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Sheppey Crossing: Safety

Volume 607: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered safety measures on the Sheppey Crossing.

I thought that the hon. Members leaving were here for my debate, but no doubt very few people have heard of the Sheppey crossing or know where it is.

Highways England has always maintained that the Sheppey crossing is safe and that there is nothing wrong with its design, but that view is simply not backed up by the facts. During the bridge’s design and build phase, Mott MacDonald undertook a road safety audit on behalf of what was then the Highways Agency. Stage 2 of the audit highlighted a number of deficiencies. For instance, paragraph 3.1 pointed out that the gradient of the bridge is 6% greater than that recommended for all- purpose dual carriageways. It went on to say that,

“This gradient, combined with the comparatively tight horizontal radius, and reduced stopping sight distances, may result, for example, in a higher than expected rate of nose to tail type collisions.”

Mott MacDonald recommended that the horizontal and vertical geometry be reviewed and that the stopping distance be maximised wherever possible. It also recommended that

“super elevation appropriate for the horizontal alignment”

be provided. That recommendation was rejected. An exception was made for the following reasons:

“The horizontal and vertical geometry has been reviewed however there is little opportunity to increase the stopping sight distance without significant amendments to the bridge. To maximise the stopping distance the alignment or bridge width would have to be changed.”

Here is the important bit:

“Changes of this nature would require additional land within the environmentally sensitive marshes and substantially increase the cost of construction.”

Despite the acknowledgement that the stopping sight distances should have been greater, it was decided that the recommendations of the audit would be ignored on the grounds of cost.

In paragraph 3.24, Mott MacDonald highlighted the inadequacies of the manual flat type signs used to warn motorists of hazards. The audit pointed out that those signs would

“present avoidable road safety hazards to both operatives and the travelling public.”

Mott MacDonald recommended that the flat type signs be replaced by remotely controlled signs using rotating planks/prisms or fibre optics—in effect, a matrix warning system. That recommendation was also rejected on the following grounds:

“Consultations have taken place with Kent County Council and the police and it has been agreed that flap type warning signs will be used to advise of high winds.”

I am not sure whether Kent County Council was happy with the flat type signs, but I know that the police were not. That was explained to me in an email I received from Dick Denyer, who was the Kent police traffic officer for the Swale area during the period in which the Sheppey crossing was built. He insists that throughout the consultation process he raised a number of concerns about the bridge’s design with the Highways Agency and the contractors. In his email, he wrote the following:

“Right up until the 11th hour prior to the opening of the bridge I asked and campaigned for the following:...Low level fluorescent lights positioned along the inside of the concrete parapet so as not to contravene the RSPB objections.”

They were never provided. There are no lights on the Sheppey crossing. He asked for

“A safe walkway for stranded motorists to get off the bridge.”

There is no safe walkway on the bridge. Motorists have to sit in their car. He also asked for

“Emergency Telephones to be positioned at regular intervals on the bridge.”

There are no emergency telephones on the Sheppey crossing. He campaigned for

“Matrix warning signs on the approach to the bridge from either side to warn of fog and set speed limits suited to the conditions.”

There are two matrix warning signs, but they are manual ones. He said that there should be

“Gates at either side of the bridge.”

There are no gates on the bridge in case of emergencies.

Mr Denyer went on to claim that he was stalled, ignored and fed misinformation, and that it was only in the month leading up to the opening of the bridge that it was admitted to him in meetings with the contractors and the Highways Agency that his requests were valid and that the bridge had serious safety shortcomings. However, the bridge construction was already considerably over budget, and there was no money left to make any of the alterations that Mr Denyer had requested, but he was told that they might be considered in the future.

Mott MacDonald’s audit statement, which I cited earlier, is very important. It said that the gradient of the bridge,

“combined with the comparatively tight horizontal radius, and reduced stopping sight distances, may result, for example, in a higher than expected rate of nose to tail type collisions.”

On 5 September 2013, there was a massive pile-up on the Sheppey crossing involving 150 vehicles in a succession of nose-to-tail collisions—the largest such accident in Britain’s history. After that crash, I asked that a review be undertaken of safety on the bridge. The Highways Agency said in response that no review was necessary because the police had concluded that driver behaviour was the main contributory factor to the incident, and that they had not called into question any aspect of the bridge’s design or operation. It went on to claim that that supported the view that the bridge, which opened in July 2006, was constructed in accordance with national highway design standards for roads and bridges and was intrinsically safe.

The most charitable way of describing that statement is that it is disingenuous. When I queried it, the police told me in a letter that,

“The parameters of the investigation did not cross over into the design or layout of the Sheppey Bridge in any way, but were focussed on the actions of the drivers involved.”

In other words, there was no need for them to look at the design of the bridge, so it was disingenuous of the Highways Agency to say that the police said that the bridge was intrinsically safe. That is not the case.

