Features: March 27th, 2015

Smart technology accounts for a tiny percentage of the Highways Agency’s budget, but without it, flagship schemes such as Smart Motorways, which improve safety and boost road capacity, wouldn’t be possible.

Britain’s roads are getting busier. There are now almost 35 million registered vehicles in the country1, and this figure is continuing to rise. These ever-increasing numbers mean that those in charge of the road network are under constant pressure to increase capacity, if they’re to avoid gridlock and keep the travelling public safe.

One way to do this is to add lanes to the country’s roads, but this is an expensive and time-consuming process, as it often involves land purchases and major work to prepare the terrain. This is why the Highways Agency, which is responsible for the UK’s motorways and primary A-roads, has been investing significantly in other techniques to boost road capacity, most notably the rollout of ‘Smart Motorways’ and other ways to use technology to improve the flow of traffic and enhance safety.

Smart Motorways

Smart Motorways is the collective term for roads that use technology to vary speed limits or use the hard shoulder as a driving lane. By adjusting the speed limits, opening the hard shoulder when required or displaying information messages to drivers, the Highways Agency’s regional control centres can increase the number of cars that can safely use the network, thereby reducing congestion and keeping all road users safer by helping prevent accidents. Converting a stretch of road to Smart Motorways typically costs between a third and a half of what it does to widen that same stretch of road, and it brings other benefits besides increased capacity. Statistics show that Smart Motorways improve safety, reduce emissions and make journey times more consistent and reliable2.
Technology: the enabler

While regional control rooms oversee all motorways, much of the traffic management, including on Smart Motorways, is carried out automatically, using a range of technology. Sensors in the road, for example, detect how fast traffic is moving, and hence whether a queue is beginning to form. If this happens, the sensors can send a message to the overhead gantries or roadside message signs in the lead-up to the queue to warn drivers of the congestion ahead and provide appropriate speed limits.

Making it work

Traffic management technology can be found right across the UK’s road network, and without it, schemes such as Smart Motorways would not be possible. For this technology to work, each piece of equipment on the roadside needs to know where it is in relation to all the other equipment around it.

For example, when a sensor detects a queue forming, it can request that warning messages and speed restrictions be put in place to protect those in the queue and the vehicles approaching. The system that controls the roadside signs and gantries therefore needs to know which pieces of equipment to activate and what message or speed limit to display on each. This could be an initial 60mph limit several miles upstream of the queue, followed by a 40mph restriction as traffic gets closer to the scene, combined with ‘Queue Caution’ messages. Getting the right message or speed limit displayed in the right place relies on every piece of equipment having been set up with the correct data about its location and the locations of other nearby equipment.

It’s therefore absolutely essential that whenever equipment is added or removed from the network (regardless of whether it’s for a major road scheme or simply the upgrade of an aging sign), the location information for it and all the surrounding equipment is updated correctly, and then thoroughly tested to make sure it will respond correctly when faced with a variety of

Intuitive tools

Entering all the relevant data for each piece of equipment and then testing it, was a time-consuming process, and with increasing amounts of technology being rolled out across the network, the Highways Agency has been working closely with its long-term partner IPL to come up with innovative ways to speed up the data entry and testing process – and improve road safety in the process.

Over the past few years, IPL’s Services team has delivered a series of enhancements to the tools that the Highways Agency and its programme delivery contractors use to enter and test the equipment data.

Graphical interface

One of the most important enhancements has been the creation of a graphical user interface that staff entering and testing equipment data can use to model road situations – and ensure that an incident at a given location results in the correct messages and speed limits being displayed on the right equipment. Before IPL delivered the current map-based view, the tools would produce tables of data, which the user would then need to trawl through to ensure each sign was displaying the correct message or speed limit in a given situation.

The ease with which the graphical view can be interpreted, means that the time taken to test new equipment has fallen by around 50%, and made it easier for those using it to pinpoint and correct any errors in the configuration data.

