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Heritage Motorways!

2014-04 Railway Magazine - Heritage Motorways - coverCopyright: Reproduced courtesy of The Railway Magazine (April 2014) — My thanks to its editor, Nick Pigott, for his kind permission to let me scan and reproduce the article here; and thanks also go of course to my favourite ticket clerk, Kev, for bringing the article to my attention in the first place!


In lieu of an April Fool this month (well, a deliberate one anyway!), we devote one of our occasional Impertinent Paragraphs’ pages to a spot of crystal ball gazing by Will Adams

An almost empty Ml in 1960 as Stanier 2-6-0 No. 42951 passes. D CROSS/COLOUR-RAIL.COM

An almost empty Ml in 1960 as Stanier 2-6-0 No. 42951 passes.
D CROSS/COLOUR-RAIL.COM

In the second half of the 20th century the motorway reigned supreme. Almost every household owned a car – many had two or even more. Every town and city was within easy driving distance of a motorway. Who cared if the roads were congested and polluting!

Many say it was the Privatisation of the railways in the 1990s that began the slow but inexorable decline of motorway use. Suddenly, trains were becoming frequent, fast, comfortable and quiet. The motorways began to lose their appeal, except among those who clung to the nostalgia and tradition of what had once been called ‘the open road’.

The coming of what was then referred to as HS2, followed by HS3, HS4 and the rest, really set the rot in. After that, long-closed minor railways and stations began to be reopened, the West and East Coast Main Lines were quadrupled along their entire lengths, and myriad other improvements began to signal the end of the traditional car journey.

One by one, the nation’s lesser-used motorways, dual-carriageways and bypasses began to be abandoned.

In 2063, Dr Dickon Sandling was appointed by the Government to look into the state of Britain’s motorways, and what followed was the infamous’Sandling Report’.

This wide-ranging critique came as a bombshell to all who valued the road system. It showed that a vast amount of public money was being ‘poured into potholes’to keep the roads usable, fuel costs were out of control, road pollution was a major cause of premature mortality, and road tax was a heavy burden on the long-suffering motorist.

In the light of a rapidly expanding and hugely successful railway industry, Sandling’s report recommended closure of hundreds of miles of unnecessary motorways, thus saving millions in maintenance and policing alone. Unprofitable service facilities were to be withdrawn and thousands of acres of land made available for more productive uses. Some motorway routes were, horror of horrors, to be relaid as high-speed railways!

As we now know, despite vociferous protests from 100mph transit van drivers and others, most of Sandling’s recommendations were implemented and Britain was left with a much-depleted road system, while rail expansion continued unabated.

Controversial closures included the much-missed M62 across the Pennines and the M40, which was seen as pointlessly duplicating the Ml and M6.

Huge investment in tarmac and concrete was torn up in what many considered ill-judged haste to get us all onto trains. One of the first of the smaller routes to suffer the ‘Sandling Axe’ was the M45 in Warwickshire. Built in 1959 at the start of the ‘motorway mania’, this short road, barely eight miles long, linked the then new Ml with the A45 at Thurlaston, near Dunchurch, south of Rugby, thus completing the first full dual-carriageway route from London to Birmingham.

An almost empty Ml in 1960 as Stanier 2-6-0 No. 42951 passes.  D CROSS/COLOUR-RAIL.COM

After closure of the M45, this was the scene at the former Junction 17 on the M1, looking north. The overgrown slip-road was later broken up and there is now very little trace of the junction. Picture: Author / Artwork: Mick Sanders.

When the M6 was built a few years later, enabling faster access to Birmingham and the North West, passing to the north of Coventry, the M45 became very much a secondary route. It carried one of the lowest traffic volumes of any UK motorway and was thus a prime candidate for closure in the Sandling Report.

Roadside closure signs were duly posted and the last traffic used the M45 at the end of March 2065. The London-bound carriageway had already been done away with, so it was just a case of closing the remaining single carriageway.

