Orders of the Day — Trunk Roads (Scotland)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th December 1975.

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Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 12:00 am, 18th December 1975

I am glad to have the chance to initiate a debate on the A74 and the A75. I must express my gratitude to Lord Kirkhill, who has been most recently in charge of the roads department of the Scottish Development Department and has written me a number of helpful letters.

Recently the regional chief executive of Dumfries and Galloway said that when history was written about the South-West of Scotland it would be a tale of two roads—the A74 and the A75. The first is the main artery between England and Scotland. The second is the vital link from Carlisle to Stranraer. Few areas can be so involved with major trunk routes as those through which these roads pass. In this case 80 per cent. of the population lives alongside them, yet the A74 and A75 are inadequate for their purposes. Both carry vast volumes of traffic with ever-increasing numbers of container wagons and, happily, tourists in the summer. A major acceleration of tourism has developed since the completion of the M6, and both in that respect and in connection with industry, the potential of South-West Scotland is bound up with these two roads.

I deal first with the A74. In 1937 proposals were in hand to upgrade the road to dual carriageway, perhaps on a new route. Because of the war only a stretch of the old route was completed. Few roads can have been in such a bad state of repair, alignment and congestion. We forget just what a misery it was to drive on that road in the 1940s and the 1950s. That is why it was the first major road for major reconstruction after the war. Perhaps that is unfortunate, because it was designed before the motorway conception was the normal form of major reconstruction.

The subsequent increase in traffic was just not envisaged, and it is not fair to blame the planners in the 1940s, because at that time we were pleased to get anything at all. The construction took years and it was not until it was completed in 1973 and providing a high speed road throughout its length that its inherent dangers became obvious. This is partly because the construction of the last stretch, the Gretna by-pass, went on until shortly before it was opened and traffic was slowed down effectively from the M6 on to the A74.

The Minister will know that, despite frequent headlines in the Press, I have never personally used the phrase "killer road" and I do not intend to do so tonight. Few accidents are just accidents. They are mostly caused by human error or lack of skill and experience in adverse weather conditions. But it is our duty to see that drivers are constantly on their guard and to provide the safest conditions.

For a multitude of reasons, the situation is serious and deteriorating. I am not speaking with hindsight. The files of the Scottish Development Department must be heavy with correspondence from me, fromthe Dumfries County Council, from residents, from the NFU, from the AA and RAC and now, of course, from the regional authority. The local authorities have certainly played their part in bringing out the serious defects of this road.

I know from my own experience that Ministers are responsible for Departments. I think that all Ministers responsible have been to see the A74 and the A75 for themselves. After some thought, however, Ithink that a fair comment might be that Ministers may come and Ministers may go but the SDD goes on for ever.

If there is a common theme in the letters that I have had from Ministers over many years and covering both Governments, and the letters from the Department to local authorities, it is the expression of a reluctance to do anything except as a last resort and then only after the greatest consultation with the Road Research Laboratory, the Road Safety Unit and every other body which has given its advice. I remember this particularly because when I first suggested the commercial vehicles sign which has subsequently been quite a success—recently improved by the addition of the 40 mph figures—I was almost driven to despair in trying to get one of them accepted and erected anywhere in Scotland.

What I have said is true also of the incredibly slow progress with the continuous central barrier, a most important feature which should continue for the length of the road. I have been pressing for such a barrier since 1972, yet in 1975 the same arguments are being trotted out, couched in such terrible jargon as "cross-median accidents" and expressing the view that somehow accidents would be less dangerous if cars crossed the central reservation than if they hit other cars going the same way. If the experts still think that, I say flatly that they are wrong. Many lives could have been saved over 10 years if there had been a continuous central reservation barrier. I am therefore glad that this is likely to be erected in the not-too-distant future north of Beat-tock, even though it seems to be going against the Department's arguments over a very long time.

The Minister knows of the statistics that the Secretary of State has provided in many Written Questions. The important fact which emerges is that at either end of the A74 are the M74 and the M6, both of which have much lower accident rates than the A74, although carting the same traffic flow. This has certainly been a bad year for the A74. There have been 30 deaths. I need not reiterate the tragic bus accident that happened in June and the many other fatal accidents, all of which have been personal disasters to the families concerned.

I want to record how fortunate we are to have such brilliant doctors, and medical staff at the Dumfries Royal Infirmary and to record appreciation to those ambulancemen, policemen and firemen involved.

