Preston Bypass: Taking the high-tech road

23/01/2019
Brian Kent

Last December marked a major anniversary in Great Britain’s roadbuilding history - 60 years have now passed since the country’s first motorway, the Preston Bypass, was formally opened by prime minister Harold Macmillan, heralding the dawn of a new era for motoring.

With construction of the more celebrated M1 having begun earlier in the same year, few outside of our industry – and indeed few within it – are aware that this eight-mile section of road that now forms part of the M6 and M55 was the UK’s original high-speed route.

Setting a blueprint

Described at the time by the minister of transport, Harold Watkinson, as a ‘guinea pig’ for all future projects, the Preston Bypass provided an initial blueprint for motorway design and construction.

The carriageway consisted of two lanes running in each direction, sliproads at every junction and a hard shoulder incorporated as a ‘principle feature of the layout of the motorway, as distinct from almost any all-purpose road built in this country to date’, according to a booklet published to accompany the opening ceremony.

In an era that was somewhat less health and safety conscious and pre-dated the development of the modern crash barrier, the road’s central reservation was planted with a hedge to help lessen glare from the headlights of vehicles travelling in the opposite direction.

While the bypass claimed to be ‘designed to enable traffic to travel safely at high speeds and minimise the chance of accidents arising from bad driving’, it opened without any legal speed limits. Nevertheless, the average speed of vehicles using the motorway during its first month was recorded at a little under 40mph.

Tarmac was appointed as the project’s main contractor to construct the motorway and 19 bridges across the carriageways, being awarded a princely £2.4m which, adjusted for inflation, would be worth around £53m today.

Perhaps inevitably, the scheme suffered programme delays as a result of the poor British weather, with the project ‘destined to be thrown completely out of gear by the rains, which continued almost uninterruptedly right from the commencement’.

Despite these sustained downpours making the project more difficult, by the time of its completion approximately 3.4 million tonnes of earth had been excavated, 35,000 cubic yards of concrete poured, and 220 miles of high tensile wire incorporated into the build.

A five-month contract extension resulted in the opening ceremony being postponed from the summer to 5 December 1958, with crowds of local people attending to witness the occasion. Hundreds queued in their vehicles to become among the first to drive the new landmark.

This first motorway was designed not only to accommodate the growth in traffic volumes, but equally as a symbol of the country’s post-war economic recovery. Becoming the first link in a chain of a new network of motorways that would grow and connect the nation, there was also a genuine belief at the time that its opening would provide a boost for the health of the community and a shot in the arm for the national economy.

Developing materials, improving standards

Lessons learned from that pioneering scheme have continued to shape our nation’s asphalt arteries, and the ongoing development of the strategic road network plays a vital role in keeping our country moving.

We undoubtedly owe the groundbreaking Preston Bypass much, but modern highway construction has changed unrecognisably in the decades that have followed – and the drive to work more safely, more productively and more sustainably has dramatically changed the way we operate. For example, at the beginning of my own career, outputs from quality control material testing were calculated by hand with a calculator and entered on a standard trend sheet – and placed a high dependence on a technician’s diligence to spot trends and take action. Now computers not only do the calculations, but also automatically raise alerts based on statistical analysis.

Similarly, the ability and skill of the asphalt plant operator was historically the key factor in assuring quality, whereas now the asphalt production process has advanced significantly, with automated systems able to flag any potential issues immediately to guarantee accuracy and consistency.

British standards for materials have also improved exponentially in the decades that have passed since the first motorway was constructed. Then, coal tar was regularly used as a binder for surfacing materials, before it was identified and subsequently classified as hazardous.

Today, modern polymer modified binders can create tougher, more flexible bitumens, while additive technology means that asphalts can now be produced at cooler temperatures.

Tarmac’s low temperature asphalt, UltiLow, has contributed to reducing resurfacing timescales and cutting carbon on many projects. Mixed at around 40°C lower than its equivalent hot mix, cooling times are significantly reduced, thereby bringing forward completion times and allowing roads to be opened sooner, resulting in less public disruption.

The concept of recycling would have been entirely unfamiliar to the teams working in Preston in the 1950s, where all of the materials would have been produced using virgin aggregates. Now our national specifications allow up to 50% recycled use in lower layer materials and 10% in surface courses, with both numbers predicted to rise as technology improves.

A digital revolution

Despite the remarkable changes our industry has witnessed, the most exciting changes undoubtedly lie ahead of us. Coincidentally, one month before the Preston Bypass opened, the world’s first computer exhibition was hosted at Earl’s Court in London. Nobody at the time could have predicted the impact that digital technology would have on our society, including our roads.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s Roads for the Future programme has begun to offer us a glimpse of how autonomous vehicles and digitisation will change infrastructure requirements in the coming decades.

Analysing data from connected cars to improve traffic light systems, considering how autonomous vehicles can be used to beat congestion and examining how driverless cars could be allocated dedicated routes were all among ideas put forward in anticipation of how our roads will soon need to evolve.

These changes are not likely to be far from the horizon. But we are already seeing the beginnings of a digital revolution in highways and the delivery of critical infrastructure.

The software that Tarmac has already adopted on highways projects, BPO ASPHALT, allows us to plan schemes in meticulous detail before starting on site, producing detailed work schedules to enable efficient project delivery.

Elsewhere, our automated paving technology uses thermometers, sensors, and GPS tracking location systems to create a permanent and accurate digital record of a road installation, including the type, temperature and quality of the materials through to the ambient weather conditions.

Not only does this help asset managers to facilitate evidence-based spending decisions on their networks, but analysis can potentially identify why and when a road might fail in the future.

