Happy Birthday M25

Posted on November 3rd, 2011 by James Luckhurst

Happy Birthday M25In case it has escaped your attention, the M25 has just celebrated its 25th birthday. The celebrations in recent days brought back some long-buried memories for me, because my first ‘proper’ job was as a local radio traffic news reporter in the mid and late 1980s. The organisation I worked for had been awarded an exclusive police contract to be the central point for dissemination of news relating to the M25. This meant issuing notices to the press relating to accidents, queues, road works, overnight closures, widening – and of course the more peculiar events that took place on its carriageways.

Perhaps the best opportunity to appreciate the motorway was provided on the days I used to provide live traffic broadcasts from an aeroplane above London. I was in the LBC ‘London Lookout’, so we used to take it in turns with Capital Radio’s ‘Flying Eye’ to circle central London in search of the jams. While not central, we would buzz around the suburbs, usually following the M25 at a height of 1,000 feet above sea level. Now, if you’re familiar with London’s terrain, you’ll appreciate that this meant we were sometimes not very far off the ground at all. Junction 4, near Biggin Hill, was where we felt we could almost reach out and touch the ground. Junction 8 near Reigate was also one of the highest parts of the M25. Of course, there were swathes of the motorway to the west of the capital where we were unable to fly, simply because of being too close to Heathrow. But I quickly built up an encyclopaedic knowledge of the junctions, the intersecting roads and the possible alternative routes for drivers trying to escape the morning motorway gridlock.

Celebrating the M25’s first anniversary, back at the end of October in 1987, brought an excuse for researchers to put forward their theories as to why there were 50% more crashes on the clockwise carriageway than on the anti-clockwise. One bright spark said it was the pull of the Moon. Another suggested it was because of low sunshine. But the suggestion I liked best – simply because it couldn’t have been more ridiculous if it tried – was that we are all naturally conditioned to travel clockwise, therefore we relax. Hence we are not expecting trouble, so we have more crashes. When travelling anti-clockwise we are more wary so we avoid trouble.

Complete nonsense, but good for the headlines, I suppose.  The fact is that the 117-mile London orbital motorway is one of the most congested motorways in the country, and the stretch near Heathrow is the busiest in Europe.  The motorway carries thousands and thousands of cars every day, often at little more than a snail’s pace. The stretch from Reigate round to the M40 is notorious for grinding to a halt. The southbound queue at the Dartford Tunnel is frequently horrendous.  Average journey times from Junction 5 to Junction 6, past Clacket Lane Services, have become longer and longer. I could go on.
The M25 was reckoned to be something amazing when it opened back in 1986. Somehow, though, I doubt those required to use it on a regular basis during busy periods will feel as though it’s anything to celebrate at all.