Smart motorways

Last year, the government set aside £1.5 billion to provide smart motorways across the UK as part of the first Road Investment Strategy (RIS1). As many as 69 smart motorway schemes will be under construction during this time across every region of England and 15 more are planned for the second Road Investment Strategy (RIS2) from 2021 to 2025. Many of England’s busiest motorways are already operating as smart motorways and many more are planned for upgrade work over the next five years.

A smart motorway is one with the ability to use active traffic management to increase capacity. Methods of traffic management include using the hard shoulder and setting variable speed limits during busier times.

The purpose of smart motorways is to better manage and monitor traffic through the use of technology. By creating extra capacity on busy roads by using the hard shoulder as an additional lane at peak times, drivers can save both time and money. Controlled congestion also has the effect of creating safer roads by keeping drivers to a measured speed limit and advising where roads are in use or out of bounds at peak traffic times.

Whilst there are lots to be done, these projects are quick to complete. An alternative road widening project would take 10 years, whereas a smart motorway project takes only 20% of that time. The work to upgrade a motorway to be smart includes creating refuge areas, strengthening the hard shoulder and installing signal gantries, which can all be done in two years.

As these projects are relatively new in the UK, employers in the highways industry are seeking innovation and looking for candidates with the ability to problem-solve using original technological solutions. Engineers with qualifications and experience in design, ITS and electrical engineering are particularly in demand to help move these projects forward.

A third of the cost of smart motorway creation is down to technology, which incorporates running cables down the verges of the motorway, supplying power to the new electronic equipment and connecting it to the control centre. The hard shoulder needs to be adapted to accommodate the vehicles and make it usable by building verge barriers or drainage design. There are also many other skillsets needed in the design, construction, maintenance and operation of a smart motorway so employers involved in these projects will also be looking for candidates with skills in traffic management and analysis, operation and safety and environment/economic assessment.

With the sizeable skills shortage currently being experienced within the industry, finding the right talent to create these smart motorways is a challenge for employers. This challenge has been made even greater with budget cuts from Highways England, due to work carried over from 2014-15 and its restructure from the previous Highways Agency across specific area contracts.

To tackle this skill short problem with a lower budget, employers need to utilise the UK’s current skills market. Joe Wilson, Department Manager for Highways, Transportation and Planning is familiar with the challenges highways employers face: “A clever solution is needed to solve the recruitment needs of smart motorways. In the short term, employers should consider hiring people from other backgrounds such as M+E Engineers and Electrical/Cabling Engineers who have the transferable skills to pick up the work needed on these projects. In the long term, more innovative solutions within academia are needed to help future engineers come through with better skillsets, such as better degree opportunities and promoting STEM subjects with the younger generations.”

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