I shall put statistics aside, The plain fact is that this road is accident-prone and but for the slight reduction in the volume of traffic on account of the fuel crisis, accident figures would have been worse. I hope that the Scottish Office and the Minister will be flexible when they examine the statistics because there has been an unhappy trend of accidents on this road over the past year or so.

Everyone knows that a road of motorway standards is the ideal and only solution but we must be practical in terms of costs. An alternative service road and an upgrading of the A74 to motorway standard would probably cost in the region of £100 million. Alternatively, we could consider an additional third lane which would not involve the road being upgraded to motorway standard. In that case, we should not need the alternative service road. However, that does not solve the problem of agricultural vehicles or even pedestrians. I realise the chaos that would occur on the present road, with delays and frustration over several years, if a major reconstruction took place.

Therefore, I want to deal practically with the situation over the next two years bearing in mind cost and the limit on Government expenditure. However, there is room for some redistribution of money between the Ministries and the A74 might benefit from this. I appreciate that at present about £300,000 is being spent on the A74 on additional lengths of barrier, hard strips, drainage, resurfacing and reflecting studs. Anyone who drives on the A74 at present can see the cost of those improvements in terms of congestion. That is a fact of life, It is a pity that when improvements to roads are carried out there is not greater co-ordination with services such as the Post Office, because the Post Office is running a cable along the A74 at the same time as these improvements are taking place and this adds extensively to the inconvenience.

I wish to make 10 points about the A74. First, the continuous central barrier reduces the severity of accidents and saves lives. Second, there is the issue of the bridge at Johnstone Bridge for pedestrians. School children have to cross the road here to get a bus, and this bridge was under consideration in 1973. In 1974 and 1975 I heard nothing more about it, although I appreciate that the junction has been upgraded to an extent.

Third, 30 schoolchildren join the bus for the short ride between Lockerbie and Ecclefechan. We shall have to consider additional lay-bys for school buses because the children have to get on and off at the farm road ends. Perhaps there could even be a recommendation from the Secretary of State for Scotland that school buses should be fitted with hazard warning lights when they are stationary so that passing traffic can see them more readily.

Fourth, I want to ask the Minister about underpasses. We have advocated these for many years. More recently, the local authority has conducted a safety and operational study of underpasses for dairy farmers who have to drive their herds across this dual carriageway twice a day and find it extremely hazardous. Indeed, on occasions they might have to cross the dual carriageway four times daily, going to and from milking. Two or three underpasses at the farms most specifically concerned would be very advantageous.

Fifth, and importantly, the Minister must look again at the signs to be seen when leaving the M6 coming north on to the A74. I know that the signs change from blue to green and that the carriageways reduce from three to two. However, when one has been driving 330 miles from London, one tends perhaps to be concentrating not as hard as one would as one comes to the interchange at Carlisle. I believe that very many motorists honestly do not realise that they have changed from the M6 to the A74. This involves an immediate effect on commercial vehicles in that they are reduced to 40 m.p.h. This is most important.

For this reason—and sixth—I have been rather disappointed with my efforts to persuade the Government to do rather more to inform foreign tourists about our fuel-saving speed limits. Many overseas visitors—I see many going up and down the road in the summer—just do not realise that we have fuel-saving speed limits and that if they leave the M6 and go on to the A74 their speed should be reduced to 60 mph. instead of the 70 mph they have been doing for 300 miles. I asked the Minister concerned to arrange for special signs to be erected at the tourist centre south of Carlisle, but I got a dusty answer. We should do more to inform visitors about our speed limits.

Seventh, I want to see continued pressure by our overworked police on controlling and keeping down the speed of commercial vehicles. This has been a big success. I congratulate the police force. Every time I travel along the road I notice that the container wagons and articulated lorries are going slower now that their drivers know that they are more likely to be caught and have severe fines imposed upon them in the sheriff courts. I hope that within the resources—I know that it costs a lot of money—this continues.

Eighth, I hope that every right turn on the dual carriageway will have a central slip road so that one can get off the fast lane.

Ninth, I should like to see a ban on parking in lay-bys on the side of the A74. Some people have been killed when sitting in their car or a caravan. I should like to see the local authority able to provide more picnic spots away from the carriageway. The local authority has been pressing for this since 1972, but nothing has happened.

Lastly, in relation to the A74 I want the Government to look very carefully—as I am sure they are doing—at the medium term and whether we should be considering upgrading this road as the years roll ahead of us, because we must not be complacent and think that this road will be adequate into the 1980s.

