M11 Hold up, M11 Traffic Jam, M11 Delay, Essex Police Errors, M11 Van fire

Were you on the M11 in Essex on 25th February 2006, travelling either north or south bound? Did you get on to the motorway easily enough, only to find a few miles later that it was gridlocked? Did you, like me, sit there for over five hours and wonder why Essex Police had allowed you on to the motorway in the first place? BBC news reported it as this, but it is a woefully inadequate description when you were part of it.

In the small hours of Saturday morning (25th Feb) there was a broken down lorry between junctions 7 and 6 (southbound). That’s between Harlow and the M25. A van came along to sort it out, but there was a fire (for whatever reason). The van happened to be carrying gas canisters and these are pretty dangerous when they get hot. As far as I can tell from radio reports, the breakdown happened at about 6am or so, and the fire was shortly after that. let’s say 7.30 for argument’s sake. Whatever the actual time, it was pretty early.

Essex police and fire brigade attended the incident, and the fire brigade, with all of their experience in these things, decided it was far too dangerous to allow any vehicles within 200yards of the fire. OK – no problem there.

However, at 10am when I joined the motorway heading south from Junction 8 there was no sign of anything wrong. No warning. No policeman, nothing. As I got on to the carriageway from the slip road a speed warning sign was showing ’40’ – this usually means there has been an accident and we should slow down. Three miles later and there was the back of the queue… at a complete standstill.

Today is my daughter’s birthday, and as a special treat we were taking her to see a show in London. She’s 9 and this was a big thing for her. The matinee starts at 2pm, and even at 10.10am I am thinking it is going to be OK… this is a minor problem and the police would not have let us on to the road if it was serious. The stretch between junction 8 and the next turn off is 12 miles – quite a long way, really.

A heck of a long way when it takes you over five hours to do the distance. Even longer when your daughter misses out on her special day, and even longer still when you lose ��200 of theatre tickets in the process.

So why did this happen?

At 7.30am the fire brigade informed the police that this was a major incident and no cars were to go past. What did the police do about that? They organised for cones to be placed on the M11 funnelling folk off the motorway at junction 7, and then did precisely nothing else. As a result, thousands of people joined at junction 8, or earlier, and were unaware of the delay ahead of them, with no chance of avoiding it. The police MUST have known the road was going to be closed, and yet did nothing to prevent people from joining at earlier junctions, or warning them of the delays before they got on to a stretch of road they couldn’t get off. All it needed was a patrol car at junction 8 stopping cars from joining, and another just before j8 giving cars a chance to use other routes to London or their own destinations. Instead, someone in the Police Force, with all their expensive training and years of experience thought it would be OK to allow folk on to the motorway and let them sit in a humungous queue.

And what do the police say about the problem? We heard from a radio reporter that they wanted to filter us off the motorway at Harlow (J7) but because cars were going along the hard shoulder they *couldn’t*.

That’s right – some selfish people driving along the hard shoulder prevented us all from getting off the motorway. Can you believe that? I certainly can’t. And even if it is true, what were the police doing about these blatant law breakers? Precisely nothing. And why were so many folk driving along the hard shoulder in the first place? Because the Police let them on to a road that was closed and they wanted to get off it as fast as they could. If they had been warned about the closure, perhaps they wouldn’t have got on the road in the first place.

Whichever way you look at it you and I (and anyone else caught in that mess) know it was lack of forethought or application of prior learning which caused me to miss my daughter’s birthday and lose ��200 of tickets.

But mine is a tiny part of the story.

We saw people arguing with the idiots driving along the hard shoulder, we saw children being carried away from their car and walking off to the next junction. We saw people young and old, male and female relieve themselves by the road side as time wore on – forced into indignity by the situation. We saw people leave their cars and return later with carrier bags full of provisions – some lucky folk had managed to get over the fences and walk into Harlow to shop at Tesco! We saw uncounted numbers of children bored to tears, parents at their wit’s end.

We heard on the radio how people missed their flights from Stansted, and how airlines were working hard to re-book the passengers, but worse was the story of a woman trying to get to Heathrow – she was emigrating today and had missed her flight. The airline said they wouldn’t re-book her ‘because they weren’t aware of there being adverse road conditions’. Right. Full marks to Czech airlines for that one.

So what else could the police have done?

