Back in 1964 William Craig, the Minister of Home Affairs for Northern Ireland, announced an ambitious plan to build a network of motorways around the province.
In terms of the North West, the core of the plan was a motorway from Belfast to Coleraine – the M2. From this would come two spurs. The M22 would diverge at Antrim and go to Castledawson, serving Mid Ulster. The M23 would diverge north of Ballymena and go to Londonderry, via Limavady. At the Derry end it would have closely followed the modern railway line into the city and terminated on the Duke Street dual-carriageway. At that time, the A2 route via Limavady was by far the busiest route into the city, carrying over 8000 vehicles per day in 1970 compared to less than 3000 for the A6 via Glenshane Pass.
During the late 1960s it became apparent that the ambition of the 1964 plan far outstripped the province’s financial capabilities. Motorways, they found, cost more and took longer to build than anticipated. It was quickly realised that it would be many decades before such an elaborate system could be completed. It was therefore decided that the A6 needed to be upgraded in the interim, ie from the end of the planned M22 at Castledawson. The work to upgrade the A6 to a high-quality single-carriageway (featuring innovations such as hard shoulders on long stretches) was carried out in from 1960 to 1975, with only a bypass of Dungiven omitted.
Following the collapse of Stormont in 1972 the motorway project was largely abandoned leaving the M2 built only as far as Antrim, (with an isolated section at Ballymena) the M22 built only as far as Randalstown and the M23 not begun. This left the stretch of the A6 from Randalstown to Castledawson via Toome as the worst part of the whole road since, in anticipation of the M22, it had not been upgraded.
Fast forward to 2015 and this is still the situation, the only change in the interim being the addition of a dual-carriageway bypass of Toome eleven years ago. In addition, traffic levels have soared to the extent that a single-carriageway is no longer an appropriate standard along much of the length.
So how much would it cost to upgrade the approx 46 miles (74 km) of single-carriageway road? This depends on the standard you build it to.
Until around ten years ago Roads Service were great fans of at-grade dual-carriageways, ie roads with lots of central reservation gaps and right-turns. Good examples are the northern part of the A1 or the main A26 Antrim-Ballymena road. These were cheap to build in the cash-starved era of the Troubles – no flyovers were needed and you didn’t have to close up every gate and driveway you came across. As a rough estimate, upgrading the A6 to this standard would cost around £300m. However this standard has now fallen out of fashion as we have found that they have poor safety records, particularly at junctions and so it is questionable whether they are worth providing at all. The DRD no longer builds them.
One step up is a high-quality dual-carriageway (HQDC). These are roads where the central reservation is continuous, ie no right turns are allowed. Junctions are therefore either compact flyover junctions, left-in/left-out T-junctions or ground level roundabouts. They are a good compromise as they have much better safety records, yet the compact design of junctions means they are not excessively expensive. A good example is the recently completed section of A4 from the end of the M1 at Dungannon to Ballygawley which has significantly reduced fatalities since it opened. Based on recent estimates, upgrading the A6 to this standard would probably cost in the region of £800m to £1bn. The main reason for the huge cost hike is the substantial earthworks required to give the appropriate gradients and the need to provide flyovers at key junctions (imagine building a compact grade-separated junction to serve the Ponderosa Bar!).
The highest standard is what most people consider to be “motorway” standard, known to engineers as “Category 7”. These roads only have flyover-type junctions – so no left-in/left-out T-junctions and no roundabouts. They usually have full hard shoulders and the junctions tend to be on a larger scale. If designated as a motorway, certain road users (pedestrians, cyclists, small motorcycles etc) are banned for safety reasons, so additional parallel roads are sometimes needed to provide alternative routes for these people. The lack of side accesses also means long stretches of new side roads to maintain access to property. The M1 and M2 are built to this standard, but so is the recently completed A1 Newry Bypass, even though it’s not a motorway in the legal sense. Upgrading the A6 to this standard would cost well over £1bn, perhaps £1.2bn.
Given that we do not currently have these levels of cash – the 2015/16 budget provides zero funding for new road schemes other that those that are already proceeding – some kind of prioritisation is clearly needed. The road is generally broken down into four sections to facilitate this:
- Randalstown to Castledawson. Proposals to upgrade this to HQDC standard are at an advanced stage and just awaiting the c£140m needed to build it. This is the busiest stretch of the A6 carrying over 19k vehicles daily in 2009 [the most recent figures available to me] and also has the lowest standard at present. The time saving would only be 3-4 minutes at off-peak times, but at peak times could be much more than this since the loss of a lane at the Toome Bypass causes tailbacks.
- Castledawson to Dungiven, including Glenshane Pass. There are no proposals to upgrade this stretch. Given that it is the least-busy stretch at just under 12k vehicles daily in 2009, and has a fairly good safety record, it is probably the lowest priority for an upgrade. The total time saving to a driver would be in the order of 10 minutes.
- Dungiven Bypass. Plans are progressing to provide a short HQDC bypass of Dungiven at a cost of approx £60m. This is a major bottleneck and can be justified for both drivers and residents. The A6 just west of Dungiven carried 15k vehicles per day in 2009. At off-peak times the time saving would not be much, but could be considerable at peak times.
- Dungiven to Derry. This stretch carried around 14k vehicles per day in 2009 (as measured at The Cross). Plans are progressing to upgrade this stretch to HQDC standard at a cost of approx £380m. It is unlikely to get funding in the foreseeable future. The journey by an average driver would be reduced by anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes depending on the time of day.
Of course, as well as cost, safety records are also relevant when prioritising schemes. For example over the past three years there have been four fatalities on the A6, three of which were between Derry and Dungiven. The remaining one was between Toome and Randalstown.
What effect would it have? On the current road, outside of rush hour, average speeds range between 40 and 50mph so a journey from Belfast to Derry can be achieved in around an hour and a half. During the rush hour this can rise to well over two hours. If there was a dual-carriageway the whole way most of it would likely operate below capacity even at peak hours, so a steady 70mph would seem achievable on most of the road. This could see an off-peak journey reduce to just under an hour, perhaps an hour and a half at peak hours. So a full upgrade could be expected to cut about half an hour off a typical journey from Belfast to Londonderry.
With the A6 competing for severely limited funding against other major schemes such as the A5 (Londonderry to Ballygawley), the York Street interchange in Belfast and further upgrades to the A1, the Regional Development Minister has some hard choices ahead.
Wesley Johnston is an expert on roads in Northern Ireland. To find out more visit his website…