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M1, Dunstable—London

Volume 949: debated on Friday 12 May 1978

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

4.11 p.m.

I am glad to have this opportunity of a short debate on the congested conditions on the M1 between Dunstable and London. I am delighted to see the Under-Secretary of State for Transport in his place. We are having the debate at an opportune time. If he were to get into my car now and I drove him towards his constituency, which I assume would take him along the M1, within a few miles of London, just before we got to the beginning of the two-lane stretch, there would be a gigantic traffic jam. Day after day, especially on Fridays, there is this notorious congestion on Britain's oldest motorway.

I begin by thanking the hon. Gentleman and his staff for the courteous way they have listened over the years to my anxieties and demands for action, not only on this road but on the roads in Bedfordshire as a county, because, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we suffer from a lack of good infrastructure in Bedfordshire. Today, however, we are dealing with just one part of it. I pay tribute to the work of the police, the firemen, the ambulancemen and all the staff of the Luton and Dunstable Hospital and hospitals in Hertfordshire, who have the appalling job of acting when there have been horrendous crashes on this section of the motorway.

I wish to pay special tribute to the police of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, because every time repairs are done to the motorway they have the appalling job of sorting out the inevitable traffic congestion that occurs when the motorway is dug up and repaired.

I do not want to spend too long on the history of the motorway. It is our oldest. It was opened in 1959. Since then there have been fitful improvements to it. When it was opened there were no crash barriers; there are now. There were no overhead gantry lights; there are now. There were no hazard warning lights; there are now.

But, alas, those three lots of work were never done together but were done separately, and every time they were done there was an inevitable increase in congestion, with the inevitability of accidents. Now, in 1978, nearly 20 years after construction, we are still with our notorious two lanes.

The Minister kindly set out the present situation in a letter to me of 3rd May. He said:
"We have been considering proposals for widening this section for some time, and Public Inquiries were held in 1973 and 1974.
We are now looking at the Inspector's report from the 1976 Inquiry and I hope that it will be possible for the Secretaries of State to announce their joint decision fairly soon. As we said in our recent White Paper 'Policy for Roads: England 1978', the start of works is expected in the period 1981–83."
That is the latest position. I do not imagine that it has changed. But I cannot help recalling 6th March 1972, when the then Minister for Local Government and Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), announced that the dual two-lane section would be widened to dual four-lane by building an additional four-lane road on the east side of the existing motorway. My right hon. Friend said that construction would begin in 1974 and would be completed in 1976.

By the time we got to 1976, the starting date had slipped. At one stage the start was to be in 1979. During this time the flow of vehicles has increased, and still we have not got a start on this two-lane section. We are promised it in 1981 to 1983, but that remains to be seen. I think that the Minister will agree that it is only human for people to be somewhat sceptical about that date.

There are three extra reasons why we need to get on with the construction as quickly as possible—in fact, this year. The first is Luton Airport. The Minister will be aware that Luton Airport is planned to take up to 5 million passengers a year by the beginning of the 1980s—a pretty rapid increase. That will inevitably lead to more cars and coaches taking people to the airport for their holidays. As with so many things in Bedfordshire, this is another instance of Bedfordshire helping London, because the bulk of Luton's traffic will probably come from the London area.

The second reason why we must get a move on is, as I think the Minister will agree, that progress on the M40 London-Birmingham motorway, which we are told will help in taking traffic away from the M1, is pretty slow.

Thirdly—this may seem an odd reason, but I think that it is valid—by 1982 the Bedford-St. Pancras line will have been electrified. That does not necessarily mean that people will leap into trains. It means that there will be pressure for more housing in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire. But if rail fares go on rising—I am delighted that they are to be frozen for the rest of this year—we must accept that there is a risk that people will travel by rail for a while but that, because of the cost of new houses, the cost of living and so on, they will decide to go by road rather than rail.

Bluntly, I put it to the Minister: are we so short of funds that we cannot make a start on building the third lane now? I do not believe that we are. I believe that, within the context of public expenditure, it should be possible to set aside money for this important project.