Default data

IPL has also been delivering ways to speed up the process of entering equipment data. To do this, it has created a set of default data, which accounts for around 70% of the information required when setting up a piece of equipment. The tool that the Highways Agency or its contractors use can pull in the default data automatically, thereby vastly reducing the time it takes. Indeed, this has had the added benefit of reducing the number of human errors introduced when entering equipment data.
Real benefits

The graphical interface for equipment testing, and the default equipment data, are just two areas where IPL’s work has delivered noticeable improvements to the Highways Agency and its ability to deliver value for money to the taxpayer.

Russell Mead, the Highways Agency’s technical project manager for the Traffic Management Systems, explains: “The tools we have available to us now have halved the time it takes us to test new equipment after a change to the data, or ahead of a major road scheme go-live. We can quickly trial a setup, easily see whether each piece of road-side equipment has been configured correctly, and verify the impact a scheme will have on the rest of the network.

“When we were testing the new equipment for the M25’s new All Lanes Running scheme, for example, it took us around two weeks. Without the enhancements that IPL has made to the tools, it would have taken at least twice as long.”

Looking ahead

As well as using the graphical interface to set up and test new equipment, it can be used to replay the messages and speed limits that were in place at any given time. This has a number of uses, including for those investigating incidents, but also for staff dealing with enquiries to the Highways Agency Information Line, where members of the public contact the organisation to find out why speed limits were set the way they were for example.

To enable these staff (and other authorised individuals across the Highways Agency and its partners) to access the tool more easily, IPL’s team is working on a secure web-based version of the system, to overcome the need for each individual to get it approved by their IT department for installation on their computer.

Speeding up major schemes

Perhaps the biggest improvement of all, however, will come as a result of a further piece of work by IPL and other Highways Agency partners to streamline the data entry process.

Mead explains: “We’re putting a lot more kit out on the network and we need to make some enhancements to speed up the rollout and implementation. It’s currently a sequential process: you do one piece of equipment, then the next, then the next. If you’ve got 10 changes to make, you’ve got to do each one in turn before you can do the testing – it can’t be done in parallel. We’re working on ways to do this in parallel, which will shave significant time off any major road scheme.”

Productive community

Jo White, team leader for the National Operational Systems team in the Traffic Technology Division at the Highways Agency reveals: “This work is a good example of the fact that IPL isn’t just working in partnership with us, but also with other software maintenance suppliers. In theory, each organisation could be a bit protective of its area, but in reality, it’s a real community. Everyone knows where they fit in the workings, but no one can work without the other. All parties appreciate that, and the setup works really well.”

White continues: “Throughout the time we’ve worked with IPL, we’ve been impressed, and have extended the contract with them on a number of occasions. What we spend per annum on IPL is minute in comparison to the Agency’s major projects budget is. The relative benefit is huge: the work my team, IPL and our other partners do is one of the key enablers of the network running at full capacity. Interestingly, my team’s proportion of the budget of any major scheme is typically around 1%, but it’s the 1% that makes everything else possible.

“Everything we do is geared towards improving safety and traffic flows, while providing better value for money by streamlining the way we run the network. IPL has proved to be a valuable partner in our efforts to keep Britain moving.”

OUTCOMES?The Highways Agency has employed IPL’s Services team to maintain and enhance a number of its key software applications. This partnership has worked successfully for more than 20 years, and has delivered a range of improvements. These have been a key enabler of the flagship Smart Motorways programmes and other important road safety and capacity schemes, and include:?* New graphical user interfaces for many of the tools?* Automation of data entry to speed up road scheme rollouts?* 50% reduction in the time taken to test the information to be displayed on new roadside equipment.

The Highways Agency is working on further enhancements with IPL, including:?* New rules system governing the priority of messages that can be displayed on roadside equipment?* Re-engineering the tools to make them web-based, making them more easily available to a greater number of Highways Agency staff?* Redesigning the tools and processes to enable parallel entry of data for multiple roadside assets, thereby vastly speeding up rollout

?1 GROVE, J., (2013). Vehicle Licensing Statistics: 2012. Department of Transport. Available from: http://bit.ly/IPLhatms1?2 HIGHWAYS AGENCY (2014). M25 Junctions 23-27: Smart Motorway. Highways Agency. Available from: http://bit.ly/IPLhatms2