Expressways and why they’re not going to work.

Those who have been keeping up with the many, many pages of documents flying out from DfT towers recently will have heard of ‘Expressways’. This is a, supposedly, new concept where higher quality all-purpose routes will be transformed into what is essentially a motorway, but not for viewers in Scotland as this is a Highways England only dream. Now I have a big issue with how the powers that be are going about this, and this will be a bit of a rant so bear with me.

This document details it all. Now, for those who can’t be bothered to read the whole thing look at page 59, which shows Expressways will have blue signs and adopt the Ax(M) designation currently used for motorway standard bypasses of short lengths of A road.

I think we have reached an issue already here. First off, no-one really understands Ax(M) as a designation or why it came into being. Fear not, for that is answered here in great detail. The long and short of it is this:

Where a motorway was merely a by-pass on a recognised continuous route, such as A.1, it would not be given a separate M number but, in order to make clear its motorway status and that the special motorway regulations applied to it, the letter M would be added in brackets to the existing route number e.g. A.1(M). This would avoid chopping and changing of numbers along such routes.

The whole point of the designation was for short motorways that perhaps did not connect to the wider network; see the various tiddly city centre motorways in England for an example of this system doing its intended function.

OK, so in isolation this isn’t an issue. Other than, say, “A34(M)” having “M” stand for “Expressway” because it isn’t actually a motorway even though it will have blue signs and a motorway number. This alone is stupid before we get to the real meat of the issue and why in its current guise it has not been thought through in any great detail.

Special Roads vs Rights of Way

A motorway is brought into existence by the use of legal paperwork, nothing else. A road with three lanes in each direction and a hard shoulder is not a motorway unless it has this paperwork backing it up.

Background again is here. Essentially, the Special Roads Act 1949 – the main bits have since been absorbed into the Highways Act 1980 (see Section 16) – breaks up every type of road user into distinct classes and then prohibits everything from the route being created except those which are specifically permitted. In essence this is the exact opposite of a Right of Way where everything is allowed unless specifically prohibited. So, whilst the M1 has been constructed and is protected from non-motorised traffic and the dreaded utility companies digging it up by use of special roads provisions, the (picking on one route at random again) A34 is not. The A34 is a Right of Way. That means pedestrians and cyclists have an almost unstoppable right to use the road. Highways Act 1980 Section 18 specifically demands that alternatives are provided for unless the Minister can be convinced there is no need (good luck as lobby groups won’t stand for that).

For reference, a plan to prohibit cyclists on the quasi-motorway section of A19 through Middlesbrough took a very, very long time to carry out and that was with an overwhelming safety case. Why? Because the A19 had been built as a normal road and thus became a Right of Way. The case was not made from the outset to prohibit these classes of traffic before the road opened and so retrospectively doing it became a legal headache.

To prohibit cyclists and pedestrians from the A34 will currently require the use of a Traffic Regulation Order provided under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. That means that circular signs showing these two types of user are now prohibited. So far so good, right? Well no. As the A34 is a Right of Way there is a not unreasonable expectation that an alternative route will be provided. This is fine where the ‘new’ A34 bypasses a village and the old road is separate, but for those many lengths where the existing road was dualled on-line that means that alternative provision is needed. You cannot just get rid of a Right of Way – have a look at the end of any bypass where it meets the old road and you’ll often see a footway continuing over the old line although the carriageway has vanished under grass. That’s the Right of Way being maintained even though vehicular access rights have been extinguished via a Stopping Up Order. It is also possible that statutory undertakers’ apparatus is under there and they will have unquestioned access to it – there is a reason that such groups are mandatory consultees when a Stopping Up Order is being promoted. That grassed area will undoubtedly form an easement. When you build a road under Special Roads legislation, any statutory undertakers’ apparatus must not cross the road in such a manner that modifying it requires roadworks on the Special Road. In essence the reverse applies; the road itself is an easement and the utilities must divert away from it (typically via an overbridge or following an existing corridor the Special Road crosses over).