From Preston to the present 

It’s right to look back on our roadbuilding history and celebrate the major milestones and projects that have helped to shape Britain’s infrastructure as we know it today.

More important still is that these reflections provide a window to look towards the future and focus on what we can do to improve highways construction in the near term.

With the chancellor recently confirming that £25bn will be allocated to Highways England as part of its post-2020 investment strategy, transformative projects such as the A66 Trans-Pennine, the Oxford Cambridge Expressway, and the Lower Thames Crossing will soon provide high profile opportunities to showcase our industry’s cutting-edge innovation.

Sixty years ago, the pioneering Preston Bypass provided people with a first look at the future of road building. By continuing to evolve and embracing new technology, now we are already catching a glimpse of what highways may look like sixty years from now.

Brian Kent (pictured above) is technical director at Tarmac

Highways jobs

Project Engineer (Permanent)

Havant Borough Council
£37,100
We’re looking for an experienced and enthusiastic engineer to join our well-regarded design and implementation team. Havant, Hampshire
Recuriter: Havant Borough Council

Project Engineer (Fixed Term)

Havant Borough Council
£37,100
We’re looking for an experienced and enthusiastic engineer to join our well-regarded design and implementation team. Havant, Hampshire
Recuriter: Havant Borough Council

Contract Supervisor

London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth
£31,013 - £36,486 depending on skills, knowledge and experience
The role of Contract Supervisor (Waste and Street Cleansing) will require you to support ambitious plans to provide services for residents Richmond upon Thames, London (Greater)
Recuriter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Flood Risk Manager

Birmingham City Council
£43,662 - £54,574
The role requires the post holder to be the lead professional for the Authority’s Flood Risk Management and drainage function Birmingham, West Midlands
Recuriter: Birmingham City Council

Head of Highways & Transport

Lewisham London Borough Council
up to £72,705
As our lead expert on highways and transport, you will set the direction and lead on all transport related matters Lewisham, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Lewisham London Borough Council

Ugobus Driver (multiple positions)

Essex County Council
Up to £18938.0 per annum
Please note that we have permanent, fixed term and relief contract opportunities on a part time, job share and flexible working basis. The salary is u England, Essex, Chelmsford
Recuriter: Essex County Council

Assistant Director

Hounslow London Borough Council
Up to £82k
Working across a wide range of high profile direct services, the emphasis for this role is on partnership working. Hounslow (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recuriter: Hounslow London Borough Council

Head of Parks and Environmental Services

Harrogate Borough Council
£58,778 - £61,882
You will have experience at a senior level in the management and delivery of front line services relevant to the functions Harrogate, North Yorkshire
Recuriter: Harrogate Borough Council

Programme Technician/Engineer

Norfolk County Council
£29,636 - £31,371 per annum
This is a challenging position which involves working across wide ranging activities. Norwich, Norfolk
Recuriter: Norfolk County Council

Principal Transport Planner – 2 posts (Warrington Waterfront Western Link)

Warrington Borough Council
£40,760 - £43,662 plus essential car user allowance
We are looking to form a new Warrington Waterfront Western Link Team and we are looking to fill a number of key posts Warrington, Cheshire
Recuriter: Warrington Borough Council

Director of Integrated Transport

Liverpool City Region
Salary up to £124,848
The Liverpool City Region Combined Authority is embarking on a search for an exceptional individual with the passion to deliver on our vision Liverpool, Merseyside
Recuriter: Liverpool City Region

Highways Manager

Oxford Direct Services
G11
Oxford Direct Services
Recuriter: Oxford Direct Services

Data Entry Administrator

Telford & Wrekin Council
£18,795 - £19,171
Telford & Wrekin’s Public Protection Service is looking for an enthusiastic and self-motivated Data Entry Administrator Telford, Shropshire
Recuriter: Telford & Wrekin Council

Transport Planner

Camden London Borough Council
£33,122 to £38,423
You’ll have previous experience of working in a transport/planning/accessible transport environment Camden, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Camden London Borough Council

Parking Business Administrator Level 3 Apprenticeship

Brent Council
£15,000 p.a. inc.
This role will support the Brent Parking Team work to provide administrative support for both the Notice Processing Team Brentford (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recuriter: Brent Council

Principal Engineer (Development)

Liverpool City Council
£37,849 - £42,683
Liverpool City Council wish to recruit a Principal Engineer (Development) to provide managerial and technical support. Liverpool, Merseyside
Recuriter: Liverpool City Council

Traffic Manager

Lincolnshire County Council
£55,503 - £60,578
We are looking to recruit a Traffic Manager to join our Highways team Lincoln, Lincolnshire
Recuriter: Lincolnshire County Council

Team Leader x2 - Passenger Transport

Redbridge London Borough Council
£27,228 - £28,215 per annum
You will be responsible for overseeing the duties of Passenger Transport drivers as well as providing support to the service and managers. Redbridge, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Redbridge London Borough Council

UTMC Engineer

Warrington Borough Council
£31,371 - £34,788
You will support the UTMC Principal Engineer and work as part of a team responsible for all aspects of Urban Traffic Management and Control Warrington, Cheshire
Recuriter: Warrington Borough Council

Programme Assurance Manager Public Realm

Westminster City Council
£46,293 - £49,203 per annum
A graduate, or have equivalent experience, and you can show evidence of continued professional, managerial and personal development... City of Westminster, London (Greater)
Recuriter: Westminster City Council

Highways on Fridays

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue

Zero carbon roads?

Modelling the future

A breath of fresh air

View the latest issue

Latest Video