I accept that we cannot wave a wand and get to work straight away. But there are two questions that I want to ask. First, what is to be done in the meantime? Secondly, what will happen on the question of repairs for the next two to three years?

First, what should be done in the mean time? I again put my plan for putting lorries only into the slow lane. I suggest that we ban heavy lorries from overtaking on the two-lane section. I have put this point to the Minister before. I think that matters have changed a little since then. When I put this matter to him last year, he said that he could not agree to it. However, he has power to ban traffic from using the overtaking lane on a motorway. In his letter to me of 3rd March 1977, he said:
"Traffic conditions on this very busy section of M1 will be kept under constant review by the Regional Controller and it may be that this will suggest ways in which some short term improvement to them is possible."
The regional controller has been looking at it carefully. I wonder whether his view has changed.

I want to make one comment about the arguments against that proposal. One anxiety is that, if we have lorries only in the slow lane, people will find it difficult to move from the fast lane into the slow lane to get off the motorway on the two-lane section—in other words, if they want to turn off at a particular junction.

I do not think that that argument holds water. The Hertfordshire police put that argument to me as well. I do not think that it holds water because the road is so congested that the difference between lots of heavy lorries on the slow lane and a mixture of lorries and cars is splitting hairs. If one is in the fast lane of the two-lane section and wants to get off the motorway, care and caution are required. The fact that the composition of the traffic could be different because of heavy lorries or a mixture of lorries and cars is not relevant.

Before the heavy commercial vehicle lobby gets excited about my plans, perhaps I may make this point. One reason why there are so many accidents on the two-lane section arises when a lorry going at 45 mph decides to overtake a lorry going at 40 mph. That is a slow process. If a lorry driver puts out his indicator and decides that he will overtake a lorry going at 40 mph and lots of private cars are cruising at 60 mph or 70 mph, it takes only one miscalculation or the slightest carelessness by one driver to cause a concertina-type crash. It needs only to be wet and somebody to brake too hard and skid, and other cars will skid into him.

My plea to the Minister is to ban heavy lorries from the fast lane from 1st September 1978 and to try it for a year. That could take us through all the seasons. By suggesting that date, I am giving everybody plenty of time to do the necessary planning, to put up the necessary signs and organise publicity. Let us try it. It is worth a try. Anything is better than the present situation. I do not think that it is asking too much.

I ask those in the commercial vehicle lobby whether they would rather travel more slowly or come to a shuddering halt because of a crash. I am sure that they would prefer that their vehicles went slowly for six miles rather than have them held up by an accident because of a vehicle travelling at 45 mph overtaking another travelling at 40 mph and a car skidding when slowing down. I am sure that they would prefer steady progress for a year as an experiment.

I turn to the question of repairs. I am not seeking to blame either party for the present situation. Both Governments are to blame. But I must mention the last repairs that were done. They took place from 4th April to 9th May. The repairs were to the bridges. They were leaking and the Minister said that repairs were essential.

Let us go back to September 1975, when tremendous repairs took place on this section of the motorway which has just had its bridges repaired. When that work was done in September 1975, we were told that it would last for 10 years. Why on earth were the bridges not checked then? During the repairs to the bridges, there was terrible traffic congestion and difficulty, particularly affecting people living in Redbourn in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew).

Is my hon. Friend aware that my constituents in Redbourn have to live with unendurable conditions? Heavy traffic travels along the narrow High Street all the time, but, because of the combination of the peak hour build-up and the repairs, heavy lorries and other vehicles travel down side streets in an effort to avoid the High Street and they put at risk the lives of the children who attend the schools in the village.

I am sure that the Minister has noted my hon. Friend's point. I have been stuck for a considerable time trying to travel through Redbourn to avoid the repairs.

We are delighted that the repairs have been done. But will there be any more repairs on the M1 in the next five years? I shall not ask about 10 years ahead. I hope that the Minister will say "No". I hope he will say that we have mastered the problem. I hope that we have mastered road building technology.

