Traffic Engineering

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 11th March 1960.

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Photo of Mr Robert Mellish Mr Robert Mellish , Bermondsey 12:00 am, 11th March 1960

The House recognises that the problems of traffic, both immediate and future, are tremendous. My hon. Friends and I are only too glad to take every opportunity to discuss these important matters. We are therefore, indebted to the hon. Member for Bedfordshire, South (Mr. Cole) and congratulate him on his success in the Ballot and on moving this Motion.

Having been entrusted with the great honour of speaking from this Front Bench, I have had to do a great deal of work, which has meant much research of my own. I set out, first, to find out what a traffic engineer was. I am very glad that I took the trouble to do a lot of research, because I found that "traffic engineer" is something of a misnomer. I believe that we might some time think of a different title.

There can be no denying the traffic engineer's importance in this problem. I have found that the definition of his job is to see that new roads are planned to provide effective traffic flow, combined with safety, and to do so at the lowest cost to the community. He also has to consider existing roads and road systems with a view to ensuring that they are used to the best advantage. That is his primary task.

I also found that the efforts made by this country in this matter disclose a sorry story. I want it to be clearly understood that anything I say is not in any sense a personal attack on the ex-Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Guildford (Sir R. Nugent). I know him very well, I have a great regard for him, and I know how hard he worked. He was Parliamentary Secretary throughout the period of our economic crisis, and any ideas that he may have had had to remain as ideas because he was always told that they were very fine but that there was no money for them. That is what he would like to be able to say, but as an ordinary member of his party he cannot do so. If he were on this side of the House he would have said it long ago.

Looking back on the problem, and the need for traffic engineers, and having delved into the record of the activities of the Ministry of Transport, I can only express alarm that it is only now that we are trying to face the obvious problems that lie ahead of us. We have been told about the traffic potential of tomorrow. One does not have to do much research to find out about that. The figures are available for everyone to see. It has been said that today there are 9 million vehicles on the roads. In 1964, in case anyone wants to have a bit of fun, there will be 16 million vehicles. If one wants to go further, at the present rate of increase there will be 21 million vehicles on the roads in 1970. It is a lot of fun to think of what it will be like in 1970 when today, when there are about 9 million vehicles on the road, the situation is already appalling.

It cannot be denied that traffic engineers are badly needed for research and to deal with safety on the roads. In 1946, a Traffic and Safety Division of the Road Research Laboratory was formed. The Labour Party was in power at that time, but I take no credit for that. This is not a party argument. Traffic problems are very serious and one cannot get much fun out of saying what we did or what somebody else did not do.

In 1951, the Director of the Road Research Laboratory called a conference of highway engineers, the police, university teachers, and other people to discuss traffic engineering. The House will be delighted to know that since then short courses have been held at the Road Research Laboratory. Only Britain could do this. It is typically British that we have held short courses and given some instruction in traffic engineering to a few people. These short courses are very short. They last one week during which certain people are brought together and given some instruction in traffic engineering.

Some effort has been made to deal with the problem, and I think that the former Parliamentary Secretary can take full credit for this. Recognising the need for traffic engineering experts, it was decided to do something about it at university level, and there are now three universities which have post-graduate courses in traffic engineering—Durham, Birmingham, and University College. I understand that Manchester is also thinking of introducing a course in highway engineering. One thing which I discovered which caused me some amusement is that the London County Council is thinking of providing evening classes to instruct people in traffic engineering.

It is almost frightening that we tackle the problem in this way. We get up and make speeches about the immensity of the problem, but the thing that alarms me is that some of the most important men in the country who have to tackle these problems on a day-to-day basis— I am not talking about traffic engineers, but about highway engineers—have not been invited to attend the courses run by the Road Research Laboratory.

Reference is often made to what goes on in America. Our gallant Minister of Transport—I am sorry that he is not here; I expect he is opening a bridge or road somewhere and making a great speech about what is to happen tomorrow—dashed off to America, and one was led to believe that until he took office there were no transport problems. Suddenly, he discovered them all. I gather that he enjoyed himself in America. He made speeches about what we were proposing to do in Britain. I wish that he would make those speeches here, so that we could find out what is to happen.

I hope that while the right hon. Gentleman was in America he discovered some of the ordinary things that go on there. In America, they take traffic engineering seriously. I understand that Yale has been teaching this subject since 1936, and that there are over 20 American universities which regard the teaching of traffic engineering as an essential part of the curriculum.

Some time ago, Mr. Burton Marsh, the Director of the American Automobile Association's Traffic Engineering and Safety Department, visited Britain. I do not usually support what "foreigners" say, but I will read his comments on our traffic situation, because he was talking about a technical subject on which he was qualified to express an opinion. He said that he was impressed by the great majority of our officials and experts to whom he spoke, and continued: We have no advantages over you here, save in numbers working full time on traffic operational problems, in the status of the top traffic engineering official in our large cities, and in our traffic engineering training programme …. Some of the traffic data which I was shown were not well organised. I saw dog-eared plans and projects in old ledgers or in books which hardly held together. Sometimes there were even bits pinned on to original drafts. Mr. Marsh was critical of what he called the lack of adequate staff in the traffic engineering departments which, he said, had been proved to be essential, and without which they could not manage, in America.

The crisis that we face today and which will grow worse tomorrow is one we could have foreseen. The need for traffic engineers is obvious, and I hope to show that this shortage of traffic engineers is not something which the Ministry of Transport has suddenly discovered. As the House knows only too well, we have Select Committees to consider these matters and go into them thoroughly. I told the House that I had done some research, and that leads me to the next part of my speech, which consists of quoting what some of our Select Committees have said on this subject.

The Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, dealing with our trunk roads, said: If the trunk roads themselves are to be built to the most satisfactory standards, research into materials and methods should be well advanced before actual construction gets under way. Your Committee's first concern, therefore, is to see whether the present programme has been adequately prepared. They are not satisfied that it has. The Report goes on to say: When the Director"— that is, the Director of the Road Research Laboratory— was asked, however, whether the Road Research Laboratory had yet begun any research into earth moving, he replied that he did not think so, and his deputy confirmed this. The Sub-Committee asked for figures of expenditure on Road Research since the war, and Your Committee consider that despite the recommendation of the Select Committee on Estimates in 1952–53 that the work of the Laboratory should be expanded, the figures reveal that expenditure on research was not significantly increased until after the beginning of the trunk road programme, instead of in anticipation of it. I then found that one of the Select Committees dealt with the question of roads in general and the building of roads. This is an example of the inefficiency due to a lack of research and traffic engineering knowledge. Dealing with the Preston by-pass, the Committee said: The original trial boreholes had indicated the presence of considerable quantities of clay suitable for embankments, but in the event much of the excavated material proved to be unsuitable for the purpose. Moreover, the boreholes had not revealed an extensive pocket of peat which had to be excavated and made good with imported material. In response to a Treasury inquiry on these matters the Ministry stated that if in dealing with any similar large project they found that early boreholes indicated exceptional difficulties they would seek authority for additional expenditure. On this road alone, as a result of no research, no real planning and not having the "know-how" at the beginning, the cost went up from an estimated £2·5 million to £3·7 million, largely due to the fact that in the construction of the road the research and planning were not done in the proper way, to such an extent that the Ministry did not have the trained people with the necessary "know-how".