Well before 11am (when folk were *still* allowed on to the road) they should have closed the junction. They should have also posted cars along the hard shoulder at various points (or at least posted officers) to stop the stupidity of people thinking they could jump the queue. They should (and could) have arranged for some of the central barriers to be unbolted and allow smaller vehicles through the gap to go back up to junction 8 and continue along alternative routes, reducing the number of people caught up in their mistake. They should have done the same for those folk stuck south of the M25 trying to head north, but at least those folk had the M25 to ‘escape’ to (not much of an escape route, I admit, but more chance of getting to your destination if you can at least leave the M11).

But no. We all had to go off at J7 and on to local roads there. All we could do is turn around and head back. When I got back to junction 8 I noted that (by 5.30pm) the police had at last shut off the road and were directing people on to the A120 and other local routes. Why did it take them nearly 12 hours to do this most basic of jobs? Who on earth thought it was still OK to get cars travelling along a stretch of motorway that was closed, for so long?

I mentioned prior learning. Remember 2003 when the snow fall kept folk in their cars overnight on the very same stretch, and the report from the highway agency recommending more ‘joined up thinking’? What was learned then about dealing with emergencies? So who is at fault here? No – it *isn’t* all those folk zipping along the hard shoulder – it’s the idiot who decided it was OK to let them on to the road in the first place, hours and hours after it was made clear the road would be closed.

So that is what I am paying my council tax for?

If you were in that mess today, what was the impact on you? Why not let everyone know here – leave a comment (keep it clean) and let’s send them to the highways agency and Essex Police. It’s about time someone took responsibility for these things, and became accountable for the very bad job they appear to be doing.

Edit – March 06 – click here for the response I received from the Highways Agency.

21 thoughts on “M11 Hold up, M11 Traffic Jam, M11 Delay, Essex Police Errors, M11 Van fire

  • 4 March, 2006 at 10:41 am

    We arrived to Stanstead about 8.00 AM from Stockholm. Due to track maintenance, the Stanstead Express was replaced with buses (I had bought train tickets a couple of weeks earlier via the web and they said nothing about a planned track maintenance at that time, so this thing about giving relevant information to the right people at the right time seems to need a little improvement in general in England…).

    Anyway, we got on one of those buses at 8.45. No problems so far and my two kids, who have never been to England before, were still thrilled. Around 9.00 it started to get slower…and slower…and then you know the rest.

    Since this was a short 4-day vacation for us (the kids were free from school this last week), we had chosen an early flight in order to get a whole extra day in London. But we arrived to the hotel after 3 PM…

    The start of our vacation could have had a better start…

  • 6 March, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    A very good account of what happened. We joined at approx 11:00 from junction 8 and got off sometime around 19:00. We just turned around and headed North up the quiet M11. We still clocked five miles of queues at this point.

    At this time the police were escorting people the wrong way back up the South bound carriage way to junction 8. Don’t they realise that if they had closed the road earlier in the day the amount of people they would need to turn around would have been much less – or did they want the overtime?

    I was listening to Essex FM and thought the Highways Agency spokesman was a joke. However at least he had the guts to go on the radio as did the fire officer. Conspicuous by their absence was a spokesperson from Essex Police – I wonder why.

    Later that week an article in the local paper stated the spokesperson from Essex Police said that people were driving down the hard shoulder making it dangerous for them to enter the motorway! What isn’t that their job. How come they can get out of their cars on the hard shoulder under normal conditions when vehicles are passing at 70mph? They just wanted to shift the blame away from themselves.

    I was absolutely disgusted with the way everyone was still allowed onto the M11 hours after the incident and the complete lack of coordination in the management of the situation. I thought of writing to Essex Police but have wasted enough time in that queue to get fobbed off by a standard reply letter. And to think money I pay in council tax goes to these idiots.

  • 6 March, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Indeed – council tax at times like this really ought to give better value!

    Thanks for your comments – I’ll add them to the eventual letter I write 😉

  • 27 February, 2006 at 6:14 pm

    Agree with all your comments. I very narrowly avoided getting stuck on the M11 – was trying to join at Harlow heading North but the roundabout was gridlocked. I used the Orange 1740 service to check the road conditions and it stated “severe delays – avoid”, this was at 9:30. Had just purchased a SatNav unit so finding an alternative route was very easy. Also just got an ice->Link Plus for the iPod (which is why I found your site). Thanks for providing such a comprehensive file list etc. – the Dension site is very poor although I did eventually get some installation info from the USA site.

  • 28 February, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    I agree with all you say about Saturdays debacle on the M11.
    I was stuck on there from 0930-1630.
    1630 being the time when my stepdaughter and her boyfriend should have been sittng down to watch the Rat Pack in a London theatre.
    No refund on tickets there either.
    I was one of the people remonstrating with the egotists using the hard shoulder.Lucky for them that I wasn`t driving an old dump truck.Might have got the police off thier fat asses if I was though.I don`t suppose anyone will be found accountable for everyones financial losses.
    Cheers,,Alan (fed up with this country) Flint

  • 9 March, 2006 at 4:54 pm

    So glad that I have found this site I needed to vent about what a nightmare Sat 25th Feb was for me!

