Cost effective way to by-pass M4 Brynglas tunnels

John Osmond considers a report which finds congestion around Newport can be tackled at a third of the cost of the Welsh Government’s proposed new motorway

Congestion on the M4 around Newport could be tackled at almost a third of the cost of the Welsh Government’s proposed relief motorway, according to a new report launched by the IWA today. The report The Blue Route: a cost effective solution to relieving M4 congestion around Newport puts forward an alternative that would cost £380 million compared with the estimated cost of a new motorway of at least £936 million.

Known as the Blue route, it would use a combination of the A48 Newport Southern Distributor Road and the former Steelworks Road on the eastern side of Newport to create a new dual carriageway.

The report, published jointly by the IWA and the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport, has been prepared by Professor Stuart Cole, a transport expert who has advised both the Welsh and UK governments. He says the case for the more expensive motorway option relies on an over-estimate of likely future traffic growth and fails to take account of the impact of the Metro light rail system.

“The issue is whether the Welsh Government’s present motorway option provides an unnecessary increase in capacity and in consequence unnecessary expenditure,” he said. “The Blue Route would deliver what is needed at a much lower cost and with significantly less impact on the environment.”

Professor Cole says a key question in deciding between the various upgrades is calculations about future traffic forecasts, arguing that the Welsh Government is over-estimating the trends.

The Welsh Government’s consultation paper M4 Corridor around Newport forecasts a need for 20 per cent more traffic capacity by 2035. However, a new motorway will divert up to 40 per cent of existing traffic away from the present M4. Professor Cole argues this is far more than is necessary to tackle future capacity problems. He estimates that in combination with the Metro the ‘Blue route’ would divert more than 20 per cent of M4 traffic from the existing motorway. As Professor Cole said:

“The consultation paper takes no account of the impact of rail electrification or the Metro developments along the M4 corridor. The Newcastle Metro built in the 1990s, and the Bordeaux Tram network completed in 2004, reduced peak traffic flows into those cities by over 30 per cent. A similar impact could be expected in Newport and Cardiff. Electrification of the South Wales Mainline alone would reduce M4 peak traffic flows by up to 15 per cent, the so-called ‘sparks’ effect which has occurred on most other similar electrification schemes. The Blue Route would solve the congestion issue on the M4 as it arises. Moreover, since it could be built sooner that the motorway it could ease congestion earlier. Combined with the Metro and rail electrification it would provide more than adequate relief to congestion over the period to 2035.”

IWA Director Lee Waters added:

“The Welsh Government has repeatedly said that sustainable development is ‘the central organising principle’ of its economic policy. The decision it makes on a new M4 will be the test of that.  The last Government decided a new motorway wasn’t necessary, but the current consultation offers a series of limited options – each one of them involving a new road.  Stuart Cole’s report sets out a way of building one with the least environmental impact, and in a way which can be afforded. If the Welsh Government means what it says about sustainable development it must take the proposal seriously”.

The Blue Route involves an upgrade of the A48 and the ‘Steelworks Road’ – a length of industrial roadway purchased by the Welsh Government in 2010 at a cost of £7.7 million. The roads would be re-constructed as a two-lane, dual carriageway at motorway standard and could be widened to a three-lane motorway at a future date if this is needed. The route would follow a line between the Magor Junction 23A to the east of Newport to the Tredegar Park Junction 28 to the west of the city. The Welsh Government’s proposed motorway would also connect with Junction 23A but follow a more southerly route through the Gwent levels further east to the Castleton Junction 29.

