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Thelwall Viaduct (M6)

Volume 405: debated on Monday 12 May 2003

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

10.58 pm

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a serious problem that faces my constituents.

Many Members, and indeed millions of people across the country, will have heard of the Thelwall viaduct on the M6. In fact it is becoming almost as famous as the M25 in the traffic reports—although I must say that it is in a far more attractive part of the country, in my Cheshire constituency.

Normally, the M6 is a tremendous local asset for Warrington. It connects us directly with the national transport infrastructure and brings a lot of business and jobs. Unfortunately, however, it is currently rather a neighbourhood nuisance as well, directing much unnecessary additional traffic on to our roads.

Warrington is a prosperous town surrounded by villages. It has always been a business town. It was established by the Romans at the first crossing point on the Mersey. The Thelwall viaduct provides passage for the M6 motorway over the River Mersey and the Manchester ship canal, once two strategic arteries in their own right. Warrington is still at the centre of the north-west traffic network, with the M62 crossing to the north and the M56 to the south. The west coast main line goes through the town and there are two international airports.

The Thelwall viaduct was constructed in 1963. I understand that the Minister was very familiar with the traffic routes at that point in his youth. Some six years ago, a new viaduct was constructed alongside the existing one to double the capacity of the crossing. The old structure was subjected to extensive maintenance and improvement works in 1995 before reopening to traffic. It is used by nearly 200,000 vehicles a day.

In June 2002, a formal but routine inspection was in progress when the bridge inspector fortunately decided to look closely at one of the main bridge bearings. In essence, those are high-tensile steel rollers that are designed to cope with the natural movements of the road deck. The inspection found that one of the main roller bearings carrying the largest span of the viaduct across the ship canal had sheared. Detailed investigations were urgently carried out. They revealed other failures in the bridge bearings and the decision was correctly taken, for health and safety reasons, to close the old viaduct to all but northbound traffic running in one lane in order to carry out urgent remedial works.

Following the closure, extensive surveys were undertaken of all roller bearings, including visual and ultrasonic testing. Those confirmed that seven bearings were failing in the same way. Work was programmed to replace the bearings urgently and a date of April 2003 was given for the remedial work to be completed. My constituents were unhappy about the delay but understood the reason for it. However, continuing intensive testing found that bearings all over the bridge were failing even while the work was being carried out. While their predecessors had lasted over 35 years, those bearings were failing after only six years.

Rightly, the Highways Agency decided to delay the proposed Easter opening of the viaduct and to replace all the roller bearings in the structure. The latest estimate for reopening is now March 2005, some two years beyond the expected opening this Easter. The estimated cost of replacing the bearings is £30 million but that is not the only cost to be considered. Those extensive repairs and the consequent transport delays are causing real problems in my constituency and across the north-west for the traffic infrastructure.

There are significant delays most days at that point in the motorway network. Those are widely publicised on local and national media. Instead of enduring those delays, some drivers are diverting through the town and surrounding villages, causing traffic jams for road users, a profound nuisance and hazard to residents. The roads in the town and our many villages are simply not designed for the traffic load that they currently have to bear. I hope that the Minister recognises the serious problem that my constituents face and will continue to face until spring 2005.

Why is the disruption so significant? Apart from the obvious impact on our local environment and the road safety issues of extensive additional through traffic, an effective transport infrastructure is vital to the success of our local and regional economy. Warrington has a vibrant local economy, bringing good jobs for local people. The unemployment rate is an impressively low 1.8 per cent. We are at the centre of the north-west, with good motorway and rail networks, and we play a key part in the business and academic communities of Manchester and Liverpool. Key regional and national companies and services are based in Warrington: British Nuclear Fuels Ltd., United Utilities, the regional development agency, and the strategic health authority, among many others.

In Warrington, we intend to do everything that we can to keep that edge. Growth in the Warrington economy will outstrip national growth by more than three times by 2015. Employment has grown by 29 per cent. over the past 10 years, the second highest growth rate in the country. It is set to increase by almost four times the national rate over the next 10 years. We are working very hard and effectively to make that happen. Sites such as Omega and Birchwood Park are being developed to provide areas for further economic development that have a strategic significance right across the north-west. Warrington is a true economic success story and we are working tremendously hard in the community to make sure that that continues. We want the Minister's support to help us.

