From Autoroute to Hell


Nobody would have claimed it was Spring, but late February was pleasantly and unusually warm. A change of season, with all of its potential, was definitely in the air. Having taken breakfast at the harbour’s edge, I eased the car onto the motorway slip road. A thin layer of high cirrostratus filtered the climbing sun; it was perfect weather for the long drive ahead. My destination lay one hundred and seventy-five miles distant. I knew the route, the speed at which I would be travelling and that I needed to allow for a fuel stop somewhere en route. Armed with this information, I calculated the journey would take between two and a half and three hours. Accelerating gently, I sat back in comfort as the tarmac spread out before me, a smooth, grey ribbon unfurling across the landscape.

I sped through vast tracts of farmland, alongside forests and past villages and towns,  occasionally changing lane to pass slower moving vehicles, watching them recede in the mirror as they slipped forever out of view. My calculations proved spot-on. I arrived on time, relaxed and calm. Part One of the journey had been a genuine pleasure.  As I’m sure you’ll already have realised, it didn’t take place in the UK.

Part Two was rather different. Rolling off the train, I emerged from the Channel Tunnel and negotiated the terminal roads. Huge, multilingual signs cautioned everyone to drive on the left. Similar warnings are in place on the French side, reminding tired Brits to remain a droite. One sign in particular caught my eye. It was in English only, and I would understand why just a few short miles along the road.

Lunchtime on Saturday and the M20 was already packed with traffic. Where had it all come from? Had some terrible natural disaster afflicted Dover, causing panicking townspeople to flee en masse? An endless stream of cars and trucks bore relentlessly down on those of us who were trying to join the motorway. What, I thought, must it be like for first-time visitors to our country? To be thrust suddenly into this awful melee must be terrifying. I at least had home advantage: I was used to driving on the left. Somehow managing to squeeze into a gap, I joined the unstoppable tide of capital-bound traffic and watched the road with the vigilance of a starving hawk.

Almost immediately I became aware of a disconcerting noise. A kind of arrhythmic crash-THUMP, crash-THUMP from somewhere beneath the car. Ah, I realised, how quickly one forgets. It was the sound of the suspension components undergoing a rigorous workout, and of the tyres as they smashed repeatedly into the unavoidable ruts and potholes that are deemed to be an acceptable surface for the British motorway system.

The M20, for those who don’t know, cuts a swathe through the heart of Kent. The Garden of England. As such, it very often gives the foreign visitor his or her first impression of our country. My mind drifted back to the sign I’d seen at the terminal. “Please take your litter home,” it had begged. Tellingly, just in English. The reason was immediately apparent. Both sides of the road were a rubbish-strewn disgrace. Mile after filthy mile passed by. Grime-blackened trees were adorned with the greying remnants of discarded plastic sheeting, papers blew across the soiled shoulders and all manner of debris filled the central reservation, clinging to the barrier stanchions like disease-ridden barnacles. Every so often rusting metal frames would appear by the roadside. These were the remains of roadworks, left behind by utterly uncaring contractors. They, like everyone else, seem to have given up here. Even the tourist sign for Leeds Castle, which I imagine used to be brown, is now yellow and faded. The whole experience was thoroughly depressing. The M20 is a gateway. It should showcase the United Kingdom. Instead it shames us. We might be the fifth largest economy on the planet, but we sometimes do a pretty good job of looking shabby and down-at-heel.

Heading for North West England, I continued in the stop-start fashion familiar to regular motorway drivers everywhere, from the M4 to the M8. Hours later, tired and stressed, I reached the M6. This would be the most dangerous phase of the journey. For reasons best known to themselves, Highways England have embarked on a project to “upgrade” the M6 to something called a Smart Motorway.

A Smart Motorway, according to their website, uses technology to actively manage the flow of traffic. The project appears perpetual. With no end date in sight (and precious little evidence of any actual work being carried out), it is probably fair to assume we are stuck with the status quo. Huge stretches have been cordoned off with cones. Lanes have been substantially narrowed. Squeezed into the remaining road space, the traffic is now monitored by hundreds of cameras mounted on overhead gantries, waiting to catch any motorist who fails to adhere to the rules. Speed limits are changed constantly, and for no apparent reason. Lanes are randomly closed. Bunching, which was supposed to become a thing of the past, is inevitable.

Somewhere north of Birmingham, a large van began to wander into my lane. There was no escape route. I couldn’t go forward (in a perfect world I would have maintained a gap between myself and the car in front, but everyone knows this is no longer possible), I couldn’t dive to the side and braking would have caused a huge crash. I hit the horn and hoped. Luckily, the guy realised he was drifting and corrected his mistake. Had it been an HGV, the story might have been different. The M6, thanks to the cretins who come up with these ideas, is a frightening and dangerous experience.

As far as I can ascertain, nobody asked for Smart Motorways. I’ve never talked to anyone who was consulted. The cost must run into the billions. For what? We are going nowhere fast. Calculating accurate journey times is impossible and this must be hindering the economy. Why are we Brits always so accepting of this kind of stuff?

Our primary roads, as with most of our infrastructure, are entirely unfit for purpose. How do we get this so wrong? It comes as no surprise to learn which Prime Minister was responsible for pioneering Smart Motorways. Perhaps a wise one can scrap the bloody lot.

Matthew Corrigan is a Country Squire Guest Writer and author whose excellent novel OSPREY shines a satirical light on a dodgy politician with a flying wind turbine scam. His books can be found here

2 thoughts on “From Autoroute to Hell

  1. Lowering the speed limit on the approach to a queue significantly reduces the overall capacity of the motorway and causes traffic to back up that wishes to leave at the previous slip road; that is why so-called “Smart” motorways do not work.

  2. “Speed limits are changed constantly, and for no apparent reason”
    Speed limits are usually lowered on approaches to queues. The queues are eased if the less traffic is hitting the back of them within a timeframe.

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