Happily, a group of local people were intent on saving the route, which, although heavily overgrown, was complete with original bridges, designed by Owen Williams. A meeting was held in a pub in Thurlaston as soon as the closure was announced and the Thurlaston and Rugby Motorway Acquisition Committee (TARMAC) was established with the aim of keeping the road open and restoring the London-bound carriageway, thus becoming Britain’s first privately operated ‘heritage’ motorway.

Initially, a lease was agreed between the committee and the Government, allowing the road to continue in use for privately arranged traffic. The junction with the M1 south of Crick was severed, but access was maintained via the roundabout near Thurlaston. On the night of Sunday, March 25, the last motorway coaches, container lorries and a few diehard motorists used the road, including a number of buses specially chartered by TARMAC as ‘last day’ specials.Then the slip road from the M1 was broken up and the rubble transported away.

Ironically, this was done by road lorry, probably to be used as hardcore beneath yet another newly laid stretch of railway.

Because the Birmingham-bound carriageway was taken over by the preservationists immediately after closure, the road surface remained in reasonable condition – TARMAC volunteers had only to fill in potholes and cracks, repaint white lines and restore ‘cats-eyes’. A fortnight after the handover, a motorists’ gala weekend was held and several dozen car-owners turned up to savour the delights of an almost empty motorway once more. Over-priced burgers and plastic cups of stewed tea were provided to add authenticity to the event.

After several years of hard work, the volunteers managed to clear the London-bound carriageway of vegetation and laid a ‘dumb-bell’ loop at the eastern end of the road to allow heritage traffic to turn and head back towards Dunchurch.

The original M45 had no services, but TARMAC members created a service area from scratch. On land next to both sides of the motorway, Barby Services was created, named after the nearby village and using buildings rescued from the closed Michaelwood services on the M5 and the unstaffed Watford Gap services on the still-open Ml. Barby cleverly re-created the motorway world of the 2010s, with fuel at just £1.60 a litre. Those were the days.

Today, the M45 is a thriving heritage concern, with special events to attract tourists and enthusiasts. A popular event is the annual Tailback Weekend, featuring the cones and flashing yellow lights we remember so fondly from our childhood. Lane closures are re-created and drivers crawl along in period cars and buses, with volunteers dressed as roadworkers extolling them to’merge in turn’!

Heavy Freight weekends allow members to bring out their period 44-tonne artics and container lorries. When young visitors are told of the seemingly endless lines of lorries, requiring a separate engine and driver for each single container, they understand how road transport became so hopelessly uneconomic compared with rail! In high summer, when visitor numbers are at their highest, dad can breathe in once more the heady mix of petrol exhaust and diesel fumes, so familiar from his youth, while the kids marvel at four lanes of solid traffic and ask innocently: “Dad, why don’t they run on rails?”

In winter, families flock to travel on’Santa’s Stagecoach’as it follows a gritting lorry through the wintry Warwickshire landscape.

Today, TARMAC owns a large fleet of preserved road vehicles, some dating back to the 20th century and sporting familiar liveries from the past such as Stobart, Royal Mail andTesco. Private motor vehicles also feature, including two of the last-surviving British-built cars.

The M45 Experience is open every day and is easily accessible from Barby station on the 280mph Great Central Main Line, or from Dunchurch on the new Rugby-Leamington Light Railway. At weekends, old-style Midland Red buses link the road with Rugby’s Maglev station. A day-out not to be missed!

2 comments for “Heritage Motorways!

  1. Adrian Romano
    April 13, 2014 at 19:41

    Seriously, before all this happens, I suspect railway walks such as the Monsal Trail in the Peak District on the former Midland line between Buxton and Matlock, and the Barnstaple to Bideford Tarka Trail, would have been commandeered and relaid as railway lines. Rambling Societies would have taken last celebratory rambles along former railway trails, no doubt with banners saying things like “Monsal Trail Farewell” or “The Last Ramble” and waving Union Jacks to mourn the loss several lovely footpaths!

  2. April 13, 2014 at 20:41

    Buxton-Matlock should be reopened with some single track together with a walkway/cycle path to preserve the Monsal trail north of Bakewell. Eventually the pressure will be on to double the track and a decision will have to be made.

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