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Written Statement  - M4

Edwina Hart, Minister for Economy, Science and Transport 

Transport has a critical role as an enabler of growth. Fundamental to this is the need to have a robust and well maintained road network, which is equipped to ensure safe traffic flow and manage traffic across the network during incidents.

Following the recent serious incidents on the M4 around Newport, I wanted to provide Members with an overview of the way in which the M4 is managed, building on significant investments made by the Welsh Government to improve the resilience and safety of the motorway network in that area over the last 6 years.

The M4 corridor around Newport between Junctions 24 and 28 is the busiest section of road in Wales and carries in the region of 100,000 vehicles every day.  
In terms of resilience and safety, a continuous concrete safety barrier and a variable speed limit management system has been introduced. Additional access capacity to the south of Newport through the delivery of the Steelworks access road has been provided.  These measures represent an investment of over £60M in safety and resilience of this section of Motorway alone.

Alongside these investments, such a crucial and busy asset also requires active day to day management, which is provided through the Welsh Government’s Traffic Management centre at Junction 32. This centre, along with a similar one at Conwy in North Wales, monitors and responds to live information from CCTV cameras and automatic incident and queue detection sensors across parts of the motorways and trunk roads network in Wales.  

When an incident occurs or congestion is detected, action is taken rapidly. The response will include:

  • dispatching people and  resources to deal with the incident, the resources in question will vary depending on the nature of the incident, for example removing spillages or repairing safety fencing
  • liaising with the emergency services
  • activating electronic message and speed limit signs to advise road users about the incident and manage flows
  • providing  content for media bulletins on radio stations and web & social media updates
At the frontline of this response, and preventing incidents escalating by taking early action, are Traffic Officers.  Traffic Officers move obstructions from the carriageway following collisions and breakdowns, stop and divert traffic following incidents, clear debris swiftly to enable reopening of lanes and support the police in more serious incidents. Their role plays a vital part in keeping the network open.   In 2013, Traffic Officers attended over 1700 incidents between Junctions 24 and 28 of the M4.  

Where a serious incident occurs, the Police require time to investigate the circumstances and the decision on when the road can be reopened is made by them.  Recent incidents, however, have seen the motorway closed for some hours and I have asked that my officials liaise closely with the police to learn lessons so that in the future, incidents can be dealt with as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Clearly there are particular risks associated with some parts of the network, such as tunnels, and these require specific response plans.   A major incident plan is in place for the Brynglas Tunnels area, which defines the key actions that would form part of the response to any incident affecting the tunnels and the roles of key responders, including the emergency services. 

This plan was used in July 2011 when a fire occurred in the westbound tunnel, where despite the damage caused, the tunnel was fully opened within three days. 
To minimise the delays and disruption when the Brynglas tunnels are refurbished over the next two years, I asked my officials to consider innovative ways of dealing with the traffic during the repair works.  This included exploring new tunnel technologies that may have the ability to remove the need for tunnel closures.  Early indicators are that these technologies, in the instance of the Brynglas tunnels, will prove uneconomic and therefore other measures to minimise the effect on the travelling public will be required.

It will be important to ensure that a traffic management philosophy is adopted during the works that considers both the temporary disruption to the travelling public and the effects on the wider Welsh economy.  This is a necessary investment in the existing infrastructure but will not address the wider capacity issues along this route.

These wider issues are being addressed through the recent consultation on a preferred strategy for the M4 Corridor around Newport and I will update this Chamber on the outcome in due course.