Written evidence submitted by Mr Andrew Morgan (RSM0021)

As a former Highways England Control Room Operator {retired July 2020] I wish to give my thoughts on Smart Motorways from what I experienced in the East Midlands Control Room, Managed Motorways and All Lanes Running.

Without doubt the introduction of Smart Motorways especially ALR has the potential to improve the level of congestion, it is clear from monitoring technology that previously highly congested areas especially at peak traffic times was much less busy, traffic flow is better and therefore journey times improve. However their safety is very questionable for several reasons in my opinion.

Firstly; driver education, or lack of it. Despite the introduction of Smart Motorways there has been very little or virtually no explanation or education to the driving public on how to use them, what to do in a breakdown or emergency, lots of the varying information is spread over social media and the news on various sources, but this isn’t always consistent and perhaps correct. Even as a very experienced driver and HE Traffic Officer the constant change from Managed Motorway to Dynamic Hard Shoulder to All Lanes Running is confusing and difficult to follow as you drive at up to 70 mph, in short drivers are often confused. How can an elderly or foreign driver know what to do?

Additionally there needs to be a concerted effort to insist that drivers who enter a motorway must have the necessary means and ability to make their journey safely, for example a working mobile phone, breakdown recovery in place, enough fuel and to know where they are going and during the journey where they are. Numerous times during my working life at HE we had drivers who didn’t know where they were, what direction they were going or if they had breakdown cover. It is not acceptable to simply state your sat nav indicates you are 75 miles from your destination, driver training has to be improved.

The Technology installed is very poor and unreliable, its implementation and repair can at best be inconsistent. The number of cameras {CCTV} on an ALR section is increased greatly to try to give as near to 100% coverage as possible. But the quality and number working is often unacceptable. Even in the early weeks of an ALR section going live many CCTV may be faulty, with foggy lens, poor home positions or even the siting of the camera. I have known a camera be so poorly sited that turning it points it straight at an overhead gantry and so not viewing anything on the road. Likewise with the signs and signals {Matrix}, their reliability is often very poor and failures happen at an alarming rate. Of course an out of order signal may mean that a broken down vehicle cannot be protected by technology fully if the sign behind is out of order.

An example from my time at HE was 2 Matrix signal on the start of the M6, identified as faulty by me whilst setting roadworks signals and 2 years later, when I retired, they were still the same, faulty. This despite several operators highlighting the same problem on the ‘near miss’ scheme as well as reporting to the appropriate engineers. From my experience this near miss scheme is a box ticking exercise and doesn’t always offer the required resolution for an identified problem.

Of course you would imagine that if a fault was reported to HE’s third party contractors it would be repaired without delay, sometimes that cannot be done. If the site requires an engineer visit and it is an ALR section, no hard shoulder, the engineer often cannot attend as there is nowhere to stop with their vehicle, the job has to wait until the road or lane can be closed overnight after all the necessary paperwork and approval has been submitted. As the control of these engineers is through this third party there is very little control of the job by HE and delays in repairs can take days or even weeks,

I wish now to comment on the role of my former employer and my evidence submitted today is totally without blame on the Traffic Officer Service {Control and On-Road} who are just pawns in the HE game.

When I started in the East Midlands control {2008} the staffing levels were generally 4 or 5 operators during day time and 3 or 4 at night, depending on what day of the week it was.

As I retired despite the workload increasing considerably with all the additional CCTV and Matrix the staffing levels were roughly the same. 4 or 5 daytime and sometimes even less at night, possibly 2 with a remote operator elsewhere in the country. This lack of investment in quality staff means that the ability to check the increased technology for a live lane incident is diminished and worse still is the roadworks implementation time of day. That is generally 1930 towards 2300 when the contractors call in to put on overnight road closures. At a time of  taken refreshment breaks it can lead to up to 30 to 40 roadwork contractor calls, less staff and therefore less prospect of any incidents reported having a full complement of the control to search and identify that potentially dangerous incident. The increased workload during that time, 1930 to 2300 can be unbearable, things can get missed at this time.

Over the past few years HE management have focused on data, mainly KPI’s and in my opinion this has pushed control operators to focus on the wrong things. For example if a KPI target is close to being reached or has gone over the allocated time {perhaps because an operator is busy on another process} it is not unusual for no one else to pick up the ‘job’ as they would be the one investigated for breaking the KPI target, in other words there is no incentive to go that extra mile.

Also under pressure staff may not fully search for that broken down vehicle if they are involved in a roadworks job that has to be implemented for that KPI, again a result of KPI’s being driven at the expense of a more serious incident.

And finally may I comment on the training that Control Operators now receive. When I started in 2008 I had 5 weeks basic training then several weeks on the job coaching, at a time when there was less pressure with less technology. Today new entrants have about 3 weeks basic training before going onto job coaching. 2 weeks less time to take on board a much more difficult role and I have watched some coaching miss out some basic parts of the job, for example making sure all CCTV are at least pointing at the road not to a field, checking the basic Matrix Signs are working as best can be identified, I don’t think the quality is there anymore.

And therefore my bullet points are:-

 

March 2021