In particular, we want to ensure that the town's success is not endangered by the traffic disruption caused by work on the Thelwall viaduct. Warrington and the north-west have traded very successfully on location and easy access when attracting new investors. This approach is obviously at risk when potential investors see trouble on this crucial part of the transport network.

Warrington and the surrounding area is the distribution base for many regional companies. Thousands of workers are employed in this sector in Warrington and very many thousands in the north-west as a whole. There is a vital freight route from Eire to Europe via the M62 upon which the vitality of the Liverpool port depends. We cannot afford that to be undermined by continued delays at the junction of the M6 and M62 that are caused by the tailback at the viaduct.

Warrington's economy is forecast to grow by nearly 4 per cent. between 2000 and 2005, compared with the UK predicted level of 2.5 per cent. We need a speedy resolution to the issue. We do not want our local economy to lose, an outcome that I am sure the Minister will agree is not acceptable.

Public safety is absolutely paramount, and I understand and welcome the preventive action taken to protect the travelling public. I have had a number of discussions with Cheshire police about the road works and the resources that it has allocated to improve road safety. The motorway police have coped well with 10 months of road works so far, but a further two years work will place a considerable strain on them. I hope that that point is understood and acknowledged by my hon. Friend.

I should also point out that the safety of roads in the centre of Warrington and the villages around it is being compromised by the extra traffic that is trying to avoid the motorway. Substantial amounts of time, effort and money are being spent on coping with that at the expense of planned improvements in safety elsewhere in my constituency.

I would like the Minister to answer some specific questions. Will he assure me that the work on the viaduct will be completed as swiftly as is compatible with public safety? The work must take place as speedily as possible with whatever resources are needed to make sure that that can happen. Can he confirm that all necessary financial and professional resources are being deployed to resolve the present engineering problems in the shortest possible time? Will he confirm that the full inspection of the whole structure has now been carried out and that no further works with a similar need for traffic restrictions will extend our current deadline for completion and the reopening of the viaduct to traffic?

The bridge bearings that failed were only six years old with a life expectancy of substantially more than that. Can the Minister confirm what action is being taken to determine the reasons for the failure? How will he ensure that the current renovations will have a respectable life expectancy?

Warrington was designated as a centre of excellence following the submission and acceptance of its local transport plan in August 2000. The problems resulting from restrictions on the viaduct now make the delivery of the plan extremely difficult at a critical period. Can the Minister assure me that the effect of the repairs to the Thelwall viaduct will be taken into consideration when Warrington's performance against the plan is reviewed by his Department? Will he make additional resources available to allow Warrington to continue to make essential progress on transport improvements for the people of Warrington?

I know that the officers of the Highways Agency have worked effectively with Warrington borough council to look for ways to reduce traffic congestion in our local community. What will the Minister do to develop and extend the support that they provide for the duration of the traffic disturbances? Will he further confirm his support for the closest possible liaison between the council and the Highways Agency to ensure that traffic disruption is kept to a minimum, that additional traffic on our roads is minimised and that Warrington's economy is protected?

We want to keep long-distance drivers travelling on the M6 motorway, not on our town centre and village roads. Of course, if they would like to savour the delights of my constituency, to call into one of the many top-class shopping outlets, to have a meal at one of our excellent restaurants or to stay in one of our friendly hotels, they will be extremely welcome to break their journey with us. However, we must discourage people from rat running through our roads just to avoid the inconvenience and minor delay of motorway repairs. That does not make motorists' journeys any quicker and causes great inconvenience for local people.

I ask the Minister to do two key things. First, will he focus the attention of the specialists carrying out the remedial works—the metallurgists, engineers and structural people—on resolving the issues as safely and efficiently as possible in the shortest possible time? Will he take a personal interest in ensuring that that actually happens? Secondly, will he make additional resources available to help Warrington to tackle the problems caused by two and a half years of disruptions, diversions and delays? May we have resources to bring forward a local package of safety and transport improvements to run in parallel with the work on the viaduct? Many improvements are already planned and would help to compensate for the impact of the displaced traffic.

The north-west is an important part of the national economy and Warrington is right at the heart of the north-west. My constituents hope that the Minister will give them the comfort that they need and the action that they are looking for.

