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Smart technology keeps Britain moving

Smart technology accounts for a tiny percentage of the Highways Agency’s budget, but without it, flagship schemes such as Smart Motorways, which improve safety and boost road capacity, wouldn’t be possible.

Regional control rooms oversee the motorways, but much of the traffic management is carried out automatically
Regional control rooms oversee the motorways, but much of the traffic management is carried out automatically

Britain’s roads are getting busier. There are now almost 35 million registered vehicles in the country and this figure is continuing to rise, putting the Highways Agency responsible for the UK’s motorways and primary A-roads under constant pressure to increase capacity. One way of doing this is to add lanes, but this is an expensive and time-consuming process often involving land purchases and major work to prepare the terrain. An alternative is to use technology to improve the flow of traffic.

A good example is the roll-out of ‘Smart Motorways’, the collective term for roads that use technology to vary speed limits or utilise the hard shoulder as a driving lane. By adjusting speed limits, opening the hard shoulder when required or displaying information messages to drivers, Highways Agency regional control centres can increase the number of cars that can safely use the network.

Converting a stretch of road to Smart Motorways typically costs between one third and one half of the amount needed to widen the same stretch of road. Statistics show that Smart Motorways also improve safety, reduce emissions and make journey times more consistent and reliable

Regional control rooms oversee the motorways, but much of the traffic management is carried out automatically. For example, sensors in the road detect how fast traffic is moving, and therefore whether a queue is beginning to form. If this happens, they can send a message to overhead gantries or roadside signs warning drivers of congestion ahead and setting appropriate speed limits.

Making it work

Traffic management technology can be found right across the UK’s road network, and without it schemes such as Smart Motorways would not be possible. For this technology to work, each piece of equipment on the roadside needs to know where it is in relation to all other equipment around it.

When a sensor detects a queue forming, it can request that warning messages and speed restrictions are put in place to protect approaching vehicles and those already queueing. The system that controls the roadside signs

The graphical interface is not just beneficial when setting up and testing new equipment
The graphical interface is not just beneficial when setting up and testing new equipment

and gantries needs to know which pieces of equipment to activate and what messages or speed limits each should display e.g. a 60mph limit several miles upstream and a 40mph restriction closer to the scene, combined with ‘Queue Caution’ messages.

To display the right message in the right place, every piece of equipment must be set up with the correct data about its location and the location of nearby equipment. Whenever equipment is added to or removed from the network, it is essential that location information is updated correctly and that the equipment is thoroughly tested to make sure it will respond correctly when faced with an incident.

Intuitive tools

This used to be a time-consuming process, but with increasing amounts of technology being rolled out across the network, the Highways Agency has been working closely with its long-term partner IPL to come up with innovative ways to speed up data entry and testing.

Over the past few years, IPL’s Services team, which maintains and enhances a number of the Highways Agency’s key software applications, has delivered a series of improvements to the tools used by the Highways Agency and its programme delivery contractors to enter and test equipment data.

One of the most significant has been the creation of a graphical user interface with map-based views that staff can use to model road situations and ensure that an incident at a given location results in the correct messages and speed limits being displayed. Before, tools produced tables of data that the user would have to trawl through to ensure each sign was displaying the correct message or speed limit.

The ease with which the graphical view can be interpreted means that the time taken to test new equipment has fallen by around 50%. It has also become much easier to pinpoint and correct any errors in configuration data.

In addition, IPL has speeded up the entering of equipment data by creating a set of default data, which accounts for around 70% of the information required when setting up a piece of equipment. Pulling in the default data automatically vastly reduces the time taken to enter data and minimises the risk and incidences of human error.

Real benefits

Russell Mead, Highways Agency technical project manager for Traffic Management Systems, says that these two enhancements have brought noticeable improvements to the Highways Agency and its ability to deliver value for money to the taxpayer.

“The tools we have available to us now have halved the time it takes us to test new equipment after a change to the data or ahead of a major road scheme ‘go-live’. We can quickly trial a set-up, easily see whether each piece of road-side equipment has been configured correctly and verify the impact a scheme will have on the rest of the network,” he said.

“When we were testing the new equipment for the M25’s new All Lanes Running scheme, for example, it took us around two weeks. Without the enhancements that IPL has made to the tools, it would have taken at least twice as long.”

The graphical interface is not just beneficial when setting up and testing new equipment; it can also be used to see what messages and speed limits were in place at any given time. This is helpful for those investigating incidents and for employees manning the Highways Agency Information Line, who may have to answer questions from the public about why certain speed limits were imposed.

To enable these staff (and other authorised individuals) to access the tool more easily, IPL’s team is now working on a secure web-based version of the system that will remove the need for installation on individual PCs.

Speeding up major schemes

Perhaps the biggest improvement of all, however, will come as a result of a further piece of work being developed by IPL and other Highways Agency partners to streamline the data entry process.

“We’re putting a lot more kit out on the network and we need to make some enhancements to speed up roll-out and implementation,” explained Mead. “It’s currently a sequential process: you do one piece of equipment, then the next, then the next. If you’ve got 10 changes to make, you’ve got to do each one in turn before you can do the testing – it can’t be done in parallel. We’re working on ways to do this in parallel, which will shave significant time off any major road scheme.”

IPL has been working with the Highways Agency for 20 years and, according to Jo White, Highways Agency team leader for the National Operational Systems team, Traffic Technology Division, it has had a disproportionate effect on efforts to keep Britain moving.

“What we spend per annum on IPL is minute in comparison to the Agency’s major projects budget. The relative benefit is huge: the work my team, IPL and our other partners do is one of the key enablers of the network running at full capacity. Interestingly, my team’s proportion of the budget of any major scheme is typically around 1%, but it’s the 1% that makes everything else possible,” she said.

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