So it’s 5am and I turn off the M23 to head east on to the M25 towards the Dartford tunnel and, wait a minute, where have all the road works gone – the ones that have been there for the last year, and in which there has been an enforced speed limit of 50mph?
Disappeared, gone, mission accomplished. At last it means I don’t have to sit there at 52mph on the cruise control for the next 20 minutes, trying and sometimes failing to stay awake. Lovely, I think to myself, before realizing after a few moments more that the hard shoulder would also appear to have been tidied away as well.
After a few miles more I then begin to wonder what, exactly, have they been doing here for the last 12 months? Work began on this part of the M25 in May 2013 and, according to the Highways Agency’s website, whatever it is they’ve done has cost us taxpayers £129m.
As far I can tell, though, all they’ve done is repaint the white lines to turn what was the hard shoulder into an extra lane, thereby creating four lanes instead of three. And as a result of this masterpiece of road redecorating, sorry re-engineering, they are claiming that this particular section of the M25 has become a “smart motorway.” One that features “enhanced on-road technology to manage traffic flow that will improve the reliability of journey times, providing a boost for businesses and the wider economy.”
Come again? How exactly does taking one whole year to paint some new white lines (and install 38 CCTV cameras, 33 verge mounted signs, 13 emergency telephones, 10 refugee areas, 9 gantries and 88 new overhead signals) provide a boost for business and economy?
To turn this particular piece of the M25 into a “smart motorway” has basically wrecked the local economy for the last 12 months, because the road itself became a virtual no-go area, so much havoc did the road works wreak. If ever I needed to travel north, from the M23 to the M1 and beyond for the last year, I’ve taken my chances with the slightly less awful but still mayhem-ridden west half of the M25 instead. That’s how consistently dire the delays between junctions five to seven have been.
And now that they’ve finished painting their new white lines and switched all the CCTV cameras and the overhead speed cameras, sorry, the overhead gantries on, the road does appear to be moving along just fine. I got to the Dartford tunnel a good 20 minutes faster than I would have done were the road works still in situ. And for a while I thought all was fine and dandy. Nice job, Highways Agency, even if it did ruin a part of my life for a year.
But then I thought a bit more, specifically about what might happen if a lorry caught fire or if a crash happened, or if a vehicle simply broke down on this stretch of motorway. I mean where would you go if you ran out of petrol, for example, or if you got a puncture?
And then the full weirdness of the answer began to dawn. If you get a puncture, you have no option but to either sit there sweating, on the inside lane of a live motorway, wondering if you should take your chances with the wheel brace or not. Or you go off-roading instead.
They say the hard shoulder of a motorway is the most dangerous part of a motorway – but I’m reasonably certain that lane one of a motorway is a fair bit more dangerous than that if you happen to be at a standstill in it, attempting to undo a stuck wheel nut on your outside right rear wheel.
But there you go. One hundred and twenty nine million pounds and ten new refugee areas later, we have our first smart motorway in the southeast. And although it might be the first, I’m as sure as the sun that it won’t be the last.
One day we’ll have a “genius” network of motorways, no doubt. And despite its crisp labeling it will still all grind to a halt between 7-9am each morning, and between 5-7pm each night. Happy days. Now move on please. With or without that redundant wheel brace.