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Police commissioner’s M6 traffic chaos probe raises more questions than answers

Police commissioner’s M6 traffic chaos probe raises more questions than answers

🕔18.Mar 2016

An attempt by West Midlands police commissioner David Jamieson to find out why a tragic accident left the M6 through Birmingham closed for 24 hours resulting in widespread traffic chaos raised far more questions than answers, writes Paul Dale.

The chief constable of the West Midlands, the head of the police motorway patrol group, officials from Highways England and traffic officers from Birmingham, Solihull, Warwickshire and Coventry councils took part in a public examination ordered by the police commissioner.

They were there, not to apportion blame, as Mr Jamieson reminded them, but to “learn lessons” as to why the M6 between junction 5 and 6 had to be closed from about 2am on February 4 to 2am the following day, and crucially why it took the authorities so long to discover a lethal oil spillage that necessitated a time-consuming resurfacing of the motorway.

Both West Midlands Police, represented by chief constable Dave Thompson, and the Central Motorway Patrol Group, represented by Supt Paul Keasy, were adamant that they had acted efficiently and in a timely manner given the circumstances facing officers when they arrived at the fatal crash.

The crash area, a crime scene, had to be secured with “dignity” in mind for relatives of the young man killed in the accident and that meant even officials from Highways England could not be permitted access for some seven hours. Mr Keasy, invited by the commissioner to award the police marks out of ten for their efforts, modestly gave his force “eight and a half to nine”.

The chief constable, who himself spent several hours stuck on the motorway, admitted he had been “on the cusp” of declaring the closure a “major incident” but did not in the end do so. He would have done so had temperatures plummeted leading to a danger of hypothermia afflicting hundreds of motorists trapped in their cars.

Highways England’s representatives at the hearing were equally clear that they had operated according to their “protocols” and could not have opened the motorway any earlier given the circumstances they faced.

A de-brief report prepared by Highways England after the incident, leaked to the press, turned out to contain several inaccuracies, although the officials at the hearing could not say what these inaccuracies were.

The slightly bemused council officials explained that, whatever protocols were in existence, none of their authorities had received any direct communication from Highways England in the hours after the accident asking for assistance in warning motorists to stay away from the M6 and to take alternative routes.

Mr Jamieson began by pointing out that the reputational damage to the West Midlands flowing from the chaos caused by closing the M6 for so long was considerable and would put off firms thinking about moving to the region.

One of the many emails sent to the commissioner by an angry member of the public spoke of multiple failure by public agencies that had made the West Midlands a laughing stock.

The facts to emerge from the hearing, such as they were, included:

  • West Midlands councils have no formal agreement with Highways England about steps to take in the event of a major incident.
  • No advice was given to the councils by Highways England to divert traffic away from the M6.
  • When Highways England does send notification to councils of incidents there is no system for grading the seriousness of what has happened.
  • Highways England gained limited access to the crash site at 3.25 am, but did not detect any sign of a diesel spillage. A decision to re-surface the motorway was taken at 11.52 am, some ten hours after the accident occurred.
  • Highways England has no specific plan to deal with incidents occurring in the Birmingham motorway box covering the M6, M5 and M42.

A report of the hearing by Mr Jamieson is likely to contain several recommendations for far closer working arrangements between the police, councils and Highways England. The report may also dwell on why, given the obvious smell of spilt diesel, it took the authorities several hours to decide the best course of action was to re-surface 200 metres of the M6.

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