The Plastic Hippo

September 1, 2010

Breaker one nine

Filed under: Transport,Walsall — theplastichippo @ 11:08 pm

Local social media commentators of various persuasions have, with good reason, turned their attention to a report from the Campaign for Better Transport branding the M6 Toll as a £900million failure. This is a fertile hunting ground for bloggers, facebookers, twitterers and, for those with long memories, users of Citizen Band radio.

CB radio became rather popular in the late 1970`s inspired by the film Convoy which itself was inspired by a novelty country and western song of the same name. The song and film tell the story of heroic truckers facing up to corrupt officialdom and glamorises law-breaking. The film is basically a cowboy movie with big trucks, dangerous driving, lots of crashes and pollution. In the dogs days of the Callaghan government, it caught the British imagination and it seemed that everyone wanted a CB radio. When offered a state-of-the-art game of Pong, schoolboys would react by saying: “That’s a big 10-4 good buddy, c`mon” in an attempted Texan accent. The biggest attraction, though, was that CB radio was at that time illegal in Britain.

In 1980, around the time when the CB radio craze was at its height, the first proposal for a new motorway to ease congestion on the M6 was suggested. Originally called the Birmingham North Relief Road, the construction of the new motorway was to be publicly funded, but the then Thatcher government decided that it would be privately built and then operated under one of the first public private partnerships now so enthusiastically embraced by national and local governments incapable of doing what they are suppose to do.

The Toll road opened in 2003 and has been so successful in reducing congestion on the M6 that the Highways Agency has committed £500million to further “improvements” on the M6 to…err…reduce congestion and it is estimated the the Toll operators, Midland Expressway Limited, are loosing £25million every year as use of the road dwindles. In the spirit of Kris Kristofferson, the British haulage industry “ain’t gonna pay no tolls” and have kept their trucking convoy firmly on the inside and middle lanes of the M6. Not even the prospect of Ali MacGraw pulling into Norton Canes Services in an open-topped sports car “sans culottes” would make our own knights of the road part with the 10 quid needed to arrive at junction 11A a few minutes earlier than usual.

It might seem that Midland Expressway and parent company the Macquarie Infrastructure Group are in a bit of a hole if they expect to get their £900million back but, to be fair to them, they have tried to claw back some of the money. When it became clear that the road was as much use as a chocolate teapot, Macquarie chief executive Steve Allen said in 2005: “What we need is to slow down the M6”. This might explain the Active Traffic Management system between junctions 4 and 5 on the M6 and junctions 7 and 9 on the M42 completed last November and a similar mega speed bump between junctions 8 and 10A through Walsall. The disruption certainly slowed the M6 down during the work but did not encourage drivers onto the Toll road. However, the “variable” speed limits in place on the sections of “free” motorway which coincidentally start where drivers have the option to take the Toll road, might encourage the faint-hearted to avoid the death-trap of hard shoulder running and part with a fiver in order to arrive home safely.

The actual design of the access points to the M6 Toll is worthy of Tricky Dickie. Drivers have to make a conscious decision to leave the M6 to rejoin the M6 as staying in lane will result in more money for Midland Expressway who, incidentally, control the matrix signs that read M6 Toll clear but not the signs reading major roadworks ahead on the M6.

Now the Highways Agency, the Department for Transport and, if he were still alive, Richard Milhous Nixon will assert that this is all in the interests of safety and reducing congestion and nothing to do with the profitability of a private company. But it has been in the interests of successive governments to make sure that M6 Toll is successful. The failure of this particular stretch of asphalt has led to calls for the government to buy the road using tax-payers money and remove the toll charges. Midland Expressway could then load up a convoy of 18-wheelers with the money and crash through the Toll Plaza with Ernest Borgnine in hot pursuit. Ten-ten, see ya again.

In those far-off days when CB radio, platform boots and Vesta Chow Mein were considered cool, social media consisted of imported transmitters with a pitiful range and an imported lingua franca packed with ridiculous codes and acronyms and preposterous “handles”; the names that CB enthusiasts bestowed upon themselves. Faced with the popularity of the craze, the then government made it legal with some constraints and started charging money for a CB licence. The ancestor of blog posts and Twitter rapidly faded.

In these more sophisticated and high-tech times, it would be easy to consign CB radio to the file marked “quaint” with an LOL and OMG along with Pans People, Showaddywaddy and the winter of discontent. But the erudite, well-informed and vital social observers of today such as Brownhills Bob, The Stymaster and their more moronic wannabe, The Plastic Hippo, owe a debt of gratitude to those early pioneers Cab-over Pete, Pig Pen and The Rubber Duck.




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  2. Another finely crafted rant, Mr. Hippo. Nice one.

    As a resident of the Northern Wastes, I’ve observed the genesis of the M6 Toll – or BNRR for 3 decades. From the divisive days of the ‘Orange Route’ – a thoroughly unfeasible option that would never have happened – cleverly designed to split the residents of Stonnall and Aldridge from those of Wall, Hammerwich and Shenstone – the project has been a masterclass in spin and social engineering.