I imagine this is terribly confusing if you don’t deal with this stuff on a regular basis. I certainly don’t fully grasp it all and have to regularly return to the original legislation for clarification (as much as an English legal document can give, which believe me isn’t much), but in short it is virtually impossible under current legislation to simply make an A-road a motorway without spending millions on rectifying Rights of Way and diverting utilities. It’s why motorway upgrades of A-roads are alongside the existing road rather than directly on top of it; doing it that way saves an awful lot of bother.

A quick fix, perhaps, would be to revise primary legislation. Probably not likely in the current political climate where the main legislative agenda is exiting the European Union. This is a parliamentary black hole, the amount of work required here means piffling issues like allowing an A-road to turn into a motorway overnight by the stroke of a pen is never going to get a look in.


The next problem is the act of signing the route itself. It logically follows that if Highways England wish to use blue signs and the byzantine and not well understood Ax(M) designation, they will also need to use the motorway symbol. Again, this in itself seems simple, but the above legal issues rear their head again. Does this mean expressways will simply use a specially authorised sign? Well, no, as you cannot seek authorisation for an alternative purpose to an already established sign. The DfT might fudge this and allow it, but if they do they are breaking their own code of practice and opening up Pandora’s Box where the use of signs and authorisations are concerned.

The rest of Europe seems to cope fine with the use of a ‘car’ symbol to denote a near-motorway specification road. A good place to look here is France, where voies express are granted their own map symbol and use the ‘car’ sign. Apparently that would be too confusing on these islands, whereas the above method of calling something that isn’t a motorway a motorway would clearly not be.


French ‘voie express’ sign – for more information on such routes visit (you’ll need a translator or good grasp of French!)

Using blue directional signs will also cause problems. Firstly, they would not be prescribed signs and would require site specific authorisation for every individual example, unless a blanket authorisation is issued, but then we are back to the ‘thou shalt not re-purpose an already established sign’ consideration that the DfT are apparently now willing to turn a blind eye to.

I eagerly await the first prosecution for someone using an expressway when a sign says they shouldn’t, but there is no actual proper legal avenue to support the sign. A canny barrister will have a field day with this.

My Suggestion

Stop trying to be clever when it is apparent there is a huge lack of comprehension of the complexities the law has here. This is mostly an exercise in spin – the government know people get the banners out to protest against ‘motorways’, so they are bringing in an alternative word in a stupid attempt to fool these types; guess what? They’ve already seen through it.

If a new motorway is needed, show some bottle and say a new motorway is needed. Construct it to the relevant smart motorway specification or whatever, but call it what it is and follow the correct legal channels to create it.

For those roads that are in between a regular dual carriageway and a motorway, introduce the ‘car’ symbol as this can be specially authorised pending a future TSRGD, and would be compatible with the use of Road Traffic Regulation Act provisions to prohibit undesirable classes of vehicle (which are typically pedestrians, cyclists, and horses), and then create a considerably less expensive parallel shared route for non-motorised users should one be needed. Don’t build new roads to this specification though as, again, if it warrants this supposed ‘mini motorway’ treatment then it should just be a motorway. Abandon the idea of the needless use of Ax(M) numbers for these, and retain their appropriate sign colours – just use entry and exit signs and implore mappers to create a new map symbol for them. Job done.

Why do we excel at over complicating simple concepts, and then making a total horlicks of it? If anyone knows, do tell… as I can only imagine someone saw that the A38(M) was called the “Aston Expressway” and decided this formed the basis of a ‘genius policy announcement’.

2 thoughts on “Expressways and why they’re not going to work.

  1. The A38 between Exeter and Plymouth has been called the ‘Devon Expressway’ for years. I believe that it was given the designation to show that it was near motorway standard road, when a lot of the A roads in Devon aren’t, and that it was supposed to appear in maps and on signs. On the ground the only thing that differentiates it from a ‘normal’ primary A road is the words ‘Devon Expressway’ printed on a few of the mileage signs, otherwise the signs are still the normal green. I can’t say that I’ve seen any distinction being made on maps either.
    It is mentioned on CBRD though…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It strikes me that this whole ‘Expressway’ thing started out as a casual aside, a passing comment that we need to do more to bring key non-motorway routes up to a better standard, and now it has snowballed completely out of control, with plans for new classifications, signage and legislation – all being bandied about by people who don’t appear to understand the current regulations and standards. As you say … it’s going to be a complete mess.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s