Page last updated at 01:08 GMT, Friday, 5 December 2008

Marking 50 years of UK motorways

By Andy McFarlane
BBC News

Prime Minister's convoy on the Preston bypass
Harold MacMillan's car led a convoy along the Preston bypass [Photo: MAT]

They might be notorious for traffic jams, speed cameras and roadworks - but Britain's motorways have been transporting drivers for 50 years.

The first, Lancashire's eight-mile Preston bypass, opened on 5 December 1958 and now forms part of the M6.

The latest is the 174m extension of the M6 between Carlisle and Guards Mill, in Cumbria.

The new road, which includes a bridge over the River Esk, is a far cry from the original motorway.

With just two lanes in each direction, a hedge in the central reservation was the only barrier separating the few Rileys or Morris Oxfords that trundled along the Preston bypass.

Sign spelling out motorway rules
The M6 is Britain's longest motorway, stretching 236 miles (380km) from Rugby to the Scottish border
Stretching for just 300m (984ft), the A635(M), in Manchester is Britain's shortest motorway
The M62 is the UK's highest motorway, reaching 1,220ft (372m) over the Pennines
The Watford Gap service area was the first of its kind, opening with the M1 on 2 November 1959
Source: UK Motorway Archive Trust

After two years of work, without modern hydraulic machinery, it was officially opened by then Prime Minister Harold MacMillan.

Former bridge engineer Harry Yeadon, 86, remembers the day.

"People recognised the significance. It was a guinea pig for all the future motorways and a lot of innovation went into its design and construction," he said.

Hard shoulders were not added until later - instead the carriageway was bordered by a strip of soft shale.

"If you got a heavy vehicle trying to change a wheel then, instead of the vehicle being jacked up, the jack sank into the ground," said Mr Yeadon.

Soon after opening, the bypass had to be closed temporarily for resurfacing, when the road surface was damaged by a sudden frost.

But its planners had the foresight to leave room under the bridges for a third lane in each direction, allowing for the motorway's expansion.

Since then, more than 2,200 miles of motorway have been constructed across the UK.

While bank holiday jams have given them a reputation as "three-lane parking lots" among some frustrated motorists, others believe they have changed our lives for the better.

"UK motorways are a great success story. They have transformed the way we travel," said AA president Edmund King.

Construction of the Preston bypass
Early motorways were constructed without the help of modern machinery

After 1958, he said: "Britain's ever-growing band of motorists increasingly found they were able to stretch the boundaries of work and leisure, when unthinkable journeys of the past gradually became the norm."

Those who have spent a fortune on weak tea and a rubbery roast at a service station might recall a few unthinkable journeys of their own.

And anyone with points on their licence might hanker for the early days of the motorway, when there were no speed limits.

But the AA's first motorway patrolman, Robert Gornall, believes we have come a long way in half a century.

"Breakdowns came thick and fast because cars couldn't cope with the higher speed - engines just simply blew," he said.

Recalling an early lack of hard shoulders, he added: "When we reached a broken down car we simply pushed it, bumper-to-bumper, out of the way to a place of safety where we could fix it.

Light traffic on the Preston bypass
Congestion was not such a problem when motorways were first opened

"Our vehicles were fitted with special rubber bumpers so as not to cause any damage."

Since then, growth in car ownership has meant thousands of commuters face daily battles with congestion at bottlenecks and drivers who hog the middle lane.

Others bemoan the "white van men" who insist on tailgating and then switching lanes during hold-ups.

But the AA believes Britons now face a crucial decision - whether to invest in more motorways or allow traffic to return to those places the roads were intended to bypass.

Mr King said motorways are five times safer than single-lane roads, although accident rates increase with congestion.

"Will motorways become hi-tech with electronic control of cars to maintain their distance, or USA-style multi-lane freeways?" he asked.

But for most of us there is a more immediate question. Why do we spend hours in jams at junctions when there appears to be nothing holding us up on the other side?

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