Professor Cole’s report says there are three main reasons why additional capacity is required to cope with peak period traffic congestion on the M4 around Newport:

  • The Brynglas Tunnels on the M4 directly to the north of Newport are an acute pinch-point, reducing a six-lane motorway to four lanes. There have been many instances when there have been closures due to traffic incidents at this spot. For instance, in July 2011 the M4 was closed for two days after a lorry caught fire in the Brynglas tunnels. Nearby structures – the Usk Bridge to the east of the Tunnels and the canal bridge to the west – accentuate the difficulty of any road-widening project.
  • There were faults in the original design of the Newport northern by-pass / northern distributor road, later linked in to the M4, including the lack of a hard shoulder for some of its length. This reduces its capacity for current traffic volumes.
  • The M4 is used by local traffic as a local distributor road for short journeys within the local urban area.

It is noteworthy that although the Welsh Government now quotes a figure of £936 million for a new motorway, in 2009 the then Deputy First Minister and Minister for Transport, Ieuan Wyn Jones, estimated the cost at £1.25 billion. As he stated on 21 September 2009:

“The estimated cost of the scheme in 2004 was reported at 1998 prices, whereas the current figure of £1 billion is estimated at outturn prices. The effects of inflation alone in that period effectively doubles the 2004 figure. In addition, the application of Optimum bias at 15% adds a further circa £150m. The remaining additional forecast of circa £100m can be attributed to additional construction costs such as increases in land fill/aggregate taxes, higher materials and labour rates, as well as more demanding environmental mitigation requirements.”

John Osmond is Editor of ClickonWales. The Blue Route is available to download from the IWA website here:

17 thoughts on “Cost effective way to by-pass M4 Brynglas tunnels

  1. The fatal flaw in this proposal is that Labour are only interested in spending money. Whether it has a positive impact is of no interest to them, in fact the more money spent with no benefit the better (for them) as it will impoverish Wales even more. And only impoverished people vote Labour.

  2. … when the original motorway was built, the four lane Brynglass Tunnel was a mistake, it seems that this mistake would be repeated if “The Blue Route” were adopted, South and West Wales need wide, fast flowing, flexible transport routes not another bottleneck, not another two lane urban-way.

    I would recommend extending the motorway as far as the west coast, as well as driving the Newport solution south of the city, there are times when nature needs to be modified for societies needs, this is one of those times, Carwyn should build, not compromise.

  3. John. The £1billion route is a complete overkill and is just repeating some of the 80’s/90’s transport mistakes. The main problem is created by local traffic at rush hour, so this solution is a sensible one. Building a second motorway will inevitably create the need for another around Cardiff. The cost of the 2 would be about £1.5 billion. When there is not an open cheque book, it is imperative to ask if it acceptable to spend this much cash, in such a small area. My concern is that a deal has already been done on this, between the 2 Govts. ‘You get borrowing powers, if you commit to the big M4 relief road’.

  4. Response by Prof Stuart Cole:

    The points raised in the BBC Good Morning Wales programme by Chris Sutton of the CBI need I think to be made a little clearer.

    Everyone agrees with Chris that additional capacity is required for the M4 network around Newport to serve east west traffic and the needs of the economy of the city

    The junctions currently on the section of the A 48 fro J 28 on the M4 to Queensway Meadows and the junctions on the Steelworks Road will be converted into grade-separated junctions. This means flyovers with roundabouts underneath and slip roads onto / from the elevated section will achieve :

    1) the free flow of traffic as all the intersections will be of the style on the motorway network and most of the A55. Traffic will flow unimpeded at up to 70 mph along the whole route. It does therefore provide a fast, safe resilient parallel route to the present M4

    2) it enables the free movement of local traffic, pedestrians and cyclists between the area north of the road and south of it, in considerably greater safety than at present because fast moving traffic is separated from local travel

    3) the new road will not “go through the roundabouts (and traffic light controlled junctions)” It will go over them.The cause of the less than expected use of the present A48 SDR design is these intersections. The cost (£380 m)indicates that this is not a by pass or a local distributor road It is a road designed for through traffic to co-exist with local needs.

