On Wednesday evening, people spent hours in their cars after two accidents at Junction 31a of the M6- one northbound and one southbound happened at rush hour, causing gridlock in Fulwood, Ashton, Deepdale, Grimsargh, Cottam, Bilsborrow, Ribbleton, Preston Docks and beyond.
Time and time again, Preston is named as one of the worst cities for congestion in the country. And in recent weeks, commuters have complained of an escalation in the problem, as city
roads are choked following accidents on the nearby motorway network.
The problems were compounded by several sets of roadworks taking place - notably work to install high-voltage power line in Bluebell Way, Fulwood, and lane reconfiguration at the junction of Liverpool Road and Leyland Road, Penwortham.
The TomTom traffic report for Preston between 3pm and 8pm on Wednesday shows congestion peaking at 170 per cent of what it was last year, with an average two per cent increase in congestion over the whole day.
Despite highways bosses at Lancashire County Council announcing and building bypass schemes and carrying out road widening works, commuters have been left wondering why roads are still so easily choked, and questioning whether geography, public transport problems or a spate of house building is to blame.
Aidan Turner-Bishop of Campaign for Better Transport Lancashire, said: “It’s to do with a lack of capacity on the roads. The motorways weren’t designed for it- back in 1958 they were empty, meant for people wanting to go off to Scotland or Blackpool.
“Now there’s too many people driving about in their own cars. It only takes one problem at a pinch point, and there is a big traffic problem.
“But it’s always been bad in Preston. When I was a lad 50 years ago travelling from Manchester to Blackpool, it could take two hours to get through Preston. The problem is that you have to cross the River Ribble.”
He added: “There’s also no equivalent of the public transport trams you get in Greater Manchester. We need a Lancashire Metro, where people can get on these posh trains in Accrington or Fulwood and get to Preston city centre.”
Michelle Woodburn of Goosnargh and Whittingham Against Overdevelopment, said: “We’re so close to the motorway junction that there’s a knock-on effect every time there’s an accident.
“And the congestion seems to be getting worse, it was never like this 10 years ago.
“On Wednesday night it took one man who works with me three hours to get home to Ormskirk. It’s ridiculous.
“The Broughton Bypass has been built, but it’s not helping a lot. That’s moved congestion to another place, and even that gets gridlocked. People are looking for rat runs all the time, they are going down Brabiner Lane, which is totally unsuitable for heavy traffic.
“I don’t know what the answer is, but the house building taking place is not helping.
“If you build houses in areas like Goosnargh where there is no infrastructure, there are no jobs, then you force people to get in their cars and commute.
“Also, planning applications aren’t being looked at as a whole. In Goosnargh there’s six or seven applications in for a total of 2,000 houses, but they’re all being looked at separately instead of looking at what the cumulative impact of all of them will be.”
Lancashire County Council, the area’s highways authority are working on implementing major schemes outlined in the Central Lancashire Highways and Transport Masterplan.
The Broughton Bypass has already been completed, with Penwortham Bypass set to open in the New Year, funding secured for a Preston Western Distributor road linking the A583 at Riversway to a new junction on the M55 at Bartle, and work well underway on dualling the A582 all the way from the M65 at Bamber Bridge into Preston city centre.
The masterplan, which was issued in 2013, but is still current, said: “Central Lancashire faces its biggest challenge in the last 30 years” and there is “no choice” but to create new highway capacity to support new housing and business developments.
By 2026, Central Lancashire is expected to have 22,200 additional homes, a large office-based service sector employment and as many as 23,000 new jobs - 6,000 at the Enterprise Zone covering the BAE Systems sites at Samlesbury and Warton.
Preston councillor David Borrow sits on the city’s planning committee. While he is hopeful major road schemes will relieve pressure on the city in the future, he also shares residents’ concerns about the effect of house building on the road network.
