A major new traffic initiative, which is about to be launched, could spell the end of delays caused by traffic congestion on the main roads of England. Given the go-ahead by the government in last year’s Transport White Paper, the £30m Traffic Control Centre (TCC) project is expected to make use of cutting-edge technology, including the latest advances in transport telematics, to gather real-time traffic data for the information of drivers. The aim is that the data, which will initially be fed to road users through the existing network of variable message signs (VMS), will eventually be so sophisticated that computers will be able to forecast congestion problems several hours in advance and offer motorists alternative routes. Billed as a partnership between the Highways Agency and the private sector, the national scheme is the first of its kind anywhere in the world to deal with the problems of traffic movement over such a wide area. Included in the battery of proposals for the centres is the development of computer modelling techniques that will build up a picture of traffic movements over the whole country, predicting where and when delays are likely to occur. Warnings will then be relayed to drivers up to 50 miles away with advice on alternative routes. In addition to the variable message signs, the information will be relayed using dedicated short-range microwave technology, commercial radio broadcasts and radio data services (see the box on the following page). Following the collapse of the “predict and provide” policy that has sustained traffic management strategy in this country for the past 25 years, there has been a clear need to find alternative means of dealing with the expected doubling of demand for road space over the next quarter century. Two years ago, the then minister of railways, roads and local transport, John Watts, first proposed the introduction of traffic control centres as a means of achieving a more efficient use of the primary route network. The idea is that, with a strategic overview of the roads made possible by the introduction of intelligent transport systems, TCCs will be able to assume overall control of around 70% of the main inter-urban roads in England. Part of the problem that the proposed TCCs have to overcome is that while information is currently available to motorists through a range of media, including variable message signs and commercial radio broadcasts, it is generally perceived to be out of date and therefore irrelevant. Transmission of real-time, as-it-happens information will, according to the Highways Agency, persuade drivers to accept the data as a true reflection of what is happening and begin to change their behaviour. As soon as motorists can be convinced of the reliability of the information relating to their journeys, many of the hold-ups associated with heavy demand for road space should be avoided by advanced planning. Day-to-day control of traffic movement is currently in the hands of the police, working from 32 largely autonomous traffic control offices dotted around the country. There is little or no communication between the offices and no strategic overview of the network. Police responsibility is confined to responding to specific incidents, educating drivers through advice and/or prosecution and, where possible, maintaining the free flow of traffic. In this sense, their duties are entirely tactical. Information received from various sources, including their own patrols and other drivers, is posted onto the overhead VMS gantries but tends, for good reason, to be rudimentary. Traffic bulletins are also broadcast by various radio stations and other service providers, but they contain information from the police and other sources that is often out of date. What is now proposed is the creation of a small number of control centres (probably three), owned by the Highways Agency, but initially built and run by a private sector consortium, which will sell safety-critical, real-time traffic information back to the Highways Agency. Additional information and the spare communications capacity in the fibre-optic cables that line England’s primary routes will almost certainly be sold or leased to private service providers with the revenue passing to the consortia running the centres. The consortia – there may be several to ensure an adequate level of competition – are also expected to develop computer models to predict the minute-by-minute demand for road space. Also in the interests of competition, they will have to use an open system architecture for the two-way flow of information between drivers and service providers. John Robinson, network strategy team manager for the Highways Agency, says that although TCCs will be built and staffed by private consortia, the agency will not be giving up its responsibility for the network. “The contracts will be on the same basis as the Design, Build, Finance and Operate system so that we will be paying the consortia to provide motorists with safety critical information free of charge. We know from our market research that there is a great deal of interest from organisations that see a market for the provision of additional information to road users.” For drivers, the creation of the TCCs should bring significant benefits, but the benefits for a consortium seeking to run the centres are less easy to see, particularly in the short term. Industry sources predict that, within the next five years, close to 50% of new cars will be fitted with transceivers that enable them to receive and transmit data on road conditions and much else besides, and the Highways Agency, in partnership with a number of companies in the private sector, is currently developing a telematics system that will permit the flow of information between roadside beacons and passing cars. But while there is considerable potential for growth in this field, the technology is still being developed and, at least as far as transport telematics is concerned, there is not yet a world-wide communications standard. There is also doubt that the demand for value-added traffic information, for which individuals and organisations running fleets will have to pay, will be of sufficient volume to provide the revenue streams required. In the early days the Highways Agency expects most of the safety critical information to be conveyed to drivers through VMS gantries, but it admits that there are still too few of these to adequately cover the roads. Companies such as AA Roadwatch, the RAC and Trafficmaster already provide a limited data service, and it is possible that these three at least would be in the market for the comprehensive data that TCCs will collect. The question is whether there will be sufficient demand from these companies (and others like them) to make the whole venture worth the financial risk. OUT ON THE ROADS RIGHT NOW … In the UK, a £2m RDS-TMC (Radio Data System – Traffic Message Channel) communications system providing up-to-the-minute traffic information for drivers equipped with appropriate receivers was launched in October last year. Based on information provided by the AA and the RAC, the system is expected to cover all major English conurbations by the end of this year. Drivers will have to pay for the service. In concert with Trafficmaster, the RAC also launched a new service last summer called Traffic Alert 1210, which is designed to warn drivers of traffic delays up to 25 kilometres ahead. The basic unit offered is one manufactured by Trafficmaster, which has a series of LED lights that warn of congestion. The information is collected via a network of buried movement detection loops in the road. BMW and Vauxhall fit Trafficmaster products as standard; other drivers can install a range of post factory navigation systems. Any dynamic route-guidance system that relies on a roadside infrastructure in the UK requires a DETR licence. At the moment Trafficmaster is the sole licensee. It is extending its monitoring cameras to cover 90% of trunk roads. Alternatively, third generation Inmarsat satellites now contain a navigational signal that is able to provide positional data to vehicles on the move through a process known as DGPS. These signals are transmitted to vehicles fitted with special receivers via commercial service providers such as the AA and RAC. Except in the case of safety critical information, the data has to be paid for. The pilot project for the Highways Agency Road Traffic Advisor Project is on the M4 between London and Swansea. It will eventually supply drivers with real-time information about what is happening ahead through a network of roadside beacons using the microwave DSRC standard. The information will largely be free but specialist hardware is required to receive the data.
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