National highway staffing shortages ‘put lives at risk on smart highways’

smart highway - Steve Parsons/PA Wire

smart highway – Steve Parsons/PA Wire

The quango responsible for the controversial smart highways has been accused of putting the lives of motorists at risk due to ‘worrying’ staff shortages.

National Highways is struggling to fill staffing gaps for vital control room operators, who are tasked with tracing faults, closing lanes and dispatching help to drivers.

The Telegraph can also reveal that technology crucial to smart motorway safety was plagued with problems for 48 hours last week, including a period when the system was setting ‘random’ signs.

Controversial all-lane highways, where hard shoulder is converted to a traffic lane to increase capacity, have come under scrutiny for several years following a spate of road deaths .

On Saturday, MPs and activists called on the government to “end” the “deadly roads”.

This will put pressure on Rishi Sunak to keep his Tory leadership race promise to ban any new smart highways.

National Highways, formerly Highways England, insists that smart highways are “as safe or safer” than conventional highways.

The design relies on safety technologies such as CCTV cameras and a radar system which should alert control room personnel to any car stopped on all-lane roads in less than 20 seconds.

Disabled vehicles are left stuck in high-speed traffic until control room personnel find the incident on camera, fix lane closures and dispatch traffic officers to the scene.

In internal emails seen by The Telegraph, a National Highways manager referred to the company’s “low workforce” nationwide.

Speaking to employees in the Midlands, he said the company needs to “think carefully about those safety and business critical functions that we need our operators to focus on”.

Mercier

Mercier

The Head of Service Delivery has asked Road Traffic Officers, who are tasked with patrolling the network and assisting broken down vehicles, to make calls typically left to control room staff to help resolve issues. personnel issues. This, he said, would ensure control room staff “are free to set up signs, handle detection of stopped vehicles and respond to calls from emergency services”.

It comes as whistleblowers working for National Highways say staff walked off the job due to safety concerns and stress.

A traffic officer, who works in the Midlands, said the current staffing was ‘worrying’ and ‘dangerous’.

He said the company was unable to retain staff due to the high-pressure nature of the job.

“People come in, learn how stressful the role is, and then they leave,” he said.

The number of traffic wardens – both on-road and control room operators – employed by national highways fell by 90 last year, figures show.

There were 1,538 in the year to March 2022, compared to 1,628 for the same period the year before, according to the latest annual report.

The revelations are unlikely to inspire confidence in National Highways after the agency suffered nationwide technical issues over a 48-hour period last week. This included three hours and 45 minutes where there was no sign or signal available.

In an internal email, director of operational control Andrew Page-Dove said “system performance had dropped to such a level that it rendered it unusable.”

At one point, he said the system was setting “random” signs due to a “missing configuration file”.

The software was restarted twice, leaving road users without vital safety technology.

Mr Page-Dove said control room staff were “all pretty down and frustrated…especially when the tools they need to do their job don’t work”.

In September, a coroner ruled the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the death of grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, after the car she was traveling in broke down on a stretch of smart highway in 2018.

Claire Mercer, who founded campaign group Smart Motorways Kill after her husband Jason Mercer was killed in 2019 on a smart motorway section of the M1, said Motorways.

“They don’t have the staff or the technology and it’s only a matter of time before there’s another tragedy.”

MP Greg Smith, who sits on the Transport Select Committee, said: “There is no denying that smart highways put lives at risk.

“People think these roads are safe when they really aren’t. The Department of Transportation needs to shut things down and get back to what we know and understand. »

Earlier this year, Grant Shapps, the former Transport Secretary, suspended the rollout of smart highways following a scathing report from the Commons.

A National Highways insider said the company was trying to improve recruiting in a tough job market by having weekend interviews and accelerating training.

Duncan Smith, Executive Director of Operations at National Highways, said: “We have robust and well-tested mitigations in place to address all of the operational challenges facing our network, including those related to technology. and to staff.

“Security remains our number one priority and an independent investigation is underway to help prevent a recurrence of the system issues from last week.”

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