In fact, since the bridge opened, there have been a number of other nose-to-tail accidents, including one on 1 July 2014, in which a mother and son were tragically killed. After that accident, I again asked for a review of safety on the crossing, but on that occasion I was told that we would have to wait until after the inquest into the two deaths. I accepted that; it was reasonable.

At the inquest, which has now been held, the coroner made the following telling comments in a report sent to the chief executive of Highways England:

“During the course of the investigation my inquiries revealed matters giving rise to concern. In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths will occur unless action is taken.

Accident data reveals that in addition to the collision subject of this inquest which resulted in two fatalities, there have been a number of rear end collisions on the Sheppey Bridge associated with stationary vehicles being struck, including a multiple vehicle collision in September 2013.

A review of the safety of the Sheppey Bridge published in February 2015 has concluded that a combination of the geometry of the bridge affecting the forward visibility to drivers and the high speeds of vehicles travelling over the bridge, which has a 70 mph limit, impacts on the safety of the bridge. The review recommended a reduction in the speed limit to 50 mph to mitigate the safety concerns.

The speed limit for the bridge remains at 70 mph.”

The coroner went on to say:

“In my opinion urgent action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe your organisation has the power to take such action.”

The action that Highways England took was to introduce a temporary 50 mph speed limit. That was eight months ago. The problem is that few drivers comply with the speed limit and, because of the absence of repeater speed signs on the bridge, it is not possible for the police to enforce it on the Sheppey crossing itself, which somewhat defeats the object of a temporary speed limit. I understand that Highways England has commissioned Arup to undertake a review of safety on the Sheppey crossing. I asked for such a report almost three years ago, so although I am pleased that something is now being done, it prompts the question of why a report was not commissioned when I first requested it.

In November 2014, following the two tragic deaths, I made a speech here in Westminster Hall, in which I pointed out that as a result of the 2013 pile-up, as a bare minimum, there should be proper matrix warning signs on the bridge. I also said that even more measures were needed, including average speed cameras to enforce the 70 mph speed limit; CCTV monitoring of the bridge to spot breakdowns sooner and to enable the police to close the bridge more quickly; and the installation of emergency telephones and refuge bays, so that people do not have to stay in their cars if they break down.

It is now 2016 and no safety measures have been introduced, except for an unenforceable 50 mph speed limit. That is unacceptable. I plead with the Minister to encourage Highways England to treat the matter with the urgency that my constituents deserve. If action is not taken quickly and there is another major pile-up or, God forbid, another tragic death, then Highways England will have blood on its collective hands.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson) on securing the debate. It is probably most appropriate to start by saying that I am grateful that it gives me the opportunity to express my sincere condolences to the families of the two people killed on 1 July 2014 on the Sheppey crossing. I also wish for a full recovery for all those injured in the multi-vehicle accident in fog in September 2013.

My hon. Friend has articulated clearly his constituents’ problems with the crossing. He also talked about how local people raised the issues during the planning and construction phase, including those with significant knowledge of the area from an emergency services perspective. I am sure that he is frustrated that the situation is where it is, but we cannot rewrite the past; we have to work to improve the future.

My hon. Friend met my predecessor to seek assurances on the safety of the Sheppey crossing, and I confirm that the Government take road safety very seriously. The target set for Highways England is to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on our road network to no more than 1,393 in a year by the end of 2020. That would be a 40% reduction on the 2005 to 2009 average baseline. As we all know, however, that is still too many people, and we will continue to put road safety at the heart of our decisions as we review the strategic road network.

I am most aware and have always been conscious that behind every statistic is a shattered family. That is why I am pleased that we were able to produce our road safety statement for this Parliament in December of last year, articulating a number of actions that we can take across the spectrum of road-safety issues to improve the situation.

To turn directly to the matter of the A249 Sheppey crossing, perhaps it would be helpful to go over some of its recent history. A road safety audit was undertaken after the road had been open for a year, and it concluded that the accident frequency was lower than the predicted national average. I acknowledge that Kent police have expressed concerns since the opening of the crossing and, in particular, have sought a permanent 50 mph speed limit. Following the multi-vehicle collision in September 2013, however, the Kent police’s conclusion was that drivers had not adjusted their driving to take account of the fog. That happens all too frequently and is a constant source of concern for the network.

Following the tragic fatal accident on 1 July 2014, which sadly resulted in two deaths, as my hon. Friend said, an investigation was carried out by the consortium that operates the Sheppey crossing, in addition to the police investigation. A further study by the consortium reported its findings in February 2015, with the conclusion that no evidence was available to support the premise that inappropriate speed was a contributory factor to the fatal collision or any of the other collisions covered in the report, with the exception of the multiple collision in fog.

The report also concluded that the accident rate at the crossing was no higher than for other similar dual carriageways operated by Highways England.

For the Sheppey crossing, I accept that the rate of collisions is lower than the national average, but does the Minister accept that the rate on the accident severity index is higher than the national average?