    We got onto the M11 at 10.15am from the A11 due to board a 2pm flight to Grenoble from Gatwick to start a holiday which had been booked since August 2005…alas it was not to be!

    We came to a grinding halt approx 5 miles from the Harlow junction and sat there for 6 hours…missed our flight and had to fork out an extra ¬£500 for new flights and transfers later that day.

    By 4pm we had to use the hard shoulder to get out of the jam to ensure we didn’t miss our newly booked flight. This was ironic as when we finally got to the Harlow junction the hard shoulder was being used as one of the ‘release’ lanes off the main motorway!

    The best part? My holiday insurance are refusing to pay out! So I would like to ask who is going to reimburse my ¬£500? The Highways Agency or Essex Police for woefully inadaquate management of the situation…I think not!

    Hal I would be interested to hear what you learn from the Highways Agency. If they intent to offer any compensation.


  • 27 February, 2006 at 9:32 am

    Totally agree with with everything you say..I was in the same jam

  • 27 February, 2006 at 3:23 pm

    Well Hal, I think you have described it superbly. I’ve spent some time since Saturday searching for any other comments from others who were snarled up on the M11.

    I think the police were very fortunate that the majority of people remained calm and good natured throughout and that nobody (as far as know) suffered badly through illness etc. I was listening to the Ten 17 radio broadcast throughout and it seemed to me that although they were pressing for information, very little was given to them so they weren’t able to pass on much to us. The Highways Agency “spokesman” was in my view an absoulte disgrace. He didn’t seem to know a great deal about the situation and he didn’t seem overly concerned about it either! I wonder what happened to the supplies of food and water he said they were looking into? That’s all they did..look into it, we would never have been given anything as it’s not in their “plan”.

    I’ve heard today that the Agency and Police are having a meeting to discuss future plans in the event of a similar occurence. I’m somewhat concerned that they had no previous strategy as was evident on Saturday. Surely there should be a contingency emergency plan to clear the motorway of traffic bearing in mind the locality (Stansted etc)?

    In my view, the police acted way too casually to the whole event..we only saw some serious activity after I had been in the queue for some 8 hours. There is no way they should have even considered allowing traffic to enter at junction 8 from the moment junctions 6 to 7 were closed. Saturday after all, is a busy day for traffic on the M11 and surrounding roads and common sense should have told them there would be a major build up of traffic in the area. They also failed people with flight bookings badly and bearing in mind the fact that there was a bus service replacing part of the Stansted Express route..this should have been taken into account as well.

    I joined the M11 at 11.30am and finally came off at junction 7 at 8.20pm. I’m sorry to hear your day was ruined as well and I felt especially sorry for those parents with children who were caught up in it too. For me..¬£40.00 wasted on a ticket to watch Palace v Norwich..if only there was an effective way that they could be made to refund consequential losses to businesses and individuals affected then we might have seen a much speedier response!

  • 27 February, 2006 at 3:47 pm

    Yes – Mr Highways Agency Spokesman was a waste of space – or rather air-time. I was also listening to 10-17 and wondered about the food, too.

    The previous time there was a foul up was following the bad weather – the report I linked to suggests that there needs to be some ‘joined up thinking’ and recommendations made. That was in 2003. Here we are three years later and what is the impact of that report (which will have cost us tax payers money)?

    Nothing of any substance, that’s for sure! I am looking at ways of taking a complaint further – police complaints commission, Highways Agency -whatever it is… someone needs to be made accountable for these events, and as far as I can see no-one actually is taking any responsibility, so we can expect to see it repeated over and over.

    Of course, as long as the motorist using the hard shoulder is used as a scapegoat for the delays on Saturday, and incomprehensible ineptitude is glossed over, we can expect nothing better.

  • 1 March, 2006 at 9:43 am

    Thanks for your comment Alan – I did see more than one person ‘entering into dialogue’ with the hard shoulder jockeys, perhaps you were the person who jumped out of his car to support a woman who was standing in the hard shoulder and blocking a 7.5 ton truck from going along…

    As for accountability, I wrote to the highways agency asking for the name of the officer in charge on Saturday. It was neatly deflected, of course, but there is a ‘meeting’ and my comments are supposed to be being passed on. I was promised a response within ten days, so let’s see what happens, shall we?

