Long stretches of roadworks are to be banned from motorways and major A-roads in England under government plans to cut congestion on the country’s busiest roads, The Times has learnt.
Highways chiefs have been told to limit work to short stretches — usually up to two miles at a time — to prevent motorists being caught in extreme delays. The move is intended to stop contractors closing multiple lanes and imposing speed restrictions for up to 20 miles.
Ministers are believed to have demanded the changes after particular concerns over roadworks on the M1 and M3, which have frustrated motorists for years.
Major works on the M1 include stretches near Northampton and Chesterfield, as well as upgrades around Wakefield, Nottingham and Luton.
In all, a “corridor” of five sets of roadworks on the main north-south motorway spans more than 100 miles.
Disruption across England is likely to escalate in the coming years due to a £15.2 billion government plan to improve the strategic roads network. It will involve resurfacing at least 80 per cent of motorways and main A-roads and the creation of more than 1,300 additional miles of highways by 2020.
Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, has ordered Highways England to implement stringent new rules for its highways upgrade, likely to begin within a year.
In meetings with Highways England, which maintains the network of motorways and major A-roads, he has ordered that work is undertaken in stretches of no longer than two miles each. He has also requested better communication with road users to allow drivers to plan alternative routes. This includes explaining the reason for work and the length of time it will take.
His demands come after the publication of statistics showing that more than one fifth of journeys on motorways are subjected to delays and traffic levels have risen by 50 per cent in the past two decades.
A Conservative source said: “There’s a balance to be struck between our long-term investment programme, which will deliver economic growth, and minimising disruption to drivers.
“We want to see common-sense measures to keep the roads moving in the short term. To their credit, Highways England are listening.” It is believed that work on motorways and main A-roads will be limited to one or two miles at a time to minimise congestion, with a maximum of five miles of work carried out in extreme cases.
The move will result in engineers carrying out major projects in smaller chunks rather than one large-scale closure of lanes continuing for miles.
According to Inrix, the traffic information company, the longest stretch of roadwork currently lasts for more than 18 miles between junctions 28 and 31 of the M1 near Chesterfield.
It is followed by 15 miles on the M3 near Farnborough and almost 14 miles on the M1 at Northampton. Other major projects include upgrades of the M60 and M62 around Manchester, the M6 near Birmingham and Lancaster, the M45 near Rugby and the A1 at Gateshead. Many of the most disruptive projects involve the construction of “smart motorways” where the hard shoulder is converted into an extra lane and differential speed limits are imposed to keep traffic flowing.
Highways England, which took responsibility for the main roads network from the Highways Agency earlier this year, said it carried out most work at night and lifted many projects at busy holiday periods such as Christmas.
A spokesman said: “We want to provide a better, safer experience for road users on England’s motorways and major A-roads, including throughout roadworks where major upgrades are being carried out.
“We are committed to minimising disruption from roadworks even further and are exploring managing work in different ways while ensuring good value for money for the public.”