My hon. Friend rightly makes an important point. The worst multiple-vehicle collision on record in our country’s history and an accident with two fatalities indicate the severity of the issues in the area.

The report identified a degree of non-compliance with the legal speed limit about one mile south of the collision. On 11 June last year, at a pre-inquest meeting, the coroner asked for urgent action to be taken by Highways England under regulation 28 of the Coroners (Investigations) Regulations 2013. Highways England responded and commissioned a road safety study. The initial study, published on 27 July last year, recommended that a temporary 50 mph speed limit should be imposed on the bridge and that it should be monitored. If the monitoring indicated that the speed limit was still being substantially exceeded, the use of average speed enforcement systems and other mitigation should be considered.

The 50 mph speed limit has since been imposed, and Highways England is monitoring the effects of the speed limit with average speed cameras that could be used to enforce the speed limit, but at the moment are not used for such enforcement—they are used for measurement, rather than for enforcement.

With regard to the speed limit and the monitoring of it, the Minister might not be aware from his briefing that the speeds for July and August were monitored. The average speed on the Sheppey crossing—bearing in mind that it is meant to have a 70 mph speed limit anyway—dropped from 80.55 mph to 75.38 mph northbound and from 78.15 mph to 72.71 mph southbound. So even while the 50 mph speed limit has been in place, the average speed has still been higher than the permanent 70 mph speed limit.

I was aware of those data and my hon. Friend is correct that speeds are still very high in the area. When I read those data, I was struck by how far above the temporary speed limit the speeds were. He makes a fair point about speed on the crossing.

The average speed cameras will provide Highways England with better information on traffic flows and speed on the Sheppey crossing as they cover a more focused area than the normal journey monitoring system on the A249. With the benefit of such speed and flow data, Highways England and Kent Police will hold discussions about whether the cameras should be used to enforce the speed limit.

I recognise that this is not just a matter of safety: incidents on the crossing have a significant impact on the Isle of Sheppey, both from an economic perspective and on its residents’ quality of life. My hon. Friend has made that point in discussions with me on several occasions prior to the debate.

On the question of enforcement, even with average speed cameras the police cannot enforce the limit unless signs are in place. That is clear in D3.7.19—that is the reference that Highways England uses—which says:

“The police can only enforce speed limits where the speed limit signs are correctly placed”,

and we cannot get those signs on the bridge. Unless there are proper average speed cameras and speed camera signs, which are not in place, the limit cannot be enforced.

My hon. Friend and I will be busy agreeing with each other on that point. I am aware of the restrictions in signage and lighting and of the environmental sensitivity of the crossing. I am also aware of the narrowness of the central reservation, the lack of refuges and the constrained nature of the site, which have restricted all the measures he mentioned.

Let me inform my hon. Friend and the House that Highways England recently held a workshop requested by its health and safety board, at which a number of actions were considered, including: removal of the temporary 50 mph speed limit currently in place; enforcement of the national 70 mph speed limit; enhanced road markings and signing; and setting a review period to monitor safety performance. Any permanent speed limit change would be subject to consultation with the police and would also require a statutory traffic regulation order. However, subject to the board’s endorsement, Highways England will develop an action plan for delivering the works, which may span over several months.

Highways England is also carrying out a further study on the whole of the A249 to identify permanent and viable cost-effective safety measures to ensure that drivers recognise that the posted speed limit is there for a reason. The outcome of that study is due to be published in about a month’s time—it is only four weeks away. I have not been able to see that report—it is not ready for publication—but it is clearly important. I suggest that, after it is published, my hon. Friend and I should read it and then meet to discuss its content. I would like to hear from him about local people’s concerns and the acceptability of speed limits. He obviously knows the site, and I do not know it anything like as well, so I would be grateful to hear his views when we get to that point. Perhaps a follow-up of the debate will be such a meeting.

Subject to the recommendations of the study, Highways England will consider a rationalisation of the existing speed limits on the lengths of single carriageway. It will also continue to monitor traffic and speeds, as well as incidents, with a view to bringing forward other measures that may be required.

May I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to the attention of the House? It is clearly a timely issue, given that we are only a few weeks from the publication date of that important report. He raised a number of points. First, he said that urgency is required in dealing with this matter, which is an important point. I am happy to confirm that that is exactly what will happen. Indeed, I have already raised the report and safety on the crossing with the chief executive of Highways England and will continue to do so as an action point from the debate.

Safety is at the heart of our work on road investment. As a Government, we are investing an unprecedented amount in our transport infrastructure and safety is at the heart of the decision-making process. It is one of the key elements that underpins our road investment strategy. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that action is being taken to make journeys better and safer for all. He has done a valuable job, speaking up on behalf of his constituents today about a difficult crossing that, as he articulated so clearly, has a chequered history in terms of safety. I look forward to working with him and with Highways England to improve the situation for all his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.