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

  • 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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