On Radio 4 at about 7.55 a.m. recently I heard that a tremendous amount of work now has to be done in the Birmingham area at Spaghetti Junction. If we have not mastered the technology of motorway building, let us consult countries such as America and Germany which have mastered it. Let us do it right this time instead of having to do work every two or three years.

Somebody made a serious miscalculation in September 1975. Those bridges should have been checked then. We have been through chaos and difficulty yet again, particularly those who live in Redbourn. I hope that we do not experience that again.

I believe that we could find the funds to build a third lane. I have given three extra reasons why it is imperative to do it. Not the least of those reasons is the general build-up of traffic. Let us try my experiment of banning heavy lorries from the fast lane. Let us try that for a year and see what happens. It is definitely worth a try. The Minister has power to ban lorries from certain sections of a motorway.

I hope that we might have an assurance that all the work that needs to be done has been done. Let us get the third lane built. Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire have done a fantastic amount for London. Houses, schools, industry and now an expanded airport have been provided. Never have two counties done so much for one city so quickly. But we must have the infrastructure to service what we have done for London. One vital bit of infrastructure is to get a third lane built on that awful two-lane six-mile stretch as soon as possible.

4.25 p.m.

Perhaps I may first record my gratitude to the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Madel) for his kind remarks about me and my departmental officials. As he knows, I had the pleasure of talking to members of the Bedfordshire County Council in County Hall a short time ago, when we went over many of the problems—problems about which the hon Member has also been to see me, especially those connected with the Leighton Buzzard area. I know that he feels very strongly that the county has taken a large additional population, in some instances without the infrastructure which the new towns, for example, have received. I accept that there is a need to make progress, especially in providing roads in his area. As he knows, there are schemes for that, and I hope that we shall be able to co-ordinate discussions between my officials and the county's officials to ensure that good progress is made on all these schemes.

As the hon. Member said, this is a very opportune time of the week to be discussing the M1. I am sure that, as we sit here, there will be people driving along it in very congested conditions, although it is fair to say that it may not be the worst congested road in the country. Offhand, I do not know which is the worst, and Friday evening is notoriously a peak period for congestion on all motorways. The hon. Member mentioned the Birmingham motorway. I am sure that they are equally congested at this time of day, especially in the summer months.

In the 20 years since the first motorway was opened to traffic, the public have quite rightly come to expect the least possible interruption to travel on motorways, and it is understandably disturbing when for what seems to be an unconscionable time the normal free flow of motorway traffic is reduced to a crawl.

The recent works to which the hon. Member referred undoubtedly have had an effect on the M1 between junctions 8 and 9. This was one of the earliest sections of motorway built. It was opened to traffic in 1959. At that time it was not generally the practice to waterproof the concrete decks of motorway bridges. But experience has shown that the omission of waterproofing gives rise to problems. Water percolates through the carriageway surface and continues down through the deck. Over a long period, the structure deteriorates, with the consequent need for major reconstruction. Waterproofing is now common practice.

Tests showed that the structures of the three bridges in question were still sound, but water was seeping through, and waterproofing was undertaken to safeguard against costly and seriously disruptive reconstruction works in the future. The operation involved removing the road surface from the top of the structure and putting down a waterproof mastic asphalt layer on the concrete deck. As I think I said to the hon. Member recently at Question Time, it really is a case of a stitch in time saving nine on motorways.

The hon. Member asked why we could not master motorway construction technology in the way that other countries have. I doubt very much whether our knowledge is inferior to that of other countries. But it is often a question of continuous improvement saving major reconstruction work which would lead to delays for a longer period of time than the five weeks spent doing the work of which the hon. Gentleman complained. In fact, the work went on for one day more than the proposed five weeks. It was programmed to finish on Monday of this week and in fact it was completed on Tuesday, which is not bad going.

Perhaps I may also comment on the arrangements for traffic during that period. On the whole, I think that they work very well. We were able to keep two lanes open in each direction by contra-flow methods, and that proved successful. Up and down the country we are coping very well with repairs by that means.

