Roads Minister John Hayes has agreed to undertake an urgent review into how the design and construction of the Sheppey Crossing was conducted.
This follows a claim that the Highways Agency failed to adopt recommendations made in its own Road Safety Audit and ignored the safety advice of Kent Police when design and construction of the Sheppey Crossing took place.
This claim was made in an email sent by a retired police officer, Richard Denyer, who contacted Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson following a radio interview the MP made in which he called for a review of safety on the bridge following a huge pile up in 2013 and a tragic accident last year in which a mother and son were killed.
Mr Denyer, who was the Kent Police Traffic Management Officer for the Swale Area during the period when the Sheppey Crossing was being built, alleged he had weekly meetings with the Highways Agency during which he raised his concerns regarding the safety of the bridge.
For instance, he raised concerns about the lack of a refuge should a motor vehicle breakdown on the bridge.
He said: “There was not any places of safety for stranded motorists. No place for stranded motorists and nowhere to walk off the bridge and summon assistance.”
Mr Denver expressed concerns also about visibility on the bridge, maintaining that a motorist travelling over the brow of the bridge from Sheppey towards Iwade who was confronted by a stationary vehicle would have a maximum of 150 metres in which to react by taking avoiding action or stopping. This, he explained, did not take into account the likelihood of other vehicles already being stationary behind the broken down vehicle.
Mr Denyer alleged in his email that right up until the official opening of the bridge he requested the following safety features:-
1) Low level fluorescent strip lighting along the inside of the concrete parapet
2) A safe walkway for stranded motorists to get off the bridge
3) Emergency telephones at regular intervals on the bridge
4) Matrix signs on the approach to the bridge from either side to warn of fog and other dangers
5) Gates at either end of the bridge, similar to the gates that protect motorway slip roads, which could be closed in an emergency.
Mr Denyer alleged also that in the month leading up to the bridge’s opening Highways Agency staff admitted, but added that construction was seriously over budget and there was no money left to make any of the changes he had requested.
His allegations were backed up by information sent to Mr Henderson by Minster Parish Council, which had been obtained under the Freedom Of Information Act.
It revealed the Road Safety Audit (RSA) Stage 2 report made to the Highways Agency by Mott MacDonald in 2005 expressed concern about the gradient of the bridge, which could result “in a higher than expected rate of nose to tail type collisions.”
Mott MacDonald also recommended that there should be more signage to warn of problems in high winds, fog and mist. But these recommendations were rejected.
Mr Henderson said: “These documents make clear that the Highways Agency was warned about the safety risks presented by the design of the bridge and it is clear also that doing something to introduce the recommended safety measures was rejected on the grounds of cost.
“Frankly, I think it is a scandal also that a government department should ignore the advice of the police and its own Road Safety Audit on such an important issue in order to save money.
“I think whoever took the decision to put money before safety has a number of serious questions to answer and I want to see the reasons for that decision investigated.
“Last week I met with the Roads Minister, the Rt Hon John Hayes MP, and he has agreed to undertake an urgent review into how the design and construction of the Sheppey Crossing was conducted. Mr Hayes promised also to undertake an immediate review of what steps are needed to make the bridge safe.
“I am delighted with the Minister’s promise because right now I am less interested in recriminations against those who so badly messed up the design and construction of the bridge than I am in seeing put in place as soon as possible some of the safety measures that we have been calling for since the multi car pile-up in 2013.”
In a statement, the Highways Agency said: “Safety is always our top priority, and we remain absolutely committed to keeping journeys on the Sheppey Crossing safe and reliable. The bridge was designed and built in compliance with all relevant design and safety standards, and we keep its safety record continually under review.
“The fog-related incident on the Crossing in September 2013 was fully investigated by the police; the investigation concluded there was nothing to suggest the road infrastructure played a part.
“The tragic incident that happened last July is still under investigation by the Coroner’s office and the HA are cooperating with the ongoing investigation. It would be inappropriate at this time to pre-empt any of its conclusions or recommendations.”