360IT: Highways Agency innovates despite looming spending review

IT at the Highways Agency plays a central role in managing traffic, and technology continues to develop at the organisation despite the public sector's much-discussed...

IT at the Highways Agency plays a central role in managing traffic, and technology continues to develop at the organisation despite the public sector's much-discussed environment of austerity.

Chris Price took up the role of head of ICT more than three years ago, and says IT is crucial to public sector bodies trying to exploit the value of assets they already own.

This autumn's Comprehensive Spending Review is certainly at the forefront of many IT director's minds and Price is no exception, but the agency is still planning and working on a medley of projects that it hopes will help to improve the way traffic flows through the road network in England.

It is still building new parts of its Managed Motorways network, with construction ongoing on the M6 junction 8 to 10A - due to open in spring 2011 - and on the M1 between junctions 10 and 13 in Bedfordshire, due to open in spring 2013.

The scheme uses a variety of technologies to determine whether the hard shoulder should be opened to reduce congestion. Traffic flows are monitored by different systems and intelligent signs regulate speed limits and communicate instructions and information to drivers. The whole operation is monitored by technicians, and the agency says it reduced congestion in pilot areas by 20 per cent.

It also reports that in the five years before the pilot started on the M42, there were seven fatal and 42 serious accidents on the stretch of road near Birmingham. Since 2006 when the trial started there have been no fatalities and only three serious accidents.

Influencing traffic behaviour

"The scheme aims to influence traffic behaviour and direct traffic," Price says. "Technology is heavily associated with it, giving us the information we need to decide whether to open up the hard shoulder."

Information also plays a central role in the agency's second major IT project, the procurement of its national traffic information service. It is in the process of replacing its active traffic information centre and its national traffic control centre, which form a central hub where traffic information is collated. It is then analysed and used to determine the best way to influence driver behaviour. "We process and analyse how we can make people's journeys easier," Price said. The information is also used to update the website's live map which drivers can use to plan their journeys.

Improving traffic information is one part of the agency's strategy, and maintaining and exploiting its assets is another. The organisation looks after A-roads and motorways worth £88bn and also owns structures such as bridges.

It is buying a new system to manage these assets better. The tender process was completed around a month ago, Price says, and the agency is now in the evaluation stage, although any outcome will be "subject to the fiscal constraints."

Motorway at night

Better overall view

The aim is to get a better overall view of everything the agency controls, so in the event of a major incident such as a crash, it will be easier to look at the system, understand what's near to the incident and get an idea of possible implications.

"We have details on our structures, but we want to integrate the view and get a holistic view. At the moment we've got detail on individual assets but not in their collective whole, and this will give us a broader view of the information we currently have."

Communication of all this information is a final important step for technical staff at the agency, and the most recent attempt to connect with drivers is an iPhone application launched in February this year. It provides traffic information, breaking news and links to Traffic Radio. The Agency says more than 250,000 customers have downloaded the application since its launch.

Chris Price will be speaking at 360 IT - the IT infrastructure event at Earl's Court in London on 22-23 September 2010.


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