Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 25 of Session 2004-05, published 28 June 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts in the previous Parliament, said today:

"Faced with the rising tide of traffic which is increasingly choking our motorway and trunk road network, the Highways Agency has been timid and ineffective in testing and adopting a range of 'quick win' congestion-reducing measures that have been shown to work abroad. Some, such as variable speed limits, have been used on only small stretches of motorway, and others, like hard shoulder running, have not so far been tried out at all.

"The Agency must demonstrate the kind of leadership and imaginative thinking we see in some of our European neighbours. One area where both qualities have been wanting is in the provision of sophisticated roadside message signs continually updating motorists about traffic flow and destination times and enabling them to choose alternative routes. Drivers in Paris enjoy this technology so it is infuriating that drivers on heavily congested motorways in the South East of England have had to make do with primitive message signs.

"Tests of new technologies must be designed so that the measures which work can speedily be introduced across the whole trunk road network. The Highways Agency must also open its mind to other ideas for changing driver behaviour."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 25th Report of the 2004-05 Session, which examined the Highway's Agency's approach to tackling congestion; actions to influence motorists' behaviour; and the deployment of measures to tackle congestion.

Congestion on England's motorways and trunk roads is estimated to cost industry and commerce £3 billion a year. The government has set a target of stabilising congestion at 2000 levels by 2010, but has acknowledged that it will not achieve it. Average speeds have fallen as the volume of traffic has continued to grow. Around 7% of the motorway and trunk road network suffers heavy congestion at peak times and a further 13% on at least half the days of the year.

The Highways Agency has been too risk averse in testing out and adopting measures used abroad to tackle congestion, falling behind leading countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and the United States. Greater leadership and innovation will be required from the Agency if progress is to be made in tackling England's congestion problems.

The Agency has run trials of traffic management measures, but it has managed them poorly, contributing to some trials' inconclusive results. The Agency has also been unable to prove individual business cases for many of the traffic management measures it has tested at sites on the network. In the Netherlands, traffic authorities have carried out broader, longer range evaluations of particular measures, and so have proceeded to adopt measures more widely than the Agency.

The Agency has not given motorists the information they need to make choices both before, and during, their journeys and has given insufficient attention to changing driver behaviour. The Agency should improve its intelligence about planned events, such as concerts and major sporting events that can cause congestion, so that it can take action to mitigate the impact as far as practicable.

The Agency's technology strategy is not well integrated with its road building and widening strategy. The Agency has not targeted its most sophisticated technology at the most congested motorways, failing to install appropriate technology on many of the heavily congested motorways in the South East. In 2001, it started to install cheaper, less sophisticated technology in the South East in an attempt to close the significant gap between the regions. The technology was inappropriate, however, and would have cost £64 million more than the progressive installation of the appropriate technology from the outset; and the Agency has therefore reversed its decision.

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