Wigan M6 Smart motorway project to overrun by two years as safety areas double

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The number of emergency areas on the Smart motorway upgrade of the M6 between Wigan and Warrington is to be doubled in the wake of safety fears.

And it means that the project is now set to overrun by two years and only end in spring 2025.

The introduction of Smart motorways, which not only control vehicle speeds through matrix signs but also deploy the hard shoulder for driving during busy periods, is being scrapped following a number of accidents around the country and severalfatalities.

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But because the Wigan project was already under way, a decision was taken to press on, so long as extra safety features were brought in.

The M6 between Wigan and Warrington is one of the last stretches in the country to be made into a Smart motorwayThe M6 between Wigan and Warrington is one of the last stretches in the country to be made into a Smart motorway
The M6 between Wigan and Warrington is one of the last stretches in the country to be made into a Smart motorway

​And the National Highways announcement is just that: when the upgraded road opens drivers will have more places to stop if they need to in an emergency.

The original plan was for 10 emergency areas along the stretch of motorway.

But the project team has now been given the green light to add up to a dozen more as part of a Government commitment to build more than 150 additional emergency areas on all lane running (ALR) motorways across the country by 2025.

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National Highways project sponsor Felicity Clayton said: “The safety of people travelling on England’s motorways and major A-roads is National Highways’ highestpriority.

"We have listened to drivers' concerns about being able to find a safe place to stop in an emergency on motorways which don’t have a permanent hard shoulder and have been developing a programme to roll out even more emergency areas on all lane running smart motorways, in operation and construction.

“This investment in extra emergency areas will help increase road users’ confidence.”

The Government axed the scheme, saying that it did not believe Smart motorways to be dangerous but because of lost driver confidence in the scheme. It was also a means of saving money. But the AA is calling for hard shoulders to be reinstated.

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Originally the Wigan to Warrington works, which started pre-Covid in 2019, were scheduled to last until the spring of 2023 (some signage still says that), then it was extended to September but now National Highways is saying it will only be done in spring 2025!

National Highways is installing extra technology and adding a lane in each direction along 10 miles of the motorway, but the improvement has been slowed by a variety of factors including difficult ground conditions in an area with a history of old mine workings.

Building the additional emergency areas will also add time to the construction programme.

Dave Cooke, National Highways senior project manager, said: “We made very good progress in our first year and completed the installation of the concrete central reservation barrier between junction 21a and junction 26 last year – in spite of the difficult ground conditions.

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“Unfortunately, our work to convert the hard shoulders into an extra running lane and provide the extra technology to help smooth drivers’ journeys along the upgraded motorway has met further challenges.

“This is one of the busiest sections of motorway in the region and we are desperate to finish this work to provide even safer, smoother and more reliable journeys for the 120,000 drivers who use this part of the M6 every day. I’d like to reassure everyone that we are working as quickly as is safely possible to complete this project.”

During the work so far nearly 150,000 cubic metres of earth – enough to fill 60 Olympic swimming pools – has been excavated with the challenging ground conditions causing knock-on delays to other aspects of the project including drainage.

The removal of large areas of invasive shrubs and trees in the grass verges has also taken longer than anticipated.

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Once the project is completed, new radar detectors positioned along the motorway will automatically detect stationary vehicles.

A total of 92 electronic signs will be used to set variable speed limits to help prevent stop-start conditions and close lanes by displaying red Xs during incidents.

Around 40 new CCTV cameras will provide live images of the motorway 24 hours a day to National Highways’ regional operations centre in Newton-le-Willows.

Drivers will also be able to use any of the now up to 22 new orange coloured emergency areas if they need to stop in an emergency.

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Emergency areas are clearly marked by blue signs featuring an orange emergency area shape and SOS telephone symbol and have roadside telephones providing a direct link to the regional operations centre.

Makerfield MP Yvonne Fovargue said: “I have made clear my opposition to smart motorways but the Government have confirmed that this busy stretch of the M6 will be an ‘all lane running’ motorway.

"It is now in the interests of road users that this work is completed as quickly as possible given the slippage in the original completion date.”

Edmund King, AA president, said: “We applaud National Highways for making good progress in implementing and improving the performance of Stopped Vehicle Detection and other safety measures on ‘smart’ motorways following serious concerns raised by the AA and others.

“The fundamental problem remains that stopped vehicle incidents are more frequent on All Lane Running (ALR) ‘smart’ motorways compared to motorways with hard shoulders.

"To address this, the hard shoulder needs to be reinstated or at the very least the number of Emergency Areas needs to be radically increased.

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“The prospect of breaking down or stopping in a live lane is daunting as our AA call centre operators who take the distressed calls can confirm.

"The advice remains that if you break down in a live lane and can’t exit the vehicle safely via the passenger seat, you should keep your seat belt on, put on hazard lights and other lights and dial 999. It is an emergency.

“Of course, drivers can also do their bit by ensuring their vehicles are in good condition, by reacting to warning lights, ensuring they have enough fuel or charge and by driving safely.

“We welcomed the scrapping of new ‘smart’ motorways but even with the progress made with new technology on existing ones, more needs to be done to reduce the dangers of live lane stops.”