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What can be done over Orwell Bridge closures and how likely are these measures?

PUBLISHED: 10:43 13 March 2019 | UPDATED: 10:51 13 March 2019

Grafton Way is one of the Ipswich roads to be congested when the Orwell Bridge closes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Grafton Way is one of the Ipswich roads to be congested when the Orwell Bridge closes. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

This morning’s closure of the Orwell Bridge has prompted fresh questions about what can be done to stop the gridlock which builds up around Ipswich as traffic diverts off the bridge and into the town.

Ipswich MP Sandy Martin has said that the present situation is “not good enough” and “can’t continue like this”.

In January last year Ipswich Central said the town’s economy had suffered a £1million hit during one day of closure, while the bumper-to-bumper traffic and journey times of two hours for just a handful of miles are regular occurrences during bridge closures.

Highways England has been working with police, Suffolk County Council highways and other key partners to assess some of the measures that could help ease the impact of bridge closures, or even prevent wind-related closures entirely.

We assess what the options are, what stage work is at and how likely they are to happen.

Northern bypass

Long touted as the answer to Ipswich’s traffic problems, the question of a route connecting the A12 and the A14 running north of Ipswich has been on the cards for decades.

County council leader Matthew Hicks last month set out the timeline of work, with a public consultation to be launched this summer.

The Orwell Bridge has closed in both directions due to strong winds from Storm Gareth. Pictures: HIGHWAYS ENGLANDThe Orwell Bridge has closed in both directions due to strong winds from Storm Gareth. Pictures: HIGHWAYS ENGLAND

That will then inform the development of plans such as possible routes and a business case.

But with no concrete details confirmed, it is not yet clear what such a road may look like.

Options include an A14-style dual carriageway, an ‘urban’ dual carriageway with roundabouts or a wide single-lane road like Colchester Road or Valley Road.

Opinion: A northern bypass is one of the more complicated issues facing councils in Suffolk.

Undoubtedly there is widespread support in Ipswich but for those living in the rural areas to the north of the town, seeing the landscape carved up for a road is not an appealing thought.

Furthermore, central government funding will almost definitely be reliant on it unlocking development of thousands of homes, and the cost of building such a route is said to be well north of £100m at the lower end of the estimates.

In any case, spades in the ground work on any route is years away from happening.

Sandy Martin, Labour MP for Ipswich, said the situation was Sandy Martin, Labour MP for Ipswich, said the situation was "not good enough". Picture: SEANA HUGHES

Upper Orwell Crossings

This was a scheme originally tabled as a traffic flow measure that would see its biggest benefit coupled with a northern bypass.

The project would have seen a bridge connecting the banks of the Orwell around the Holywells area of Ipswich with the Wherstead Road side.

The £100m scheme even got as far as cash being committed by Suffolk County Council and the Department for Transport, before an independent study last year found costs had escalated to the tune of more than £40m.

Unable to secure the additional funds needed to keep the bridge afloat, county council leader Matthew Hicks had to concede that the bridge will no longer go ahead, and any work will now be confined to pedestrian or cycle bridges only.

Opinion: The announcement from county council seems to be the final nail in the coffin for any kind of road in the Upper Orwell Crossings.

It is worth noting that the £77m central government had agreed cannot simply be diverted into a northern bypass or any other scheme – it was allocated for that specific project as a result of the business case.

Traffic is beginning to build up around Ipswich due to the Orwell Bridge's closure by Storm Gareth winds. Pictures: GOOGLE MAPSTraffic is beginning to build up around Ipswich due to the Orwell Bridge's closure by Storm Gareth winds. Pictures: GOOGLE MAPS

Likely to remain dead in the water.

Wind breaks

Highways England, which manages the Orwell Bridge, in October revealed it had commissioned a thorough aerodynamic study of the Orwell Bridge.

Enlisting the expertise of academics at City, University of London, the nine-month study will utilise wind tunnel testing, bridge modelling and other tests to assess the impact of different wind speeds and directions.

This will inform any future measures for wind-related Orwell Bridge closures.

One such measure is adding wind breaks to the bridge’s structure, and Highways England has already said that in theory the bridge’s design is able to support the weight of wind breaks. However this will need to be verified by the study.

Opinion: Until the aerodynamic study results have been published, it is difficult to determine how likely this will be - but the fact that Highways England believes it is possible and the study is considering this seriously suggests it is a very real possibility.

Wind breaks and additional signs are being assessed for the Orwell Bridge. Picture: ARCHANTWind breaks and additional signs are being assessed for the Orwell Bridge. Picture: ARCHANT

A note of caution though - the effect of adding wind breaks will probably not deliver the kind of results on a par with new bridges being designed with wind breaks, largely because the existing structure will dictate what, if anything, can be added.

Reduced speed limits

Another option which the aerodynamic study will verify, reducing the speed limit on the bridge is one motorists have previously mentioned.

The bridge already has a 60mph speed limit, but questions have been asked as to whether allowing cars to continue at 30mph for instance would reduce the impact of the wind.

In theory the slower the vehicle travels, the more stable it is - but this will still largely be dictated by the wind speeds.

Opinion: Again, it’s a matter of crystal ball gazing until the aerodynamic study findings are revealed - but any reduced speed limit will likely be in conjunction with separating high-sided vehicles.

Allowing cars to continue on the bridge

Possible routes for the northern bypass. Picture: ARCHANTPossible routes for the northern bypass. Picture: ARCHANT

Naturally high sided vehicles such as coaches and lorries are more exposed to the winds across the bridge than cars.

With that in mind, one area for assessment is diverting high sided vehicles off the bridge but allowing cars to continue.

While the town centre streets of Ipswich are clearly not suitable for freight, this would at least reduce the volume of traffic coming through the town.

It is understood that in the event of closures being forewarned, haulage firms are encouraged to cancel trips to and from the port, and toting containers via rail lines can continue.

Highways England’s emergency planning manager James Jackson previously said: “We have already investigated methods of traffic segregation and we believe it can be achieved by investing in more variable messaging signage and by placing traffic officers at junctions 55 and 56 to send high sided vehicles back along the A14 to the approved diversion route and allowing cars to re-enter the slip roads to cross the bridge.”

Opinion: Allowing cars across the bridge seems to be the question everyone is asking, and no doubt would have a significant impact if it could be achieved.

But even if all the lorries alone were diverted through Ipswich, many of the main routes through town such as Colchester Road and Heath Road are likely to still be snared simply because the roads were not designed for that kind of traffic.

Wherstead Road in Ipswich is another route where bumper-to-bumper traffic is frequently seen during bridge closures. Picture: GREGG BROWNWherstead Road in Ipswich is another route where bumper-to-bumper traffic is frequently seen during bridge closures. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Additional diversions

The final measure on the cards is one which Ipswich MP Sandy Martin has been calling for since he was elected - a series of diversion routes to be publicised, instead of just one.

Some Ipswich councillors have called for traffic to be diverted off the A14 earlier when heading eastbound, so cars get onto the road network outside of the A14 well before reaching Ipswich.

Opinion: If multiple diversion routes are available then they clearly need to be utilised. However the problem with diverting traffic off the A14 sooner is that it puts traffic on roads elsewhere in Suffolk, which are equally unsuitable for that volume of traffic and freight vehicles.

The question really is whether there are any other viable diversions?

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