Certainly accidents have occurred during the five-week period of the works. From 4th April to Tuesday 9th May there were 140 accidents involving 418 vehicles. Three people were seriously injured and 32 slightly injured. However, the police consider that everything reasonably possible was done by way of signs and warnings, but the accidents—mostly shunt collisions on the approaches to the crossover points—were caused by drivers travelling too fast or too close to the vehicle in front or lane-weaving. It is very difficult to protect such drivers from their own folly, although perhaps some of the prosecutions now pending may drive home the message that signs on motorways must be taken very seriously.

All the same, we shall go on trying to reduce the possibility of accidents at the sites of works on motorways, applying the lessons of experience wherever we can. It is bound to be a gradual process, but one can perhaps derive some encouragement from the fact that fewer accidents occurred during the five weeks of the recent works than in four weeks in September 1975 when contra-flow was used between junctions 8 and 10. We are, therefore, learning from experience.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the waterproofing work could not have been done during an earlier period. Basically, the jobs could have been done concurrently, but the resurfacing, which was the major piece of work done in 1975, was an overlay operation, which moved along fairly quickly. The traffic arrangements allowed the contractor to vary the restricted length of motorway as the work progressed, keeping the length coned off to a minimum.

On the other hand, the waterproofing work is a static operation and if it had been carried out at the same time as the resurfacing the contractor would have been unable to change the traffic arrangements. That would have meant a longer contract period and a longer period of restriction. In other words, it would have taken longer than under the arrangements which were actually used—although it would have avoided the period of five weeks' reconstruction. It is a matter of balance—there are arguments both ways—but I do not believe that the public lost out.

I was also asked whether there will be any more repairs on the M1. Obviously, there will be more repairs, simply because one monitors this stretch very carefully and we are bound to take the view that if something develops we will need to look at it carefully and possibly do something about it with a view to keeping the major reconstructions which have to be done to an absolute minimum.

I could not commit myself to saying that there will be no repairs in the immediate future. There will be, but we recognise the problem on this stretch. That is why we give it particular attention and will do our best to keep the delays caused by repairs to an absolute minimum.

Turning to the more fundamental question that the hon. Gentleman raised, about the dual two-lane section and the widening, I fully recognise, first, that many people in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire use the M1 almost as commuters. Secondly, it is also heavily used by long distance traffic travelling further afield between London and the Midlands and the North.

The M1 now stretches from the North Circular, which is seven miles from central London, to Leeds and has connections with the major roads serving industrial areas throughout its length. When the London outer orbital motorway, the M25, is completed, with a junction with the M1, the M1 will be connected not only to roads crossing it to the North but also to high standard routes to the Kent and other South Coast ports and indeed to the West Country.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the Berrygrove-Breakspears section was part of the original M1, opened in 1959. It was built with only two lanes in each direction, because the M10 was built at the same time and it was expected that a considerable volume of traffic would want to journey to and from London via the M10 and the A5 rather than the M1 and the A41. That happened for a number of years, but as the M1 was extended progressively southwards traffic found that it could get nearer to its destination on the M1 and the M10 has been used less. As a result, the dual two-lane section of the M1 has become badly overloaded.

The hon. Gentleman might like to know that a traffic count in August 1977 revealed that over 65,000 vehicles were using this section every day. A dual two-lane motorway is normally expected to have a capacity of about 48,000 vehicles a day. It is not surprising, therefore, that a great deal of congestion occurs. Of the 65,000 vehicles counted, 21 per cent. were heavy goods vehicles. The national average of heavy goods vehicles on any stretch of road is about 10 per cent. It is therefore quite clear how important the M1 is for moving the products of industry.

The scheme for the improvement and widening of this section of the M1 is therefore confirmed in the programme for a planned start in 1981 to 1983 in our recent White Paper. This accords with our policy of providing better roads to help promote the growth of industry and commerce. Other hon. Members have taken an interest in the proposed scheme—the hon. Member for St. Albans (Mr. Goodhew) has intervened briefly in the debate—as users of the M1 themselves and as representatives of the people from many parts of the country who use it regularly.