11.12 pm

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Helen Southworth) on securing the debate and on the way in which she prosecuted her case with brevity and precision. As always, she speaks up for her constituents. She even took us back to Roman times, and I always enjoy the little history lessons that we get on these occasions. She referred to a time about a year or so after the viaduct opened. I recall travelling across it in the heady days of my youth in my old pre-war Austin 10. Sadly, in those days the motorway finished just north of the viaduct and my journey to Aberdeen continued on somewhat narrower roads—although given that my car would barely do more than 40 mph, that did not matter a great deal.

I know that this matter is of great importance to my hon. Friend and those who live and work in her constituency. Her constituents are understandably concerned about the impact of prolonged work on the Thelwall viaduct and the associated traffic restrictions on business and travel in the area. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are worried not only about the possible impact on the region and the north-west economy, but about the impact on the major north-south transport corridor in the west of the country.

The Thelwall viaduct is in fact made up of two viaducts. One takes northbound traffic and the other takes southbound traffic. It is 1.5 km long and carries the M6 Motorway over the Manchester ship canal, the River Mersey and Warrington road. It is one of the busiest sections of the motorway in the north-west of England and typically carries between 150,000 and 160,000 vehicles a day.

Good motorway connections are of major importance to business, and the proximity of the M6 to my hon. Friend's constituency is a major benefit to its local business. My hon. Friend will be aware that it was announced recently that a route management strategy for the M6, from junction 20 at Warrington to the Scottish border, is being drawn up to cover the next 10 years. That includes the section of motorway carried by the Thelwall viaduct. The study is aimed at identifying the best means of managing the motorway to relieve congestion, improve safety, protect the environment, provide better travel information and make the best use of the road network.

As my hon. Friend acknowledged, Warrington is well served by the motorway network. As the network stops 40 miles from my constituency, I would be happy to have the coverage that she enjoys. I am aware that the network has contributed to the town's attractiveness to developers. In addition to the M6, the M56 to the south of town and the M62 to the north also serve Warrington. The town has direct access to the motorway network at six junctions. Although benefiting the town, that also contributes to localised difficulties on the strategic motorway corridor because traffic makes short distance local journeys between junctions.

My hon. Friend is aware that a new junction 8 has recently been provided on the M62 at Warrington, with associated widening of the motorway, funded by English Partnerships. That gives much improved access to the nearby Gemini retail and business park, and will provide direct access to the forthcoming Omega business retail and leisure project, which over its life is estimated to bring 12,000 jobs to the region. I am sure that my hon. Friend welcomes those developments in the north, which I believe will have widespread benefits. Indeed, in addition to those opportunities in the north, I understand that a number of further major proposals are being promoted in the wider Warrington area.

I need to provide some background to the present situation at the Thelwall viaduct. The original crossing of the ship canal was opened as two viaducts in 1963. In the mid-1990s, in response to very significant increases in traffic, a new viaduct was constructed alongside the original structures. The original viaducts were then refurbished to form one, which carried four lanes of northbound traffic while the new viaduct carried four lanes of southbound traffic.

In July last year, the refurbished viaduct was partially closed to traffic after a routine inspection on behalf of the Highways Agency, which is responsible for the management, maintenance, operation and improvement of the trunk road and motorway network, that revealed a problem with one of the viaduct's large roller bearings. Those are substantial beasts and are nearly the size of the Dispatch Box. They are also expensive and have to be replaced. The agency has a thorough maintenance regime by which it monitors the condition of all its bridges and the discovery of the Thelwall problem resulted from that process.

Bridge bearings are designed to cater for the bridge deck movement caused by traffic loads and changes in temperature. On the Thelwall viaduct, that movement is allowed for in part by the use of 136 steel cylindrical roller bearings. It was one of the largest of those that was found to have failed. Temporary supports were immediately installed and traffic restrictions were put in place. Those restrictions have remained while investigations and remedial work, which will not have been apparent to drivers, have continued beneath the viaduct.

Originally, the Highways Agency announced its intention to reopen the viaduct by Christmas. At that time, it was thought that only four of the largest bearings needed to be replaced. However, a comprehensive inspection revealed that 10 other bearings had failed. The agency revised its reopening date to Easter 2003 to enable the additional 10 bearings to be replaced. I know that it will be of little consolation to my hon. Friend, but all those repairs were completed by the advertised date.

