Taking to the road to find out more about how Yorkshire's 'smart motorways' work

Reporter Sam Cooper takes to the road with Highways England traffic officer Russell Brierley to see how they manage the 'smart motorways'.

Tuesday, 13th March 2018, 12:06 pm
Updated Wednesday, 14th March 2018, 12:10 pm
Russell Brierley, on-road team manager at Highways England, Wakefield.

Picture the scene - you are doing 70mph in the third lane of the M1 motorway with no hard shoulder when you suddenly lose power and your car comes to a halt.

It's 11.30pm, pitch black and cars are hurtling past you at way above the speed limit - terrifying.

Highways England's control room, in Wakefield.

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But help is at hand - and a small office on the outskirts of Wakefield might not be the first place you'd think of as to where your saving heroes are based but that's the truth.

The M1 through parts of Sheffield and South Yorkshire, now runs as a 'smart motorway' between junction 30 for Barlborough and junction 35A for Stocksbridge, after works on the stretch were completed in March 2017.

Further north, the carriageway has also been converted between junction 39 for Wakefield and junction 42 for Lofthouse in the hope of easing congestion for motorists.

The changes mean there are four lanes of running traffic and temporary speed limits can be applied in an attempt to keep everyone on the move.

Highways England's control room, in Wakefield.

There is also now no no hard shoulder on the two stretches between North Derbyshire and Leeds but help is at hand - 24/7.

Staff in Highways England's Wakefield control room monitor traffic every minute of every day across Yorkshire and the North East and can direct its team of on-road traffic officers to incidents.

The Star took the opportunity to take to the road with Russell Brierley, on-road team manager, to see how they assist the emergency services and drivers with issues on the carriageway and take a tour of the authority's control room.

Russell said: "The smart motorways are designed to keep everyone moving - whether that's at 30mph or 70mph. The technology reads the volume and speed of traffic on the road and then the control room can set the temporary speed limit."

Highways England's control room, in Wakefield.

The 'smart motorway' project has been criticised by drivers and police officers, with one South Yorkshire traffic cop saying policing the M1 had been made more difficult by the changes.

But Russell, who has worked for Highways England since 2005, said he believed the region's roads had been made safer by the changes.

"I don't personally see it as more dangerous. I think there are quite a lot more signs and signals out here on the roads and as long as people obey them they are safer but that's the factor we can't control," he said.

"I just wish people would keep up to date with the Highway Code because it's all out there but people get so set in their ways."

Highways England's control room, in Wakefield.

As we speak, Russell is at the wheel of one of a fleet of seven Land Rover Discovery vehicles based in Wakefield.

He makes it clear as we leave the 'station' that he is not on call but he can't himself report incidents back to the control via the in-car radio system as we journey up and down the M1 motorway.

One of the most talked about issues with the new road layout has been breakdowns in the 'smart motorway' areas, but Russell said the new technology meant safety measures could be put in place.

"The best advice I can give is to try and get out of the car safely and call 999 and report it the incident to the police - that automatically goes through to our control room so straight away you have got police and ourselves responding to that incident," he said.

"Another problem we have at the minute is the use of mobile phones. If people use roadside phones in the emergency refuge areas, they go straight through to our control room and we know where they are within 100 yards.

"If people ring us from a mobile phone and we ask where they are they might say Sheffield because it's the last road sign they saw but they could be 15 to 20 miles outside of Sheffield so it makes it really difficult for us to put lane closures and speed limits in place."

Russell said there were still traffic 'hotspots' on the M1 but the smart motorway changes had helped to address congestion in these areas.

"On the Sheffield patch now the busiest stretch is probably between junction 33 at Catcliffe and junction 34 at Meadowhall and it gets bad approaching junction 32 northbound but the signs and temporary speed limits do help," he added.

"The Sheffield Parkway causes a lot of traffic at rush hour and the volume of traffic on the motorway has increased."

Back in the control room, Dave Skupski is the duty operation manager and helps the staff keep on tabs on cameras across Yorkshire and the North East's motorway network.

"Our control room operators are here 24/7 operating the network. We work with the emergency services and our traffic officers we deploy the on-road team to incidents," he said.

"We have complete coverage within the smart motorway network and the operators are also controlling the lanes and speed limits to help keep the traffic flowing."

For more information on smart motorways visit www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-drive-on-a-smart-motorway/