On 4 February at 01:50 we received notification from Central Motorway Police Group (CMPG) of a road traffic collision (RTC) on the M6 between Jct 5 and 6.
We immediately dispatched resources to the scene to support CMPG, assist with management of traffic and provide incident screens to protect the dignity of any potential injured or deceased party.
Our first unit arrived at 02:05 and at 01:53 we set overhead message signs in the local area warning motorists of the incident. We began the process of communicating this incident to the public, sending our first tweet at 2:04 and media alerts at 02:14.
By 02:22 we had set a strategic signing plan on overhead signs intended to inform motorists outside the local vicinity allowing them to take alternate routes avoiding the closure.
At 02:08, CMPG confirmed this was a fatality and that a road death investigation would be required. We continued to implement necessary road closures and activated the Agreed Diversion Route (ADR), part of our Area Contingency Plan (ACP). This is a pre-signed and agreed route along adjacent roads which bypasses the closed section of motorway as part of this procedure at 03:32, we informed Birmingham City Council of the incident.
At 07:10 the police granted Highways England limited access to the scene. They had completed their road death investigation and were about to start forensic body and vehicle recovery operations. We immediately noticed a contamination of the road surface, which we identified as diesel fuel, reporting this back to our Regional Control Centre at 07:11.
In accordance with our standard operating procedures, we made arrangements to mitigate the effect of a diesel spill and limit further deterioration of the carriageway by spreading absorbent material on the surface but were unable to begin this activity until 09.06 when the police vehicle recovery operation was complete.
Based on our assessment of the contamination, it was our expectation that the road surface could be recovered without the need for a costly and time consuming resurfacing and at the very least, it was recoverable to a standard where it would be safe to open the road temporarily pending later resurfacing.
At 11:00 we concluded mitigation activities and had made a further detailed assessment of the surface. It was determined that damage caused to our road by this tragic incident was too extensive to safely carry traffic and that resurfacing would be required before it was safe to reopen the road. We took the decision at this time to escalate from routine operations to regional alert.
Regional alert is the first stage of escalation within Highways England’s Crisis Management Manual, which forms our operational plan for significant disruptive events. It provides a framework for the co-ordination of tactical level command activity.
Our first regional alert co-ordination group meeting was held at 11:45 via teleconference where senior managers from across the organisation and supply chain discussed the various options available and determined our response. Alongside this activity, colleagues from our supply chain were mobilising the necessary resources and materials to conduct an extensive resurfacing operation.
Among the options discussed but discarded were the possibilities of allowing traffic to run on the damaged surface or to plane away the damaged surface and allow traffic to run on the exposed base layer.
We decided not to pursue the first option because of a significant risk of further road traffic collisions due to slippery road surface and the potential for additional damage to the road; which in turn might jeopardise our ability to re-open prior to the morning peak 5 February 5.
The second option was ruled out primarily on grounds of safety as no evidence or data was available to support the validity of available safety mitigations. It was also highly unlikely that the planing, temporary road markings and traffic management could be completed before it was necessary to commence overnight resurfacing operation.
As serious and disruptive as this incident was, the suspension of tolls on the M6 toll road was not formally considered as it did not meet the criteria for activating this contingency.
Had the suspension of tolls been considered, it would have been discounted on the grounds that it would take too long to implement the required traffic management to be a significant benefit. It is also worthy of note that the installation of traffic management on the M6 Toll to facilitate ‘toll free’ operation would have created significant disruption on that road for several hours causing further disruption to journeys.
By 13:16 we had located and mobilised a surface planer. A second regional alert co-ordination group teleconference was held at 14:00 to review progress and determine if the current strategy remained valid.
By 15:20 the resurfacing crew was on scene and work started to repair the damaged carriageway. There was a third RACG teleconference at 17:00 to review the situation and confirm our strategy. At 18:34 at our request, police provided assistance to Highways England ‘tarmac’ trucks which were having difficulty accessing the scene through heavy traffic.
At 21:04 the resurfacing activity was complete and the white lining crew were on scene. Once the surface material had cured sufficiently, road markings were started at 23:45 and were completed by 00:48. By 01:04 the road studs had been re-inserted and it was confirmed that all road workers were accounted for and it was safe to begin opening the road.
A rolling road block was implemented by traffic officer service at 01:13 and traffic management operatives began lifting cones at 01:20. By 01:45 it was confirmed that all traffic management had been removed and traffic officers led motorists through the newly resurfaced section under controlled conditions before releasing traffic to free flowing status.
We continued to provide real-time information and media updates during the incident to help inform and advise road users
Following the incident we facilitated a structured debrief to identify areas of best practice and learn any lessons that could be applied to future incidents. In this process we ask those involved in managing the incident to view their own decisions and those of their colleagues with the benefit of hindsight, in a harsh and critical light.
All parties involved demonstrated their integrity, honesty and a clear commitment to continual improvement; making no effort to shift blame or enhance their own position at the expense of others.
While we have identified a number of recommendations for improvement, it remains our assessment that there were very few opportunities to significantly affect the timeline of this incident. A working group has since been set up to implement those recommendations.
A key area of improvement is our interaction with authorities not directly involved in road transport management, and we look forward to working with them to put appropriate measures in place.
We recognise the disruption to lives and cost to the economy complex incidents like this cause. We too are road users, and have experienced the frustration and misery of being caught in traffic first hand.
Nobody at Highways England wants to close a road and we remain committed to learning from every experience to improve the service we offer to the communities served by our network.