The Highways Agency has enlisted the help of leading experts who have worked with it to find a solution that would allow traffic to return to normal as quickly as possible. Laboratory testing and investigations into the failed bearings is now substantially complete. Those findings have confirmed that there is a very high probability that all remaining roller bearings are deteriorating and likely to suffer similar failure. In the interests of public safety and to maintain the integrity of the structure, the Highways Agency concluded that it could not fully reopen the viaduct as intended.

The agency is moving ahead as quickly as is feasible while ensuring that all the problems are identified and properly addressed. I assure my hon. Friend that a full inspection of the whole structure has been carried out and that ongoing monitoring of the structure is in place. I am confident that all the necessary works are now being identified. As I said, expert assistance has been enlisted in the interests of finding the long-term solution as quickly as possible. My hon. Friend is of course right to point out that the life expectancy of the roller bearings in the refurbished structure should substantially exceed six years. Detailed technical investigations are under way to determine the reasons for the failures. At this point, I should acknowledge that the cost of the remedial work is likely to be substantial. I do not wish to put a figure on that at this stage or to say anything further on that aspect, given that the question of liability for the failures that have occurred is likely to be decided through litigation and the courts. Nevertheless, funds will be available to the Highways Agency to carry out the necessary remedial work.

Let me deal with the expected duration of the remedial work and the duration and extent of traffic management measures. Last July, when the problem was first identified, as a safety measure traffic was restricted to a single lane on the northbound viaduct. That allowed traffic to leave the motorway for Warrington at junction 21, with three narrow lanes for traffic in each direction on the new viaduct using a contraflow system with a 40 mph speed restriction. It has been necessary to retain those traffic management arrangements, for safety reasons. The Highways Agency is doing all it can to limit delays on the motorway by means of advance warning signs on all the approaches. Unfortunately, however, there is no convenient diversion using the motorway network. Diverting traffic along the M62, M60, M56 and A556 would add some 15 miles to the journey, and parts of that route are already at full capacity during peak periods. The agency is continuing to monitor traffic patterns closely and will keep all possible diversion routes under review.

The agency is aware of the concerns about the effects that restrictions on the viaduct are having on the community of Warrington and on local businesses, and is working closely with those affected and those with an interest, in particular Warrington borough council, to identify the scale of the impact. I believe that one of the council's main concerns is that visitors to Warrington are being deterred, believing that there is continual queuing on the M6 when in fact, for some periods outside peak hours, that is not so. To address that, the Highways Agency is considering the possibility of using variable message signs on the motorway in a more flexible manner, to respond more quickly to changing circumstances.

I fully understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend about the level of traffic that is currently diverting on to the local road network to the west of the M6. It is recognised that the current restrictions are leading to additional traffic in Warrington and therefore to increased congestion in the town. The Highways Agency is collecting traffic count information and working closely with the council to quantify the problems and identify possible mitigation measures on the network. I understand that a useful and productive meeting recently took place between the agency and the council at which these issues were explored. I welcome my hon. Friend's acknowledgement of the support given locally by the Highways Agency, and I have asked the agency to continue that approach in working with the council to assist the local community.

My hon. Friend raised the important issue of the impact of the continuing effects of the traffic restrictions on the council's delivery of its local transport plan, I would expect the council to explain any difficulties when submitting its third annual progress report in July. I will consider any request that it makes for additional resources at that time. I hope that my hon. Friend finds that assurance helpful.

The duration of the works required to repair the viaduct will become clearer over the next few months. I understand that estimates of up to two years have appeared in the local press, and it is true that at this stage the Highways Agency considers that it might take until March 2005 to complete all the work. I have therefore asked the agency to investigate the possibility of phasing the work to secure early release of additional traffic lanes on the viaduct carrying the northbound traffic. It is not yet clear whether that can be achieved, but I will write to my hon. Friend when those investigations are complete.

Since the problem arose last summer, the Highways Agency has been providing regular progress reports to Ministers. My right hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have both taken a personal interest in the case, as have I, so my hon. Friend can be assured that 100 per cent. of the transport team are on her case. I think that she can be assured that everything possible is being done to bring this matter to a conclusion in as short a time as possible and with the minimum amount of disruption.

In addition to writing to my hon. Friend, I have asked the Highways Agency to ensure that it keeps her informed of any further significant developments so that she may continue to represent and inform her constituents.

This has been a useful debate on an extremely important strategic part of our motorway network. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the way in which she has represented her constituents and wider regional interests and probably some wider national interests.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Eleven o'clock.