The UK strategic road network has been at the centre of many recent debates on congestion, road pricing, and the need for sustained investment in our infrastructure to keep the economy moving. But one of the areas in which disagreement has given way to genuine progress appears to be Active Traffic Management (ATM).

ATM has a lot of potential and while lots of stakeholders warn that it can never be a replacement for road building schemes and sustained infrastructural investment, there is no doubt that it’s one of the best immediate hopes for easing congesting and optimising the use of our strategic road network. Ideally it will not be a case of either ATM or road building, but both.

The big question is, how far can this technology take us?

The Highways Agency has been piloting a scheme on the M42 which included the controversial step of opening the hard shoulder as another lane during peak hours. But this was only a small part of the ATM system – and it was conservatively deployed at that. A major part of the M42 ATM is an overhead gantry system which keeps road users informed about conditions, speed limits and lane availability. The road is also equipped with CCTV and speed cameras which can help identify and manage problems, and it offers off-shoulder refuges which offer distressed vehicles greater protection from passing traffic.

There was no evidence that safety was compromised – no accidents caused by the use of the hard shoulder – although   generally such statistics would need to be gathered over a much longer period to be reliable.

The initial results from the M42 scheme have shown smoother and more predictable journeys, and while actual journey times haven’t fallen much, they have become more consistent. The overall feeling is that the experiment has been successful – enough so for Secretary of State for Transport Ruth Kelly to earmark a further £150m to express her confidence in ATM and extend the scheme to the ‘Birmingham Box’, including the M6 Toll and the M6, by 2011.

More interesting than where this technology may be applied is how it may be applied. A feasibility study will be completed by next spring to identify possible locations for ATM but the Highways Agency was encouraged by the M42 trial an might well expand the whole concept of ATM.

“The M42 pilot was designed fairly conservatively,” says Freight Transport Association chief executive Theo de Pencier. “One can see the HA perhaps feared that it was gung-ho and if there was an accident [it would be counter-productive]. For instance the hard shoulder has been used for egress process rather than as a genuine fourth lane so far. But the DfT and the HA are now more confident and we will hear a lot more of this. There is a whole raft of new ideas and techniques which can come into play.”

The beauty of the gantry system is that, together with cameras it, gives an ‘intelligent’ and interactive feedback loop for the road network, with rapid communication to drivers. HA spokesman Anthony Aston says various concepts are being discussed: “The feasibility study will focus on how we can use advanced signalling to control traffic. This could take the form of differential speed limits on lanes, LGV-only lanes, or through-traffic lanes. For instance, on the M42 between the M40 joining and the M6 junction to leave the motorway, one third of traffic drives the entire stretch. It is this kind of information we wish to use.

“There could also be high-occupancy lanes, with multiple passengers in vehicles. This has been used in the States, but not here so far.”

Aston won’t be drawn on the other potential developments of ATM for instance that it could form the basis of price differentials on roads, with some lanes being offered at a premium: “Nothing is being ruled out but certainly at the moment the main concepts are the four outlined.”

These concepts and the areas of the trunk network which could most benefit are being discussed with ‘stakeholders’ including the Freight Transport Association, Road Haulage Association, AA, RAC and other road user groups. To underline the DfT’s commitment to bringing ATM to the masses, Ruth Kelly herself attended the first consultation meeting run by Derek Wadsworth, director-general of networks within the DfT.

Theo de Pencier, for one, believes that ATM will solve many logistical problems but may also lead us into some more political arenas: “It could be used for variable lane pricing eventually. There is also the issue of privacy if we have too much technology tracking motoring movements, but the HA is paying particular attention to this. I think politicians are sometimes more sensitive about those things than many of the rest of us would be.”

He believes most stakeholders agree that ATM could be advantageous to road users, provided that it does not replace strategic investment in road building or widening. And, one has to ask, how often are all the key players in transport behind a government initiative?

Highways Agency Traffic Officers
ATM will be controlled from the same regional network of traffic control centres as the traffic officer teams which have been rolled out across the nation since the 2004 West Midlands pilot.

This comprises seven regional centres and one national HQ in Birmingham. The officers at the control centres monitor the strategic road network, put information out to drivers and co-ordinate the actions of the traffic officers who have recently assumed functions previously undertaken by police, such as keeping traffic moving following collisions.

The HA says the deployment of traffic officers has been a success, and certainly the pilot was effective enough for the scheme to be rolled out across the country. There is no reason to doubt the official line, but no meaningful statistics will be available to quantify their success until the HA annual report in July.

Malcolm Bingham, head of strategic network policy issues for the FTA, says: “My view is the agency has not sung their praises enough. There is a perception in some circles, especially haulage, that this scheme has cost us a lot of money and questioning whether we see a return. But this is a very new scheme, only completed at the end of 2006, and all the evidence is it’s a very positive thing.

“There are lots of individuals who have been saved from dangerous situations by traffic officers. There is evidence they get traffic moving faster than police because they don’t have an investigative function and they free up police time.” A consultation is underway to allow traffic officers to remove abandoned or broken down vehicles as well.