Traffic officers patrolling the M62 Smart Motorway even admitted they thought the system was “dangerous”.
Insiders warned of staffing issues, drivers “stranded” after a breakdown, faulty signals and ignored lane closure signs.
Following a government decision to “suspend” construction of new smart highways that include the use of the hard shoulder as a working lane, the Manchester Evening News spoke to traffic officers who patrol the roads in the area.
The latest concerns raised by staff come after the admission last year of a series of technical faults and oversights, many of which have now been corrected.
READ MORE: Not such a smart highway after all? The ‘dangerous’ issues and faults plaguing Greater Manchester’s M62
Although National Highways (formerly Highways England) admits some signals are still broken, they deny there are any staffing issues, insisting that, despite Omicron’s impact, they have “well-honed protocols to ensure adequate staffing levels…help keep motorists safe.” ”
However, traffic officers argue that insufficient CCTV monitoring means drivers have to wait in living lanes to be spotted by them or other drivers.
An insider told the Manchester Evening News: “I’ve seen smart highways unfold and I’ve seen smart highways unravel.
“It’s not a good idea, period. They’re not sure.
“We are tearing our hair out, the control room just doesn’t pick up outages on CCTV.
“We are always on different radio stations in different regions because they are covering and they don’t have the local knowledge.
“Sometimes the South West control room handles our calls.”
The traffic officer says this lack of “local knowledge” means controllers can send patrols farther from the incident than the nearest available crew.
They also claim they are often told to park rather than patrol to avoid “creating new jobs”.
They added: ‘It’s not the control room’s fault, there just aren’t enough of them and things aren’t being spotted.
“They don’t pick up broken down vehicles until someone walking past signals it.
“They’re supposed to spot them, not wait for another driver to notice. They end up looking for it on the screen after it’s reported.
“Drivers are regularly picked up after long waits on all-lane sections.
“All of the smart highways in this region are monitored by the same staff and this affects them all.”
Another insider added: ‘I will come out for breakdowns and someone will have crossed a line with a red ‘X’ and say ‘did you not see the sign? And they will say ‘what sign?’.
“Even when the technology works, it’s not safe, because smart highways are only as safe as the weakest link.”
Drivers on the smart highway are alerted by more than 200 digital displays to potential hazards, including speed limit changes, lane closures and incidents.
Where there is no hard shoulder, such as on the M62 all along the 10 mile stretch between Junctions 10 and 12 and between Junctions 18 and 20, these screens become more important to prevent accidents.
In October, the MEN pointed out that 24 of 37 roadside message signs were broken between the Croft Interchange and the Eccles Interchange – less than a year after they were put into service.
National Motorways said these had now all been fixed, but admitted that two signals – used, for example, to close a lane or give a speed limit, between Warrington and Manchester – were still out of order, “at repair first”. .
They said that if one part of the system fails, “other parts remain active to help keep traffic safe.”
A spokesperson also acknowledged they were still having issues with ‘remote-controlled roadworks signs’, but maintained there were ‘mitigating measures’ in place, including hard-line signage.
They said rolling roadblocks were also used to “keep traffic flowing” during road works.
A major concern for insiders is that the technology has floundered so quickly.
In April 2020 the M62 between Warrington and Manchester opened with four lanes and a 50mph speed limit in place while signage and signs were installed and tested.
From November 2020 to March 2021, only part of the technology was operational.
So all the technology has only been operational for less than a year.
Regarding staffing, National Highways initially denied there was a problem, adding: ‘Sickness or absence can vary from shift to shift.
“We have a dedicated rotation team who ensure we maintain the correct level of coverage. We also have contingency plans in place for other regional operations centers to take over call handling if needed.
When pushed on this point again, Alan Shepherd, North West Regional Manager for National Highways, responded.
He said: “Like any organization, our staff have been impacted by the pandemic, including the Omicron variant.
“We have robust measures in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in our control room and we continue to follow government advice.
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“Safety is our number one priority and we have well-established protocols in place to ensure we have adequate levels of staff for our teams working on the road and in our control rooms to help keep motorists safe. .”
Meanwhile, the Department for Transport (DfT) has said it will halt expansion of motorways where the hard shoulder is used as a permanent traffic lane, until five years’ worth of data has been collected to assess whether they are safe or not. for drivers.
The decision follows a recommendation from the Commons Transport Select Committee which said there was insufficient safety and economic data to justify continuing the project.
Despite this, the half-completed M6 Smart Motorway from Junction 21A to Junction 26 will continue.
National Highways said it was finishing projects “under construction” and that leaving traffic management in place for the duration of the “pause” would cause “significant disruption”.
They said this upgrade will include Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) radar, variable mandatory speed limits, CCTV coverage, emergency zones, queue detection, automatic signage and driver information on overhead gantries and cantilever panels.
Jim McMahon, MP for Oldham West and Royton and former Shadow Transport Secretary, who campaigned against smart highways, said: ‘Having campaigned for the pause of the smart highway scheme with the families of those tragically killed , I pay tribute to their dedication.
“This break is obviously a welcome move, but now ministers should go further, prioritize passenger safety and restore the hard shoulder.”