    4) the design of the road will in fact extend the catchment area of the shopping and employment centres e.g. at Maesglas as th ease of flow and reduced journey time will attract customers or employees from further afield

    5) at points where grade separated intersections are required the land is available . It is in many cases derelict industrial or industrial premises which will of course have to be purchased

    6) The proposed new housing development at Llanwern / Glanllyn to which Chris referred will be well served by the Blue Route. The land purchased by the Welsh Government a
    at a cost of £7.7m in 2010 has been retained in public ownership and id available for construction. The road network within the new housing development will require an infernal spine road (as specified at the time) to link into two grade separated junctions servicing the housing and steelworks .
    The Blue Route will serve this housing development far better than the Black / Purple route which has only one intersection and that out in the SSSI. It will do little for the economy of Newport compared with the Blue Route

    7) From the point of view of Just in Time (JIT) logistics operations, the distribution depots near J23a and other JIT requirements along the M4 will benefit form this additional four lane expressway south of Newport

    8) The Blue Route was the Government’s original proposal otherwise why would it have purchased Steelworks Road

    9) If my memory serves me correctly the original scheme was for a four lane motorway. Theses days no government builds a 4 lane m-way as the additional cost of a 6-lane m-way is marginally more. A factor of about 10 – 15 p% in cost terms. No longer in terms of construction period. Hence the assessed need was for a 4 lane relief road which the Blue Route provides.

    10) The M4 has become in part a local distributor from outside the city since much commuting territory is located here. This will not occur to the south as it is largely industrial and the Severn Sea. The Blue Route also provides grade separated links into the city

  5. Ian, rather than overkill I would describe the M4 proposition as “not ambitious enough”; whilst Prof. Cole might consider the minutiae of design to justify his proposal, there are political considerations to apply.

    Wales needs “Grand” projects that send messages to innovators and entrepreneurs that we are open for business; local solutions to local issues are the stuff of local authorities, consider the excellent work undertaken in recent years in Caerphilly as an example, we are desperate for a project that’s as loud as a firework display, we need to open up the whole of Wales, and this is one project that starts the ball rolling, as I wrote earlier build it bold as far as the west coast, the time for penny pinching is gone, Westminster needs Wales to succeed and to be seen succeeding, I remember the film “Field of Dreams”:

    “If you build it they will come”

    We also need to remove that tedious toll from the Severn Crossing.

  6. The future ‘demand’ is – doubtless, as always – exaggerated by the road-builder fraternity, while the cost is underestimated (wrong baseline + ‘optimism bias’).
    No dispute with Start Cole’s point that a) electrification of the mainline and b) Cardiff city-region Metro will both reduce car travel – ‘local’ factors that the road builders ignore, despite WELTAG.
    Increasing shortage of oil (peak oil) means we can plan for reducing vehicle traffic in the medium term.

  7. I have read Prof Cole’s comments with interest. I fully concur with him that the Blue route could be the answer as long as every present roundabouts are changed to what he calls “graded junctions”. Knowing the proposed route very well I can see that those junctions can be converted fairly easily up to the ONS / Patent Office junction. That could be a major problem leading up to the notorious Tredegar park j28 junction. I note that he does not deal with that particular junction that is totally clogged with traffic between 7.30 and 9.30 every morning (now taking 45m to go from Risca on to the M4) and during home commuter time. If the road would meet the M4 at J29 then that would be a much better solution

  8. Whatever happened to the Eastern Peripheral Distributor Road (PDR) from the M4 into Cardiff?

  9. There’s another option. Just go under the current Brynglas Tunnels.

    The extra lanes could be used according to demand and maintainance. Certain lanes, or levels (upper maybe?), could be dedicated to lorries.