I know that the Minister will in time answer many of these points. I turn rather more briefly to the A75. I notice that the hon. Member for Galloway (Mr. Thompson) is present in the Chamber. I am sure that he will want to talk a little about the road as it affects his constituency. It is equally important and, as I shall show to the Minister, internationally important. This is a much more simple story, which will not take so long to tell. It is the main artery between Stranraer and Dumfries in the south and from Galloway to Edinburgh, and now it is the Euro-road between Belfast and the Continent. The Minister will know of the amazing build-up of container traffic from the terminals at Stranraer and Cairnryan, most of which uses this road from the roll-on/roll-off ferries. The build-up has been impressive and is most important.

I hope that the Minister will remember these figures when I speak shortly about the Dumfries traffic survey. In 1968, according to the figures I have, 28,000 commercial vehicles used the ferries at Stranraer, and in 1975 the figure had built up to 125,000 commercial vehicles, mostly large container vehicles. Of course, as on the A74 there has been a huge increase in tourism and caravans since the opening of the M6. That we welcome, but we must try to provide adequate roads for tourists and caravans.

In addition to what I have said about tourism and caravans, it is the main road for industry and communication in the South-West of Scotland. I have written to the Secretary of State for the Environment about the possibility of the closure of the Dumfries-Kilmarnock railway line. I hope that there is no truth in that suggestion.

I know that a substantial sum has already been spent on the road, but there is much to do. I should be grateful if the Minister could answer some of the questions of which I have given him advance notice.

Going from the East to the West, unlike young Lochinvar, I should tell the House that Lord Hughes was very good in coming to Gretna last spring to look at the Callendar-Hamilton temporary Bailey bridge built across the A74. After he had talked to the councillors and myself, there was some optimism that he would give a favourable decision in the not-too-distant future. The Department has had the figures since the end of April. The difference between the estimates for one scheme and another was very small. It is essential to have a new bridge on the site of the present bridge, because we cannot return to the old single-carriageway bridge over the River Sark.

At Rigg the local authority has begun the maximum action following inquiries by residents. It is now up to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, to make a decision on the speed limit. I am sure that he will do so as soon as he has the facts.

There is heavy congestion in Annan, with a long tailback, particularly in summer. There has been much pressure from the town of Annan and the local authority to get ahead with planning the bypass for Eastriggs and Annan.

There is also pressure for progress on the bypass at Collin. I sent a petition bearing 667 signatures to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes. There has been a long delay over planning that bypass, and the local residents are deeply concerned. I hope that the Minister of State will give the local authority permission to go ahead with the planning survey as soon as possible.

To me, the main issue is the bypass at Dumfries. We must have an outer ring road plus a new bridge over the River Nith. The old idea of an inner ring road is outdated, particularly on account of the ferry traffic, which has made such a difference to the road, and the general increase in local traffic. We must have an outer ring road with a link to the A76 to Kilmarnock and Ayr and to the A75 to Stranraer. If that happens, an inner ring road will be unnecessary.

The Department has been putting pressure on the regional authority, saying that it must do the work itself. There is an astonishing anomaly. The distance from Stranraer to London is 403 miles, and the Government are responsible for all but the three going through the town of Dumfries. I know that this goes back to large burgh days, and that there may have been a defect in the legislation. But, whatever has happened, the Government must accept that they cannot opt out of the issue, leaving a regional authority to look after three miles between Stranraer and London. This is such an obvious defect that the Government must think again.

The Government must help a community that has been plagued by heavy vehicles. The centre of Dumfries has become a nightmare of noise, vibration and pollution. Exeter and Carlisle used to be the great bottlenecks of Britain. Now Dumfries is one.

The matter causes me great concern in summer. We do not want so to frighten tourists that they do not return to this attractive part of the world.

In conclusion, I trespass briefly into the territory of the hon. Member for Galloway. I do so to highlight the situation at Newton Stewart, for which I give him my support in advance. There is no alternative bridge over the River Cree. If there were a major defect to that bridge we would be in dead trouble because of all the container traffic using it day and night. I hope that the Minister will go ahead with the bypass as soon as possible.

There have been many other schemes in the pipeline and I know that we must be reasonable about expense. They cannot all be done at once. Nevertheless, bone that the Minister of State will give us some encouraging answers. If he does they will be most welcome in an area that lives with its roads and has to live with their difficulties.