He said: “Through the City Deal there is work going on to improve infrastructure, such as building the Preston Western Distributor Road and Penwortham Bypass, but until then, there is a lot of pressure on the motorway junction and the A6.
“Whenever there is an incident on the M6, there is a knock-on effect on the city’s roads and roadworks for new schemes are putting extra pressure on.
“I look out of my window in Garstang Road and I know there’s a problem on the M6 when I can see lorries queuing up.
“Until the strategic network is completed, there is no easy alternative for traffic at the moment.”
He added: “In rural areas when an application comes in for a new development and there are concerns about an increase in traffic, LCC in most cases say the roads can cope.
“So that makes it very difficult for the planning authority to refuse. If they say it’s okay, we as Preston City Council aren’t highways experts, so we have go with them.”
Michael White, highways regulation manager for Lancashire County Council, said: “Exceptional circumstances like this (Wednesday evening) can lead to thousands of extra vehicles using alternative routes on roads throughout the city, which just aren’t designed to handle motorway levels of traffic.
“We’re making substantial improvements to Preston’s road network to ensure traffic can move freely around the city and encourage economic growth. This extra capacity may help to partially alleviate such issues in the coming years, however no local networks are designed to cope with the extra traffic generated by one-off incidents.”
LCC was unavailable to comment on its response to planning applications.
A Preston City Council spokesman said: “A by-product of Preston’s convenience at being in close proximity to four major motorway networks is that when a serious incident occurs, drivers are at the mercy of the local road network trying to cope with the sudden influx of vehicles. This isn’t something that can necessarily be planned for.
“The National Planning Policy Framework states that developments should only be prevented or refused on highway grounds if there will be an unacceptable impact on highway safety, or if residual cumulative impacts on the road network would be severe. Development proposals are rigorously assessed by Lancashire County Council as the highway authority and, in most cases, the highways impact of development is not considered to be severe.”
The LCC Highways masterplan also sets out concerns about the effect congestion could have on the area’s businesses.
It states: “Lancashire’s transport network is reaching a critical point in the extra traffic it can take and there is the very real risk the economic prospects for the area will be lost.”
Alan Welsh of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Trade, said he is hopeful new traffic schemes already proposed by LCC ease current problems, but wants to see other transport schemes brought in, as well as support from businesses themselves.
He said: “Most traffic incidents are fundamentally caused by driver behaviour which is often avoidable. However, the volume of traffic, ongoing road works, and a lack of alternative routes all contribute to congestion and travel misery for motorists and businesses.
“For Preston at least, new road schemes such as the Preston Western Distributor and East West road link will improve the situation and we fully support these plans. But we also need to look at other solutions such as putting more long haul freight on to the rail network - a potential key benefit of HS2 - extending the M6 smart-motorway through Lancashire, and improving the frequency and reliability of public transport.
“Businesses can also help by introducing more flexible work patterns for their employees or car sharing schemes where possible.
“The Chamber is talking to Lancashire County Council and other authorities about their Local Transport Plans and we are all trying to find the best way to balance economic growth objectives with sustainable travel and environmental improvements. It’s not an easy fix, but what we don’t want are traffic policies that will add even more cost to doing businesses in our area.”
Peter Molyneux, Major Roads Director at Transport for the North, said: “Through our Strategic Transport Plan and calls for a Northern Budget we’re making the case to Government for strategic investment in the area’s most economically important roads, which will ensure people and businesses have a resilient and reliable network.
“It is promising to see funding confirmed for the Preston western distributor scheme this week, and we have also recently submitted a bid for funding to upgrade the A582. We continue to work with Lancashire County Council to ensure our region gets its fair share of funding to realise a road network that is fit for the future.”
A spokesman for Highways England said: “Motorway carriageways are only closed in exceptional circumstances – because of an essential police investigation into a serious road traffic collision or because the carriageway has been badly damaged and needs to be repaired to make it safe again.
