Likelihood of Ipswich Orwell Bridge measures revealed
PUBLISHED: 15:34 04 January 2019
Highways England has confirmed there are no additional measures set to be introduced this winter in the event of an Orwell Bridge closure - but more clarity has emerged on some of the key debates.
James Jackson, emergency planning manager at Highways England, addressed questions from Ipswich Borough Council’s scrutiny committee on Thursday on its bridge closure protocol.
In the autumn, Mr Jackson revealed that a detailed aerodynamic study was launched on October 1 by experts at City, University of London, which will determine whether the wind thresholds for a bridge closure can be changed, whether cars could be allowed to continue using the bridge in high winds, and whether wind breaks could be added.
At Thursday’s meeting, Mr Jackson said the nine-month study would conclude over the summer, meaning no additional mitigation measures would be introduced this winter.
But despite the news, fresh details have emerged on some of the other key questions, and just how realistic proposals of wind breaks or allowing cars to use the bridge are.
How significant is the academic study?
In a nutshell, the results of the study will be the key to whether the much talked-about ideas can be a reality.
The costs of the study are not yet clear, but it will model the behaviour of wind on the bridge at different speeds and directions of travel.
“It’s a fairly unprecedented study in that it’s so detailed,” Mr Jackson said.
“We are not aware of this happening nationally or even anywhere else in the world.
“From our point of view, this study will inform everything we do on the bridge going forward.”
Can cars be allowed to continue using the bridge in high winds?
One of the key areas the aerodynamic study is addressing is whether cars and lorries could be segregated – diverting high-sided vehicles off the A14 while allowing cars to continue during high winds.
But Highways England’s own study has shown some promising potential.
“We have looked at the feasibility of segregating high-sided vehicles,” Mr Jackson confirmed.
“In theory, it’s possible. It will be very intensive and require a lot of investment in terms of signs but I think we can probably do it.
“We have been looking at how they do it on the Severn Crossing [between Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire].
“Once the UCL study has concluded we will know if it’s feasible. We know how it can work on paper.”
If traffic segregation is pursued, will lorries be parked up or be diverted through Ipswich?
Mr Jackson said if traffic segregation is pursued the “most likely scenario” would be to allow lorries through the diversion routes and let cars continue over the bridge.
That would mean additional signs would be needed along the route warning lorries to divert off, and additional staffing.
It is not yet clear however how this would be enforced to prevent a lorry missing the turning.
In all likelihood, this will be based on the height of the vehicle, Mr Jackson said, but admitted the way a lorry is loaded and its weight could also be factors.
Can wind breaks be added?
One of the key revelations has been that roads contractor Kier – which maintains Highways England’s network of roads – has already carried out a year-long study on whether structural add-ons could be used.
“Kier have done a year long study into wind reflectors and structural provision,” Mr Jackson said.
“In theory it’s feasible but the big issue is if the bridge can handle the additional weight loading.
“In theory the parapets are probably strong enough to put those breakers on – the question is whether the outer structure is strong enough.
“It is something we are looking at – the study is in draft format but everything will follow on from the university study.”
However, one area of concern is that it is understood Highways England has never retrofitted any wind breaks to its bridges.
Mr Jackson said: “What we have seen is a lot of bridges across Europe have been retrofitted or been fitted from day one, but from our network we haven’t looked at this in the past.”
Are more diversion routes possible?
In December, Suffolk Highways vowed to take a more proactive approach to solving the problem of Ipswich gridlock as a result of Orwell Bridge closures.
But it has emerged that Highways England is also carrying out its own traffic modelling.
Mr Jackson said: “Initially the response we had in terms of identifying alternative routes was there are none.
“As soon as you send traffic off the strategic road network [motorways, dual carriageways and major A roads] everything has to be agreed by the local highways authority.
“We have given this over to a dedicated project manager to look at now, and I believe they are doing traffic modelling to see if they can change traffic diversion routes, or to see if there are any other viable alternatives, and it may be we use a number of different diversion routes.”
It is understood the modelling is only looking at journey times as this stage.
Rough figures for bridge usage suggests around 60,000 vehicles use the bridge each day, and around 20% of that traffic being freight – either for the Port of Felixstowe or local deliveries.
It means it is above the average for the rest of Highways England’s road network, at between 10% and 15%.
But Ipswich Borough Council’s portfolio holder for environment and transport Phil Smart said: “It’s volume that creates congestion so if [lorries] were the only vehicles that came through Ipswich for a limited period that could be something we could work with.”
Elsewhere, the issue of air quality on diversion routes when so much freight uses it was raised, as were concerns over the noise on diversion routes caused by the extra traffic.
Mr Jackson suggested that Highways England and Suffolk Highways could team up to offer some mitigation if noise was exacerbated by the road condition itself, such as repairs to potholes or loose drains, which could be funded by both organisations.
Ipswich MP Sandy Martin said: “I am quite encouraged by the fact they are doing a proper in-depth study at last – it’s a shame they couldn’t do it five years ago.
“I am hopeful it will lead to the bridge being closed less often from the summer onwards. I am still convinced that more can be done to encourage long distance vehicles – especially vehicles going to Felixstowe – not to go near Ipswich at all, and maybe additional advice to hauliers that there are better routes than going into Ipswich. In the long term we need a proper alternative route for vehicles in the north of Ipswich, which will probably be used by vehicles around the north of Ipswich anyway.”
Sandra Gage from the scrutiny committee added: “It’s good Mr Jackson has come and we do need to keep on top of making sure these commitments are seen through. If traffic belongs on the A14 it should not be coming through Ipswich between now and the Northern Relief Road being built.”
While Thursday’s meeting didn’t have much in the way of fresh measures being considered, the additional details unveiled are in themselves very intriguing.
The fact that such a detailed aerodynamic study has been commissioned, which Mr Jackson has described as “unprecedented” suggests Highways England appreciates just how much of an issue the Orwell Bridge closure is.
Yes, they won’t be the ones siting in gridlocked traffic for two hours like many Ipswich motorists have had to endure, but pumping money into a thorough study is not something that would be done without good cause.
As many town leaders have previously said, the issue of gridlocked Ipswich is both a regional and national issue, not just a problem confined to the town, and with this aerodynamic study comes a commitment to at least explore possible avenues.
Also of note from Thursday’s meeting was the revelation that Highways England is carrying out its own traffic modelling of diversion routes, as well as the news that Kier has carried out its own study of additional bridge ‘add-ons’.
Both of these have not previously been disclosed, and coupled with more detailed explanations of the issues surrounding traffic segregation and windbreaks, makes for a better understanding of where Ipswich is with bridge closure measures.
The fact that on paper these measures are possible is good news. For sure, there is a lot of work to be done still and making these a reality is going to be far from easy, but it marks progress from where the bridge debates were even two years ago.
Undoubtedly, there should be questions over why the bridge closure happens more frequently now, and perhaps the increase in cars on the roads means that the impact on Ipswich’s roads when it does close is more prevalent.
But similarly, the question should be why measures to mitigate high winds were never considered when the bridge was first built.
It is clear that the current situation is here to stay for the time being, and while it is important to learn from any mistakes in the past it doesn’t change the here and now.
Let’s hope the continued work to assess the situation bears fruit in the long term.
The promise of a return visit from Highways England to the council’s scrutiny committee in the summer once the findings of the aerodynamic study has been completed should make for enlightening reading.
The future of how the bridge operates, and its long term impact on Ipswich, depends on it.