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Suffolk: A14 signs cost £70million but are only in operation less than 10% of the time

11:54 11 August 2014

One of the 72 electronic signs over the A14

One of the 72 electronic signs over the A14

They cost nearly £1 million each – but the electronic road signs on the A14 in Suffolk are only in operation less than 10% of the time, an investigation by this newspaper has shown.

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The 72 signs were installed along the road between Felixstowe and Catthorpe in Leicestershire at a cost of £70 million as part of the previous government’s attempts to stimulate the economy between 2008 and 2010.

We submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Highways Agency asking how many times the signs had been activated to inform drivers of hazards and problems on the road rather than just telling them how far they were from a certain location.

In reply we were sent details of every time every sign was switched on and off by the Highways’ Agency or its contractors – a total of 1.6 million lines of data!

However we focussed on one sign on the westbound A14 between the Copdock Mill and Sproughton junctions during a six-month period between April and October last year.

Over a period of 195 days it was switched on for 430 hours an 25 minutes. That is an average of two hours and 12 minutes a day.

Its use varied from being switched on for less than five minutes to warn drivers of a short-lived queue ahead to being on for up to eight hours to warn drivers that a section of a road ahead was closed for planned overnight repair work.

There were a significant number of occasions when the sign was switched on to give early warning of congestion on the section of the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon – the section of the road that is due to be replaced by a new £1.5 billion road within the next few years.

The signs are managed by the Highways Agency and its contractors who put up the messages as issues happen on the roads.

The system was well on the way to completion by the time the coalition came to power in 2010 – but Suffolk MPs Ben Gummer and Dr Therese Coffey have not yet learned to love it,

Mr Gummer said; “I felt it was a waste of money at the time, and I still think it is a waste of money. It was part of the Labour government’s stimulus – but it could have been far better spent.

“I use the A14 all the time and I don’t think I’ve ever used the signs. Most drivers have a GPS SatNav in their vehicles or listen to traffic news – this was totally unnecessary.”

He accepted that now the signs are erected they should be used – but said they remained a monument to the folly of the previous government.

Dr Coffey said: “The signs were really put up to help the lorries going to or from Felixstowe, but they all have GPS installed to tell them what the situation is on the roads.

“I am sure that Suffolk motorists could think of far better ways that £70 million could be spent on the county’s road network.”

A spokeswoman for the Highways Agency said: “Variable message signs (VMS) are just one of the tools we use to give information to road users.

“They allow us to give messages to motorists directly affected by an incident and to advise of incidents further away – so that road users can make journey choices in plenty of time.

“We combine this with information in broadcast media, our website and social media to give as much information as we can.

“We carried out some research in 2013-14. 63% of respondents found them accurate and the most important message type was warnings of accidents ahead. Also ranked highly by respondents were warnings of queues and warnings of delays ahead.”

The minister responsible for putting up the signs was former Ipswich MP Chris Mole when he was at the Department for Transport.

He still backs the decision: “As an ordinary road user, I find it very useful to know when there is trouble ahead. It’s all very well to say the money could have been better spend, but what else would they want it to have gone on?

“The decisions we made at the Department of Transport are still be implemented – like the hard-shoulder running on the M25.” he said.

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12 comments

  • The signs exist and the money has been spent. 5 years or more ago it probably seemed a good idea. The issue now is how they are being used and the present government has to take responsibility for making the best use of them. They are clearly failing and it is no good saying it isn't their problem.

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    amsterdam81

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • Always political. If the Conservative administration did the signs, Ben Gummer would be hailing them a success. A complete waste of money, you could have 4K colour screens for this amount. Obviously wouldn't be suitable for its use, however, an OLED display would have been better and more flexible. The signs wouldn't actually have been too bad of an idea long before sat navs became widespread. Perhaps recycle them to provide wifi hotspots and advertisements?

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    Ipswich Entrepreneur

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • Origami Penguin - the default position of ALL political parties is to blame the previous administration. If the political positions were reversed, it would be Labour blaming the Conservatives. However, in this instance, the blame is correct. £70 Million of taxpayers money was wasted on these signs which, even when they do work, display no meaningful information. Either the money should have been spent elsewhere, or the signs should display more relevant information than "Don't Drive Tired" or "Cambridge 58 Miles, 60 Minutes"

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    Richard Hall

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • ... and all the Tories can do is fall back to their default position: Blame Labour! It was like that when I got here! Pathetic.

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    Origami Penguin

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • They were displaying a message yesterday, but all it did was cause me needless worry. It said A12 delays at A1414, but not having a map of the entire road system in my head I had no idea where that was and whether or not it would affect my journey. It needs to say A12N or A12S at the very least to be of much use.

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    Tamara Knight

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • The limited time that the signs are used misses the point. When they are used the information displayed is usually of little use and pointless. Have there been any studies to find out what information is useful? Not sure how the reference to people having GPS relates to these signs which aren't any help to navigation.

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    amsterdam81

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • Yep, a total waste of tax payers money! it frustrates me when i see this money wasted on things like these, when the road surface is a complete death trap! Being a biker I have to dodge potholes and avoid ruts and not to mention none of the cats eyes work!!! I could go on, but noboby would listen from SCC, Government or the Highways Agency......

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    Andy S

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • I'd like to know howwhy they cost £1m each? Someone must have made a huge profit out of this.

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    RC

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • The times when these signs are needed, they can not be relied upon. The Orwell bridge closure in February was not put on the signs before the Copdock junction thus there was no early warning. This made me join the queue for a nearly 3 hour transit of Ipswich though the town.

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    A Smith

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • If you were coming from Felixstowe to Heathrow and were going clockwise you would miss Jnc 23 to 26 because you would have gone over the crossing. Going anticlockwise would have taken you into the jam. Jnc 23 to 26 is only around 12 miles. Have a word with Mr Gummer, clearly you are in the minority by not having your GPS andor Traffic News on. I jest. I live close to the M25M23 and I agree that the numbering is confusing if you are from out of the area.

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    gordonwhite

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • I would love to know where Mr Gummer got his data from for his statement ' Most drivers have a GPS SatNav in their vehicles or listen to traffic news' or is it another case of assuming something and making a statement as if it is fact. Regarding the VMS, 10% seems a reasonable time for them to be active, any more and I would find them a real distraction or would disregard them (a personal view, not based on data).

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    gordonwhite

    Monday, August 11, 2014

  • "The M25 is closed between Junction 23 and 26" WHERE ? Who knows all the M25 Junction No's ? Frustrating and useless. Especially when there is space for this vital piece of info. Missed a flight from Heathrow because of this. Could have gone Anti clockwise and missed the accident, if it said where.

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    felixstowe phil

    Monday, August 11, 2014

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