    I would love there to be a system of financial compensation brought in to help cover losses when a reasonable time has passed at such incidents. By reasonable, I would think no mre than two hours. Beyond this we should be able to claim losses… and if that were the case, I bet the junctions would be closed quicker, and teams would open the central reservations much faster to get folk out of the jams!

  • 4 March, 2006 at 8:49 pm

    I do feel sorry for you – I bet your story is repeated over and over with folk who either flew in to Stansted or were planning on flying out from there last Saturday. I hope the poor introduction to English traffic didn’t dampen the holiday too much for you all. Thanks for adding your ‘story’!

  • 9 March, 2006 at 8:57 pm

    Hi Kate – thanks for the comment. It seems you were one of many, many folk who missed out on something important that day.

    This could easily be the place to collect all of the stories about the impact on people – I’d love to take this one as far as I can with regards to the accountability of the highways agency or police force.

    Don’t get me wrong – I’m not an anarchist, but I really believe we are being given a raw deal by the Highways Agency over this kind of event. No-one seems able to say just who is responsible for taking decisions.

    I wrote to them and had an email saying they would reply *within* ten working days. Tomorrow is the tenth working day… I will then respond to them and ask the same questions I have already asked, and then ask why they saw fit not to reply, and who is accountable for their customer service.

    It really isn’t good enough to justify the money that we have to ‘donate’ to them through all kinds of taxes.

    It’s simple – we are owed an explanation, and they are the ones who owe it.

  • 6 April, 2008 at 9:49 am

    You may be interested although disappointed to hear that by 6th April the situation was no different. We entered the M11 at the A14 intersection at 10.30am yesterday morning totally oblivious, unfortunately, to the fact that at 8.30am around junction 6 there had been a serious accident and the road was closed. It was not until we passed Junction 8 and came to standstill that we heard on BBC2 travel report of the predicament. We then sat for 4 hours moving very slowly until we reached Junction 7. We were speechless that we were even able to enter the motorway in the first place and just appalled that we weren’t directed off at the Stansted junction. Interestingly leading upto and just beyond the Stansted junction there was an advisory 50 sign flashing. About 1 mile before the standstill the sign said END!

  • 6 April, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Hey Ho …nothing learned, nothing changed…exactly the same situation yesterday (Saturday 5th April) …serious accident at 8.30 am on southbound M11…I drive onto it from the A120 Stansted at 10.15am and hit a solid wall of stationary traffic and sit there for 5 hours…eventually to filter off at Harlow. This was after watching lots of selfish so & so’s drive down the hard shoulder. At 6.00pm I came back up the M11 – the southbound lanes were now opened and I was amazed to see that the Essex ‘plods’ had decided to close the end of the A120 and divert everyone through Bishop’s Stortford even though the moterway was open!!!! Where is common sense? who is in charge? Surely someone should take ‘ownership’ of these cock-ups?

  • 6 April, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    I can’t begin to describe how I would have felt in your position. As luck would have it I was on the J8 roundabout just before 11am and they had by then closed off the southbound carriageway. I ended up heading to Kent via Chelmsford and the A12, but it was only by luck I was a bit late. Had I left at the usual time I would have happily sailed right onto the M11 to be caught again in another inexcusable foul up.

    We really seem to have absolutely no recourse over any of this. As members of the voting public we cannot actually make any meaningful representation or get any satisfactory answer, or compensation, for these appalling decisions.

    There is no complaints department for the Highways department that will give you any satisfactory response… see the letter I got last time!

    However, please DO write to them, and to whatever MP you happen to have. This is such a long stretch of motorway with no other means of getting off it that I really believe there needs to be an emergency slip created somewhere just before Harlow – how about Church Langley? Whilst not at all nice for the good folks of that particular housing estate, it would provide some welcome relief for weary travellers caught up once again in the cock-ups that seem to happen all too often.

    As for sending the traffic through Bishops Stortford – I can’t imagine how that was thought to be sensible. The roads through the town towards Harlow snarl up quickly with just local traffic. Far better to have directed people along the 120 towards Hertford and down the A10 to rejoin the M25 at Enfield, I’d have thought. Either way though, it’s a long diversion or a long wait in pretty static traffic. Given the option, I’d rather drive further but keep moving than sit in a queue.

