Transport minister Andrew Jones has denied accusations that the Government is rolling out what it calls smart motorways ‘on the cheap’ while overlooking safety concerns.
Mr Jones defended the scheme before the Commons Transport Select Committee, which is conducting an inquiry into ‘all lane running’, in which the hard shoulder is converted into a live lane and emergency refuges are provided at intervals of around 2km.
A refuge area on the M62
Prior to his appearance, the committee heard from representatives of the road recovery industry, who said all lane running schemes were being implemented ‘on the cheap’ and were a honed-down version of the M42 pilot scheme, which was an ‘all singing all dancing’ smart motorway.
Mr Jones said: ‘Are these things being developed on the cheap? No, no they’re not – this is part of a comprehensive injection of capacity into our national strategic road network. This is a key ingredient in our first Road Investment Strategy – that is a £15bn budget.’
Fellow Conservative MP Karl McCartney put it to Mr Jones that ‘not everywhere is going to be an M42’. Mr Jones replied that the new schemes are ‘improving’ on the M42.
When questioned by committee chair Louise Ellman, Mr Jones declined to confirm the Government would change its approach if it was shown after three years that safety objectives were not being met.
Mr Jones said the Government was actively monitoring the safety of what he called ‘smart motorways’ as they are being introduced. He said: ‘I don’t think it’s a question of having a back-up plan or pausing.’
He added that the new schemes were delivering ‘quite comprehensively’ by improving the safety record.
Mike Wilson, Highways England’s chief operating officer faced MPs alongside Mr Jones. He claimed overall risks had decreased but admitted that the risk from stopping in a live lane in low flow conditions had risen by 200%. He stressed that this was one of 136 hazards and represented only 5% of the overall risk.
Mr McCartney accused Mr Wilson of ‘conflating smart motorways with all lane running’, adding that ‘they are two different things’.
Referring to the increased risk from live lane breakdowns, Labour MP Graham Stringer asked what he called a philosophical question – whether it was ‘justifiable to put one group of motorway users at risk while you are reducing the risk for other people’.
Mr Jones said he was seeking to improve road safety for everyone and did not ‘buy the idea that we are compromising one group’.
At an evidence session last month, representatives of the emergency and breakdown services also told MPs of their safety concerns over all lane running.