  10. John. The cash to pay for this will be largely borrowed, which will effectively see Wales pay a tax poll for many years to cover the costs; a bit like the bridge toll you mentioned which is also paying for a ‘grand project’. However, that bridge was one fully justified, if not with the payment mechanism. The proposals to relieve congestion around Newport will be paid for not by PFI or a mythical Westminster pot but by the people of Wales; the poorest nation of the UK. We simply cannot afford ‘grand projects’ unless they are absolutely essential and as a Civil Engineer, I do not accept that the Gwent Levels design is either necessary, or affordable.
    Ian. The original final piece of PDR for Cardiff was designed in the 90’s. The design would need re-doing because of the change in design codes and as it would not be a trunk road, Cardiff would have to pay for it. The cost would now be hundreds of millions if based on the original design, but other cheaper options have been looked at. To my mind, if the Gwent Levels option was chosen, then the final element of the PDR would be inevitable. This would probably mean Wales committing to spending £1.5 billion on 2 roads squeezed within a few miles of the SE of our nation, borrowing the cash for the whole of Wales to pay back over decades. Some would argue that such massive spending is necessary and while I would accept that solutions are necessary, I do not believe that these costs are affordable.
    Gwyn. All engineering is possible if you have the cash, but I’m not sure if this proposal would be any cheaper than the Gwent Levels option. They are looking at new tunnels, but I believe that they would be adjoining to the existing ones.

  11. Good work IWA & Professor Cole. However, I suggest we still need a new bespoke M4 relief road for the following reasons:

    • The Blue Route does not provide what the economy of South Wales needs – a new fast, safe, resilient motorway. The existing M4 north of Newport wasn’t built as a motorway, it was a local by-pass with 5 junctions serving Newport and this is now half the problem; it remains a local by-pass – let’s not repeat our error with an upgrade of the SDR.

    • The Blue Route is already open from Magor to J28 . It is, essentially, a local suburban route – past Tata, alongside the new Glan Llyn development (4,250 houses, first phase already on site), past Newport Retail Park, Tesco Extra, past the FE College, new Morrisons & DIY store, over the river, out past 28 East Retail Park and Duffryn, emerging by the Statistics Office where here is always a rush hour queue. There are 13 roundabouts or major junctions where we would need to integrate local traffic through grade separations – that would involve potentially 13 sets of slip roads and cut the city in half?

  12. Chris,
    I keep hearing this line ” the economy of South Wales needs – a new fast, safe, resilient motorway”, or versions of it.
    I’d be very grateful if you could point me to the evidence that demonstrates it.
    But of course, there isn’t any. Expenditure of £1bn on a road for which no evidence of need has ever been provided.

  13. Seems to be a lot of fuss over nothing. The simple and most effective solution would be the build the Black Route. Sure traffic levels may reduce over time, but the Newport section has been congested for over 20 years, so unless we’re going back to 80s level traffic any time soon then a new road is still needed. Afterall the current M4 is not even motorway stands anymore, hense the full time ‘variable’ speed reduction to 50MPH (even at 2am).

    Upgrading an existing road will just result in Newport loosing a road rather than gaining an extra one. Let alone it resulting in all the loss of new housing land around the existing steelworks site.

    Stick with the black route, stop ditherring and build it.

  14. @Peter Dobbs – it’s not a fuss over nothing, it’s a fuss over £1 billion.

    You asking us to take on a huge debt to paid for by the whole of Wales for a generation.

  15. Good article – a common sense midway solution. I’ve always wondered about the logic of building an entirely new route when the Peripheral Distributor road to the south was opened less than 10 years ago. £1bn is a massive amount of cash for a new stretch of road this long, and puts into context the difficulties of threading a new road around the bottom of Newport. To put it into further context: main line electrification from London to South Wales is going to cost of the order of £1bn. Road transport trends at the moment are in a bit of state of flux with developments in technologies and perceived changes in driver behaviour – sinking £1bn into a new road without first attacking other opportunities at a fraction of the cost e.g. promotion of other modes seems too risky for me.

  16. I thought the idea was to use some of the Severn bridges tolls to service the debt. Is that no longer so? If it is, only people driving back and fore between England and south Wales would be paying off the debt and the rest of the Welsh could stop moaning.

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