Where did the Motorway Network begin in the UK?

UK Motorway Construction

UK Motorway Network Construction

Improving road transport networks can completely transform parts of the country where the rail service is either unreliable or even non-existent. Motorway construction can do even more to revive larger areas, and link major metropolitan areas to each other.

The earliest section of the UK motorway network was actually that bane of town planners, the bypass. Opened by Harold Macmillan in 1958, the Preston Bypass now forms part of the M6, but in the late 1950s was a fast tourist route to the Lake District and Blackpool, galvanising the holiday industry and local traffic, especially during busy periods, such as the Blackpool Illuminations. Planning for a stretch of road that covered a mere 8 ¼ miles had been going on for just over twenty years, and it was to be effectively a £3 million test run for the nationwide motorway network to follow. The tailbacks that had been a common occurrence ended, making the dry run a success. James Drake, the project engineer, was County Surveyor and Bridgemaster for Lancashire County Council, and his efficient running of the project led to contracts to expand the network throughout the North East. The Preston Bypass section was notable for its wide central reservation, which was forward provision for a possible third land in each direction. Eight years later, that third lane became a necessity, and twenty years after that, there was considerable reconstruction to allow a fourth lane.

The first full-length motorway, however, went to Sir Owen Williams & Partners, with John Laing Construction Ltd as main contractor. The present M1 runs from Mill Hill to Yorkshire, some 200 miles, but the first stretch was a relatively modest present-day Junction 10 (south of Luton) to Junction 18 near Crick in Northamptonshire. The 50 mile or so stretch had no speed limit, so drivers could go as fast as they pleased – although few hit the heights of Jack Sears, a Le Mans 24 Hours race driver, who clocked up an impressive 185mph at around 4.00am in June 1964 whilst giving him Ford Cobra Coupé a test run. For everyone else, the speed limit of 70mph was set on 22nd December of the following year.

It took a while for congestion to kick in on the motorway network, but by 1980, the M6 was particularly problematic around the heavily-populated Birmingham area. Midland Expressway Limited won the contract in 1991 for a 53 year concession to build a toll road – the M6 toll road was also an early form of public-private partnership, with costs recovered with the road usage charges over the 50 year period prior to infrastructure being returned to the government. The consortium of four contractors – Carillion, McAlpine, Balfour Beatty, and AMEC – started clearing the site in 2000. To improve road absorbency, around two and a half million Mills & Boon romances were sacrificed to the cause, and pulped to mix with the tarmac surface. It still took twelve years from winning the contract to the first paid journey as a result of a series of enquiries and protests.

The most notorious of the UK motorways is the M25, not so affectionately known by motorists that use it on a regular basis as the UK's biggest car park. Costing £7.7m per mile, the entire 118 mile length cost a whopping £909m in totally, and has been similarly expensive to maintain since opening in 1986. Plans for a ring-road around London had been in place since the early twentieth century, but serious construction didn't begin until the 1960s with the London Ringways plan. The construction safety record hasn't been without controversy either; in 2010, a Romanian worker was killed during a programme of road-widening, and in 2012, Costain were fined for the death of a surveyor killed by a reversing lorry.

In planning a new motorway project, a freelance quantity surveyor would be responsible for all costs which relate to the project, and for producing final accounts – much like every other major construction project they might work on. They would also have to look at the specifics of maintaining the road surface, including skid resistance and surface treatments available, as well as taking into account the likely volume of traffic the road will experience; for example, roads and pavements have different wear and tear considerations. Health and safety on road construction sites is also a major consideration, as part of the site may already be in use.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the motorway network in the UK is that it will have to develop further to accommodate ever-increasing traffic. New projects and new considerations – both environmental and economic – make working on highways projects an exciting prospect.

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