Overnight on the M25
Night time generally means fewer drivers on the UK’s motorways, but there’s no let-up in the workload for highways staff. We watch an M25 crew at work through a recent night of busy maintenance and unusual incidents:
It’s 7.30pm and the start of a twelve-hour shift for M25 route steward Saul Hayward . He’s sitting at his desk on the first floor of the Highways Agency’s Leatherhead depot, situated just a stone’s throw from the M25 motorway. Already there are problems to deal with, and he spends the first 30 minutes of his shift on the telephone to Kent Police, the Dartford River Crossing and to colleagues operating mobile motorway incident support units (ISUs).
His major headache right now concerns an articulated lorry stuck on a bridge over the southern approach to the Dartford toll booths. Its cargo of paper has shifted dangerously to one side, and an immediate rescue initiative is required, involving a heavy crane to right the lorry and a fork-lift truck to remove the load. The police are on hand to keep traffic off the bridge, but they need Saul’s help to close roads and set up a diversion while the recovery takes place.
Making matters worse is the volume of traffic coming south over the bridge. An earlier fire at an M25 junction a few miles north has just been cleared, so the thousands of vehicles stuck in the queue behind it have all descended on the Dartford toll booths at the same time, causing another queue stretching back into Essex.
Nothing seems to rile Saul; not even the enthusiastic digs from his boss, night route manager Lee Elliott. Once they have left the incident at Dartford, the two stay as mobile as they can in their conspicuously-marked Renault Espace, keeping tabs on the many routine maintenance tasks scheduled for the night across the M25 and the other motorways that make up the region.
Of course, it’s no surprise that the bulk of maintenance work on the network of motorways and dual carriageways now known as the “M25 sphere” takes place at night. Imagine setting up daytime lane closures for light bulb replacement or gully clearing when upwards of 200,000 vehicles are trying to get through. It’s just not allowed. But a heavyweight schedule of routine work takes place on most nights of the year, in an attempt to keep the 1,500-plus miles of total lane length in good order. There are more than 4,800 miles of safety barriers to inspect and look after, as well as five tunnels, 520 bridges, nearly 224,000 road studs, 1,000 SOS telephone boxes and nearly six and a half miles of grass verges.
However, as Saul Hayward points out, there’s a lot more to the job than overseeing gangs of maintenance workers. “Some of the worst crashes can occur during the night,” he says. “They’re usually at higher speeds, sometimes involving drivers who fall asleep at the wheel.
“I can remember a tanker crashing one night at about two o’clock on the M20 close to the M25 interchange. It lost its load of bitumen across the carriageway, causing an almighty mess. Worse, though, bitumen becomes explosive when it evaporates, so the fire brigade had no option but to close off the motorway completely.
“We put everything we could into the clear-up operation. We dug and stripped and hosed and swept in order to get one lane running for the morning rush hour. That meant ten runs with the gritter lorries, as well as any number of hand tools brooms and shovels! There was still extensive disruption, but I was proud of what we achieved in the time we had available.”
Traffic volumes appear much lighter as midnight comes and goes. We’re heading round to inspect the eastbound elevated section of the M4, which has been closed at Junction 3 to allow bridge joint repairs to be carried out. The work proves to be going well, albeit noisily. Workers are using a monstrous-looking thermic lance to clean and dry out a small but deep chunk of carriageway that’s been dug up. Glowing red hot and sounding like ten thousand espresso coffee machines, it’s not something you want to get too close to for very long. Lee notices that one worker has chosen to use earplugs instead of the regulation ear defenders, so he has a quiet word with the works supervisor. No doubt the plugs will soon be replaced.
Thankfully the rest of the night passes without serious incident, and Saul and Lee sign off work promptly at the end of the shift. Throughout the night Saul has shown no stress whatsoever, quite a feat for someone responsible for the smooth running of so many miles of congested motorway. He claims never to shout, never to pull his hair out and never to jump up and down in frustration. He doesn’t do more than grin slightly when I ask if he holds the record for traveling the greatest number of circuits of the M25. “I’m the one keeping my head when everyone around might be losing theirs,” he says. “And I’ll be back here at 7.30 this evening to do it all again.”