehicle to turn.

If that is so—and I do not say that it is—and if the gaps are closed as my hon. Friend said in his reply of 20th December, and if, in addition, the Department gets on with the grade-separated junctions, and if, further, we look again at the question of providing some form of barrier, that might help to deal with the problem. A barrier would to some extent help to deal with the drunken driver, because if he were to hit it he might damage himself and, unfortunately, his passengers, but he would not do any harm to an innocent motorist travelling in the opposite direction.

If those three matters are considered, it may be that the serious accident rate on this stretch of road can be reduced. I can do nothing but applaud the hon. Gentleman for raising a serious constituency matter tonight. I assure him that because of what he has said tonight, because of his Question on 20th December, and also because of the serious accident in which three people were killed on 30th December in a triple pile-up on this stretch of road, the Department will consider what can be done to try to improve the situation.

The hon. Gentleman asked who would pay. I am at the disadvantage at present of not knowing, because of the time involved, whether this is a trunk road, a county road, or what particular classification it is. If it is a trunk road, the cost will be the responsibility of my Department. If it is a county road, the cost will be the responsibility of the county council under the transportation grant arrangements. Again, this aspect could be looked at.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that all the points that he has raised in this Adjournment debate will be looked at by my hon. Friend, by the Department and by the regional office so that the carnage on this short stretch of road in his constituency may be eliminated.