A scheme to widen to dual four-lane carriageways was first put into the Department's preparation pool in 1972. Draft proposals were published later that same year and a public inquiry was held in June and July 1973. The idea of the scheme put forward at that time was to convert the existing carriageways into a new four-lane northbound carriageway and to construct a brand new four-lane southbound carriageway immediately to the east of the present motorway.

The inspector at the 1973 inquiry recommended in favour of the Department's proposed scheme. However, in 1974 revised traffic forecasting methods and design standards were introduced and the Department had to look again at the scheme in the light of these. As a result the Department produced a revised scheme for a new three-lane southbound carriageway and conversion of the existing carriageways to provide three lanes between Berrygrove and Waterdale and four lanes between Waterdale and Breakspears. This scheme, together with revised proposals for the A405 (Waterdale) junction, was discussed at a public inquiry held in June and July 1976.

Obviously I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern over the time it has taken since then to come to a decision. This has not yet been made by the Secretary of State, although he hopes to take it very soon.

There are complex issues at stake. The M25 London outer orbital scheme has assumed increasing importance and I am sure few would dissent from the view we have taken, repeated in the recent White Paper, that that scheme should be our top future priority. That in no way detracts from the importance of a satisfactory M1. Indeed, as well as taking account of the inspector's report following the 1976 inquiry, we must also now give careful consideration to the relationship of this section of M1 to M25 which will, of course, join and cross it roughly in the vicinity of junction 6.

The scheme also has had to be reappraised in the light of our new approach, including in particular our acceptance of the principles of the Leitch Committee's report. But I can assure the hon. Member that with all these factors in mind we shall do our utmost to reach conclusions on the inspector's report in the near future. The hon. Gentleman has suggested that in the meantime we should ban overtaking by heavy goods vehicles on this dual two-lane section. That has some attractions. The Department has seriously considered it. One has to consider the balance of advantages and disadvantages.

If the suggested restriction on HGVs were fully observed it would no doubt remove the risk of shunt accidents occurring when relatively slow-moving vehicles move out of the nearside lane to overtake, and speeds in the offside lane might increase, although the traffic volume is a restraint on speed and the increase would not be very noticeable.

Against these possible advantages there would be serious disadvantages. The traffic in the nearside lanes would proceed in groups, largely composed of lorries but not excluding other vehicles, at speeds set by the slowest among them. Intervals between vehicles would be small, and the high concentration of HGVs would increase the risk of serious shunt accidents between them. On a two-lane carriageway that could more easily cause complete blockage than where a third lane is available. The tight grouping of vehicles would make it much more difficult to leave or to join the motorway at the intermediate junction. The hon. Gentleman disputes that. Vehicles in the offside lane, in particular, could be prevented from moving into the nearside lane before reaching the deceleration lane, and their drivers might be tempted to take last-second risks, with disastrous consequences.

Finally, there would be the difficulty of enforcement. The police are generally very willing to play their part in the improvement of traffic conditions by deploying their scarce manpower resources to best advantage, but it would not be reasonable to expect them to use those resources to enforce restrictions unless they themselves were convinced that the restrictions were practicable and would bring about the desired improvement. In this instance the Hertfordshire police would not support the proposal, as I think the hon. Gentleman knows, and I think we must recognise that their experience of motorway traffic surveillance is such that their opinion on such matters must be respected. They are regularly dealing with this section of the M1. The best traffic regulations are virtually self-enforcing and the police are not then faced with an impossible task. However we shall keep this possibility under review. If we change our mind about it we shall implement it as soon as we can. The balance of opinion among my officials, however, is against his suggestion.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of extra traffic arising from Luton Airport. I agree that in the White Paper on airports policy presented to Parliament on 1st February this year, it was stated that the Government did not consider Luton Airport suitable for major development—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Five o'clock.