The smart motorway upgrade for the M4 is unlikely to include additional emergency rest areas (ERA), despite a recent agreement with parliament, because the project can’t be changed at the last minute.
Preparatory work has started to switch the M4 to a four-lane motorway by making the hard shoulder a ‘running lane’, with construction due to start imminently. The upgrade will cover 32 miles between junction 3 (Hayes) and 12 (Theale) in a five-year project costing up to £862 million and due to finish in 2022.
The spacing of ERAs has become a controversial topic following several serious accidents in which a vehicle had broken down on what was previously the hard shoulder and, having not been able to reach an ERA, was hit by following traffic.
Pressure to build smart motorways with refuge areas closer together has been building after concerted efforts by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and the AA. On most smart motorways, ERAs have been built at intervals of 1.5 miles. Highways England (HE), which operates the motorway network, recently agreed to alter future ERA spacings to one mile but said this will only happen on “future projects”, not those already under way. Attempting to alter the agreed planning permission for the M4 project to add extra ERAs at this stage would introduce a significant delay.
“As it is already in the delivery phase, the M4 smart motorway will probably not be upgraded with more frequent ERAs,” an HE spokesman said.
AA president Edmund King said: “We are very pleased that HE has changed its mind and agreed to more ERAs. This has been a four-year struggle to make smart motorways safer, but we are now concerned about the M4 project.”