Smart motorways are, as the RAC puts it delicately, “a contentious topic”.  Not everyone’s so polite about the latest trend in highway construction. “There's nothing smart about turning the hard shoulder into a lane,” is a common refrain.  Many people think smart motorways are more dangerous than their conventional equivalents. Surely, the removal of the hard shoulder fundamentally increases the risk to drivers stuck in a broken-down car? 

A study by Green Flag showed there were 9,000 accidents involving stationary cars between 2015 and 2017, with 42 per cent of these on the hard shoulder.  Road safety groups fear that stripping 400 miles of hard shoulder increases the chances of broken-down cars being hit from behind in traffic. In 2016, a cross-party committee of MPs warned that while smart motorways were a cheap way of cutting congestion by expanding capacity, they were a ‘short cut at the expense of lives’.

No wonder the conversion of hard shoulders into a new lane is not universally popular.

Love them or loath them, smart motorways are here to stay.  They might sound cutting-edge, but they were first introduced in 2006 on the M42 in the West Midlands and they’re now a part of the motoring landscape.  Most are in England but Scotland (sections of the M90) and Wales (parts of the M4) also have also introduced elements of smart motorway policy with variable speed limits.  Across the country, we’re now building so many of them, that the pay of construction workers with highway experience is rising as a result.

And one thing that is not contentious about them is that the current smart motorway building boom is doing construction workers’ pay no end of good.

Do highway construction workers earn more?

Workers with that highways experience have seen their pay rise around 10% over the last 12 months.  Planners, section engineers, sub-agents, and health and safety professionals with highways experience have seen pay rises on that sort of scale, too.  Site engineers are doing particularly well. We’ve seen pay for site engineers with highways experience rise from £250 per day to £275–£300 per day in some locations, which is a 20% increase.  It’s supply and demand. Smart motorway projects are competing for talent.

The London office is also reporting wages being pushed up by an increase in demand as the hard shoulder on the M27 is turned into a smart motorway with a permanent running lane – making a dual four-lane section on the between junction 4, the M3 interchange, and junction 11 at Fareham.  It’s a £244 million project, costing 2 ½ times the M20 scheme, and is likely to run until 2021. We place about 10 site engineers a year out of the London office, on average – in the last 12 months, we’ve placed 17. Average pay across project management is up 10%, rising from £58,700 a year ago, to £64,900 today.  Senior site managers are doing even better, with average salaries rising from £58,700 to £69,300.

Pay in Birmingham is being driven by works on the M6, where a fifth section of the road is being converted into smart motorway.  We placed some site engineers for projects on the M1 and the M5 a couple of years ago, but this is a much bigger deal. The M6 is one of the United Kingdom’s busiest motorways and forms part of the longest continuous motorway in the country, the "Backbone of Britain", running north−south between London and Glasgow via the industrial North of England.  The four stretches that have already been made into smart motorways include two of the busiest sections on the entire motorway. Construction on the stretch between junctions 13 and 15 commenced in March 2018 and is set to run until 2022. The cost is likely to come in at around £335 million. The number of site managers (including senior and assistant site managers), project managers (again, including senior and assistant project managers), and site engineers that we have placed out of our Birmingham office over the last 12 months is up about 50%.  We’ve placed one site engineer on £45,000.

What are the opportunities for highway construction workers?

We’re seeing well-paid opportunities opening up across the country.  Our Maidstone office reports projects on the M23 and M20 are driving up rates.  The average pay packet in construction is now £48,000 per year locally, compared to £42,400 a year before – it’s risen 13%.  We placed a project manager on £70,000 recently. And the number of placements the team is making is up dramatically.

The M20 provides key links via Dover and the Channel Tunnel to and from mainland Europe.  It facilitates regeneration and growth through national, regional, and local travel. The route provides critical access via the M26/M25 to London, the airports of Heathrow and Gatwick and to the wider South East, South West and the Midlands.  But there are frequent delays due to the volume of traffic between junctions 3 to 5. Highways England are converting a section of the M20 into a smart motorway to increase traffic capacity and make journey times more reliable by improving the flow of traffic.  The total cost of the project should sit at about £92 million.

An 11 mile stretch of the M23 near Gatwick Airport, between junction 8 near Merstham and junction 10 at Copthorne, is being converted to an all-lane running smart motorway at a cost of £164 million.  The scheme will see the hard shoulder converted into a fourth lane between junctions 8 and 10 as well as the hard shoulder along westbound Gatwick Airport spur (towards Junction 9a). Junction layouts will have to be redefined to accommodate the fourth lane, new gantries with variable message signs, installing new electronic information signs, signals, and CCTV cameras – to vary speed limits and manage traffic flow and incidents.

The future of smart motorway construction.

So far, only a fifth of the country’s three-lane network has been converted into smart motorways, 13 years after they were first introduced.  There are plans to double the network to 800 miles by spring 2025. The average value of a smart motorway project that is currently being planned in the UK (and has been costed) is approximately £280 million pounds.  The total adds up to almost £1.7 billion pounds worth of work and includes mammoth projects on the M25 and M63 which will both tickle the £400m mark. Two projects for the M1, and schemes on the M3, M6, and M60 have already been completed; they had an average cost of about £195 million.  So future projects are set to be bigger and better.

But it’s not just about the initial conversion of roads into smart motorways that is driving demand for labour – significant as that may be.  In place of hard shoulders, emergency lay-bys (Emergency Refuge Areas or “ERAs”) are being built as havens for vehicles stranded on busy motorways.  Originally, these were spaced every 1.5 miles (2.5km). This is clearly too far apart, and Highways England has now promised to move the frequency of ERAs from 1.5 miles to every mile.  While the new spacing will come into force on work starting from 2020, these ERAs will have to be retrofitted to existing smart motorways. On the M25 alone, they plan to install 10 additional ERAs.

More work will be generated from repairs and maintenance.  When white lines are grit or water-blasted off roads, the process opens gaps in the asphalt joint.  If lanes are displaced, for example, by half a metre, those points of natural weakness can be put under the wheels of traffic.  Heavy traffic causes stress to road seams and this is exactly what has happened with smart motorways. The M42, the country’s first smart motorway, ended up with a gap along the seem that was 20mm wide, for instance.  Potholes appear when water gets underneath the asphalt, which is particularly dangerous for motorcyclists. They needed emergency repairs and since the road was patched up, the problem has recurred.

So, if you’re in construction, raise a few glasses to smart motorways – just stay off the roads when you do.

Does working on smart motorways sound appealing?  Explore our current construction work vacancies and get in touch with one of our consultants.

Nathan Cooling

Nathan Cooling

associate director - infrastructure - civil engineering