    I watched the squabbles, the protests, and then the destruction as the cheap construction methods decimated ancient tracks, meadows and field-boundaries. I then watched the road lie largely unused. I cycled the full length of the road the night before it opened, I could have done so at any time since with little fear of encountering traffic.

    We cannot go on building roads. We need to address overuse of the car, and I see the whole project as some kind of fudge to the car god; it clearly, perhaps deliberately misunderstood what caused the congestion it was designed to relieve and consequently has failed. As a testament, however, to the spin and guff of the PFI, it cannot be faulted.

    CB as a precursor to blogs? Not too sure about that. CB was ephemeral – I’d see it more as an early social media – more like twitter. Of course, radio hams had been doing this more effectively and with less static for decades before. Whilst the country was going nuts of crackly AM and linear burners, proto-Bob was listening for numbers stations on shortwave, and dreaming of decoding RTTY.

    As I’ve tenured before, I believe we’re probably closer to the fanzines, general smaizdat, ragmags and Oz than we’d probably like to admit.

    Best wishes


    Comment by BrownhillsBob — September 2, 2010 @ 7:45 am | Reply

  3. Bugger. I meant to type ‘samizdat’. Sorry.

    Comment by BrownhillsBob — September 2, 2010 @ 7:48 am | Reply

  4. I was going to blog about the M6 toll myself, but you’ve done a far better job than I could.

    Personally, I’m divided about the M6T. In one way, I love it, but according to current news, it doesn’t pay it’s way or achieve it’s aim, which is a nice partial contrast to this blog post and linked article from lat year.

    Personally, I use it partially for the time saving and fewer idiots, plus having a junction very nearby, and love it for that, but i can’t afford to use it every day, so use Ray Hall Interchange instead [shudder]. In one way, I like the idea of a motorway I can pay to use that is quiet, even though this goes against my general principles.

    Bob’s right about over-use of the car needing to be addressed, but I’d argue that that’s better done on a short-distance basis. School runs, shopping trips etc.

    Comment by stymaster — September 2, 2010 @ 8:23 am | Reply

    • Sorry, I didn’t really clarify that. It’s short-distance use of cars that causes the problem. Look at the traffic chaos that will generally ensue as the kids – bless ’em and their little short legs – go back to school.

      I’d tenure that much of the congestion on the M5-M6 junctions is folks getting on at say, 1 or 2 of the M5 and getting off at say, 7, 10 or 11 of the M6. The problem is that you have an urban area with no clear through routes apart from the motorways, and then sheep that use them as shortcuts, often taking far longer than the alternatives.

      Lots has to be improved – rail, busses etc. – but lets face it, the amount spent on roads for the economic return is crap, comparatively.

      Best wishes


      Comment by BrownhillsBob — September 2, 2010 @ 10:42 am | Reply

      • Agreed on all counts Bob.

        Comment by stymaster — September 2, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

  5. Oh, and how about another comparison to Internet handles etc.

    Comment by stymaster — September 2, 2010 @ 8:26 am | Reply

  6. Interesting post. What are the chances of the M6 toll being seen as the road too far and thus the final major road build project? Yes, there will always be tweaks on roads and some places still need to be bypassed. But, if congestion causes people to shift transport mode that may be a good thing. However, what to shift to is a problem. We have children in Edinburgh. Planes are cheaper and can be booked well in advance. Trains can only be booked 90 days in advance – not normally a problem but in August (Festival; book festival; tv festival; fringe; tattoo and tourist times) there is no guarantee that a seat is there when you have booked a ticket. It is no fun at all standing from Edinburgh to Derby. There are already NIMBYs around the enhanced west coast mainline (and the Edinburgh Carlisle route reopening [the waverly line]) so I don’t know what the answer is.

    Comment by Andrew — September 2, 2010 @ 8:46 am | Reply

    • Our whole transport model is fucked, basically.

      Buses aren’t regular enough. Trains the same, plus they cost more.

      Planes enviromentally bad, plus you have to get to an airport and hanga round for at least an hour or two.

      Roads are clogged, and not great environmentally. Anyone got a clever answer?

      Comment by stymaster — September 2, 2010 @ 4:12 pm | Reply

  7. Beats me why they built the thing in the first place.
    Well, actually, no it doesn’t – profits for Midland Expressway in return for donations to Tory party coffers, perhaps?
    If we were on speaking terms with the neighbours we could have nipped over the Channel and asked them how they get on with their payage motorways.
    Or perhaps they told a few porkies: “Allez-y, perfidious brits! C’est une licence to print monnaie! Regardez les autoroutes quand vous visitez Disneyland! Vous payez the tolls big time, n’est ce pas? It will be juste le meme chez vous. Go for it, mes braves!”
    From memory (thesis in the 80s, since you ask), only a couple of the private companies that built the autoroutes have got any of their money back; some of them (in Rhone-Alpes, for example) will never get their money back at current tolls and levels of use.
    UK motorists are doing exactly what their french counterparts are doing – refusing to pay for road use when there is a free alternative. Quelle surprise.

    Comment by martin — September 5, 2010 @ 10:23 pm | Reply

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