“In such cases our traffic officers and other colleagues work hard to free drivers stuck in ‘trapped traffic’, get information out to other drivers via electronic signs, social media and broadcasters, and ensure a lane, lanes or the full carriageway can be re-opened as quickly as possible.
“We are sensitive to the impact of incidents on communities neighbouring our motorways and the long-standing diversion routes in use are all agreed with local councils. Having said this we do routinely review the performance of the network and our response to incidents.
“Drivers have a very important role to play in sticking to official diversion routes but also in checking traffic conditions on local roads and on the motorway network before setting out on journeys. We welcome feedback from road users and residents alike and anyone with comments can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0300 123 5000.”
Lancashire County Council
A spokesman for Lancashire County Council said: “Our responses to planning applications as the highway authority must be able to stand up to detailed scrutiny through the planning appeal process such as at a public inquiry, and we therefore have a duty to ensure all supporting evidence is accurate and reliable.
“We have developed a number of highways models that consider how existing traffic uses the roads in Preston but also how this changes over time with development and with planned improvements on the highway network itself.
“We update the models regularly and rely on the outputs it produces as part of our advice on planning applications.
“The forthcoming Preston Western Distributor road, D’urton Lane Eastway Link, and new junction 2 on the M55 motorway when delivered will provide benefits that will help to manage congestion within north Preston by providing new highway capacity and redistributing traffic across the wider network.
“The highway authority is a statutory consultee to the planning process which the Local Planning Authority control.
“It is for the Local Planning Authority to balance all comments received including those of the highway authority in coming to a recommendation, and their planning committee to make an informed decision based on all evidence presented within the report.”
Hospital and ambulances
During Wednesday evening’s traffic chaos, congestion choked up all of the roads surrounding the Royal Preston Hospital.
Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which runs the hospital, said they were not aware of any problems caused by the incident.
The North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) also said there were no mentions of concerns from staff following Wednesday evening.
A spokesman added: “We appreciate traffic can sometimes cause disruptions particularly for our patient transport service who provide non-urgent transport however we do have equipment to help in emergency situations such as blue lights. Our ambulance clinicians are fully trained in emergency driving and in most cases are able to get through traffic to make safe progress in an emergency.”
New river crossing
Fingers are often pointed at the River Ribble as a cause of congestion problems in Preston.
With the river bisecting the city and only a handful of crossings into South Ribble and to the Bamber Bridge motorway interchange, pinch points are created at bridge sites.
For years, plans have been mooted to build a new bridge from the Howick area of Penwortham to Blackpool Road in Preston, near the Lea Gate pub.
The aim would be to take traffic from the direction of Southport through to Blackpool without the need to go through Preston.
Plans were drawn up in 2016 and set out in County Council papers and the ambitious Lancashire Transport Prospectus.
But in January, LCC officers said that while the bridge remains “in the mix” of Lancashire’s long-term transport ambitions, it would probably only get the green light if it brought economic benefits stretching far beyond the river which it would span.
County Coun John Fillis, cabinet member for highways and transport at Lancashire County Council, described a possible new crossing for the river as a “long-term aim”.
He said: “Detailed studies need to be done to confirm if the project is feasible.
“Once this has been established, we’ll also need to look at how much it will cost and how we can secure the necessary funding.
“Understandably, due to their complexity, projects like this do not happen overnight and it is therefore unlikely that any construction work could start in at least the next five years.”
Last year Preston was named as the 21st worst city for congestion by insurance website Go Compare.
At the same time, the A6 southbound between Barton and Fulwood was branded as one of the 10 most congested roads in Britain, outside London.
Back in 2016 Preston was rated worse for congestion than Liverpool, Newcastle and Glasgow in a survey carried out by traffic analysts at TomTom.
The delays were estimated to be costing businesses in the city around £4.6m in lost production alone, with the major troublespots pinpointed as Strand Road, Moor Lane and Deepdale Road.
The cost to individual motorists was put at around £570 a year – or more than £10 a week.