Written evidence submitted by Prospect Trade Union (RSM0092)

 

Smart Motorways Inquiry

I am writing on behalf of the Prospect trade union to submit evidence to the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry into smart motorways launched on 26 February 2021.

Prospect is a trade union representing around 1000 members working in Highways England, the public body responsible for managing the motorway network. Many of our members work as Traffic Officers and Traffic Managers patrolling the network and responding to incidents, and for whom smart motorways are a major work and health and safety issue. We also represent members working as operators in Regional Operation Centres(ROCs) who are responsible for co-ordinating incident response 

Our comments would be as follows : -

The Safety of Smart Motorways

  1.   One of the recommendations from the DfT Smart Motorway Evidence Stocktake published in 2020 to improve safety was faster attendance by more Highways England Traffic Officer patrols. The table below shows that overall Traffic Officer numbers have fallen from 958 in 2019 to 929 in 2021 and in two Regions, East and South East, Traffic Officer numbers were lower in 2020 than they were in 2016. This reduction in the number of Traffic Officers is likely to get worse as there has largely been a recruitment freeze in place for 2020 and 2021, the age demographic means many Traffic Officers will continue to leave through retirement and Highways England are expected to reduce their operational budget by 10% in 2021 meaning limits on any new Traffic Officer recruitment. This reduction in the number of Traffic Officers is making it increasingly difficult to safely manage the motorway network  

 

Region On Road Traffic Officers

2016 FTE

2017 FTE

2018 FTE

2019 FTE

2020 FTE

Yorkshire & North East

88

87

96

111

108

North West

159

162

182

205

196

East Midlands

60

69

78

78

86

West Midlands

107

104

121

126

119

South West

90

86

85

96

92

South East

183

174

171

163

162

East

179

167

150

180

166

Total FTEs

864

850

884

958

929

(This data was provided in answer to a PQ submitted on 24 Nov 2020 at 12:05.

 

  1. Highways England’s own estimate is that by 2021 they would need an extra 398 Traffic Officers to cope with another expected 378 miles of all lane running (i.e. smart motorway). However, the figures show Traffic Officer numbers falling and they are likely to continue to do so. This problem will become even more acute as there are plans to make all smart motorways all lane running (ALR) in the future.
  2. The reduction is staffing levels also impacts on the ability to respond to incidents, as additional resource often has to deployed from some distance which leaves other parts of the network under resourced.
  3. In the stocktake, Highways England also anticipated Traffic Officers reducing the average time taken to attend a stranded motorist from 17 to 10 minutes, in comparison to the police who take 15 minutes. It is not possible to do this for a number of reasons; reduction in the number of Traffic Officers, an unreliable fleet and limited number of vehicles, not being able to use blue lights and sirens. Further driver training would also have to be provided to Traffic Officers.
  4. In addition to a drop in the number of Traffic Officers, there has also been a decline in the numbers of operators working in the ROCs which monitor and co-ordinate incident response. This will make it harder to monitor and respond to incidents on smart motorways. As an example, there used to be an operator dedicated to monitoring the sections of smart motorway. This dedicated resource has now gone with operators having to monitor smart motorways in addition to all their other tasks. This is likely to have a detrimental impact on the ability to respond to incidents on smart motorways and further increase the risk of injury to road users.   
  5. The building of emergency refuge areas (ERA) bays on elevated sections is a problem as they have to use the available space on them. Bromford viaduct is a classic example of this between Junctions 5 -6 on the M6. There is one ERA that is over 3 miles from the next which if they break down in LBS1 or any other lane is a potential accident waiting to happen. There simply is nowhere for them to go and if they cant make an ERA bay and have to stop in a lane there is again no place of safety for them to adopt. If they do get out of the vehicle and make the nearest place of safety, again the system is heavily reliant on the operators identifying these incidents and reacting which, with the reduction in staffing levels and workload causes problems.
  6. The removal of the hard shoulder from ALR motorways has also impacted on the ability of HE staff, and the emergency services to access incidents. With a hard shoulder, there was the ability to access the scene within a reasonable period which allowed quicker reopening of the section effected as well as getting critical care to those that needed it within a time period to help ensure lives were saved. Having no hard shoulder when dealing with an incident, limits the ability to get to it and is a safety issue for the services trying to arrive and then deal with it effectively. As Highways England plan to convert all smart motorways to ALR in the future the risk of a greater number of incidents not being dealt with in a timely and safe manner will increase.
  7. Traffic Officers don’t feel safe when working in ALR as they have to both control the unpredictable nature of the customer and also be constantly aware of vehicles who may enter into the closed lane creating a potential further accident. This is demonstrated by the large increase in number of incursions by vehicles and road users into all closures (closed down sections of motorway) in recent years. Since 2009 the number of these incursions recorded has increased tenfold. This has put both Traffic Officers and road users at greater risk of injury. 
  8. The design of the ALR network adds to potential safety issues, such as the limited amount of refuge areas available to allow traffic to pull over in case of an emergency, the reduction in the numbers of nearside barriers for the public to cross to a place of relative safety, the removal or reduction of motorway lighting in many ALR upgrades, and the fact that emergency telephones are only placed in the few emergency refuge areas available. It remains the case that reported ‘near miss’ incidents by the traffic officer service have increased dramatically on ALR stretches, the majority where stationary vehicles are in a live lane. We believe this requires much more extensive consideration before any expansion of smart motorways could be considered

Congestion on Motorways and Impact on Other Roads

  1. Elevated sections on smart motorways can cause particular problems as they can become grid locked very quickly following an incident that either closes all lanes or results in partial closure creating a back log of traffic sometimes stretching for several miles. This can be seen through the number of reports produced to alert management of potential problems. These can also then be classified as Critical Incidents that have an impact on maintaining the strategic road network (SRN). This often means traffic is diverted onto local networks causing grid lock over a much wider area.
  2. A combination of the reduction in staffing levels for Traffic Officer and ROC operators, and the extra demands caused by smart motorways, often means delays in dealing with incidents, which in turn leads to more congestion.

 

Effectiveness of the Delivery of Smart Motorways

  1. We believe the effective delivery of smart motorways is being seriously undermined by Highways England not having sufficient numbers of Traffic Officers and ROC operators to safely monitor and respond to incidents on smart motorways. If there is going to be a further increase in sections of smart motorways and ALR, then there needs to be a significant increase in the number of Traffic Officers and ROC operators.
  2. In order to fund this, there needs to be an increase in Highways England’s operational budget, rather than the cuts to the operational budget which have been included in the RIS2 spending settlement from the DfT.
  3. In order to be able to recruit and retain a high calibre of staff, the pay rates for both Traffic Officers and ROC Operators need to be looked at. The current basic rate of pay for a Traffic Officer is £24,512 which is some way below pay for equivalent emergency service roles and also below the basic pay for a Traffic Officer in Wales which is circa £30,000. For an ROC operator basic paid is £23,264, which is below the pay for similar control room roles in emergency services.   

 

Prospect would be happy to provide oral evidence at any future Transport Select Committee hearing.

 

April 2021

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