  • 7 April, 2008 at 10:45 am

    We too were caught up in this incident. We were travelling north bound at around 9.00 am and saw that there had been an accident. However, the vehicle had gone over the side of the motorway and there was nothing to be seen on the carriagway. Returning later at about 1200 we joined the motorway southbound at Stansted and travelled about a mile before joining the queue and sat there for two hours. I did not see too many cars trying to get down the hard shoulder but I did see a red estate car with three women in it driving down the hard shoulder BACK THE WAY WE HAD COME!! Please God there was a policeman somewhere.

    There was just no excuse for traffic being allowed to join the motorway that much later after the accident. In any case there was nothing on the carriageway. I understand some joyrider had been killed, his mate flown by air ambulance to hospital and another one had run off over the fields. If no-one was trapped and needed rescuing did they really need to shut the whole motorway to recover the vehicle when there was such a build up. Luckily we did not need to be anywhere by a set time.

    My sister who was with me believes that there is a general rule in this country that things are made as difficult as possible in order to stop people driving!

  • 7 April, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Good grief… hard shoulder jockeys ought to be banned. I wonder how they tried to talk their way out of the situation when they reached the top of the slip road which was by then coned off and staffed with coppers?

    OK, so if there was a death then I can begin to understand the need to have a forensic team there to investigate, and that there needs to be some reduction in traffic to enable them to carry out their work safely… it’s in all our interests, after all.

    However, to fail to notify drivers that they ought to leave at the previous junction is a complete nonsense – there really is no excuse for it given the high possibility that there would be a backlog of traffic and idiots driving back up the motorway. Sending traffic through a small market town instead of round the trunk roads is another nonsense. I really cannot see how these decisions can be justified… and I agree with your sister’s appraisal of traffic in the UK. Let’s not even start on road tax and why my car gets damaged from all of the potholes in the roads. And then there’s the price of petrol… or more specifically, Diesel. We get stuffed every which way – speed cameras, road tax, fuel surcharges, incompetence in directing traffic, poor road repairs. Jeez. I wish I hadn’t started thinking along these lines – I need to go out for a soothing drive in the country lanes. Oh.. perhaps not.

  • 10 April, 2008 at 10:38 am

    We was travelling down from Middlesbrough to Harlow on Sat 5th April. We usually travel down the A1(M), then the A14 onto the M11 southbound to junction 7. Thankfully at junction 44 on tha A1(M) just north of Lincoln at around midday there was a sign to say that the M11 was closed. This was to encourage people to use the M1 and then the M25 instead of the A14 and M11. We were still a good 2 and half hours away from the M11 so I knew it must be serious as they had anticipated that it still would not be open by the time we got there. I still stayed on the A1(M) but got on the phone to my mum who continued to check the M11s progress and in the end I continued on the A1(M) and then went through Stevenage. I thought that the fact they were warning people that far away was very good and saved me a lot of hassle. On the other hand they clearly didnt think of the people who were actually close to the road!!! I understand though that the most important thing when there is a crash is to make it safe for the victims and oncoming cars however it is a shame that there are not enough people (be it the police or highways agency) to deal with the crash and warn people at the same time!

  • 14 April, 2008 at 6:59 am

    Interesting honest article!!! We too missed a flight. We live about 40mins from Stansted, so thought leaving 1pm for a 4.35pm flight should give us loads of time. Frustratingly we were at Stansted before 2pm, and could see the terminal!!! But could not get there! We walked about a mile up to a round about, only to be told by police that the main roundabout where the services are was about to be cleared. That was about 2.30pm. Guess what!!! Nothing moved. It was probably nearer 5.30pm when we finally got to the terminal. We were flying Easy Jet who were probably as helpful as they could have been in view of the circumstances, but the bottom line was we had to pay £35 each to change our flights to the 7am one the following day, and we ended up paying £105 a room for two hotel rooms, as our friends were driving and had further to travel home and back the following morning. The organisation, or should I say DIS-organisation, by the services was appauling. Of course, our sympathy goes to those directly involved in the tragic accident, and what we suffered was minor to what they must be going through, but surely, such a long time after the accident, things could have been handled MUCH better. At no point did we see a police man to redirect or assist (apart from when we walked miles to be told the situation was easing!!! which was clearly not the case!) So it put a massive damper (and increased costs!) to our holiday.

  • 16 April, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Thanks for that, Tina – sounds like you have had a bit of a nightmare from it all as well. Why on earth we keep getting such a poor response from the highways agency, repeatedly over a number of years, is beyond me. It is high time they improved their level of service to all of the other road users caught up in their messes and took responsibility for what happens. I am not looking for scapegoats here, but a sincere resolve to make things better.

    Warning signs in the midlands as Jen said are all very well, and she puts the point marvelously… what use were they to those folk who needed a warning a lot nearer to the junction?

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