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A Brief History of UK Motorways

By: Kevin Watson MSc - Updated: 22 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
 
Motorway Network M1 M25 M6 Longest First

The motorway network has transformed life in the UK. People don’t have to rely on trains and planes for fast personal and business travel.

Preston Bypass

The first UK motorway was the Preston Bypass. Opened by Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, in 1958, the bypass provided tourists with a faster road route to the Lake District and Blackpool. The Preston Bypass is now part of the M6.

The M1

The first full-length motorway in the UK was the M1. The initial stretch of road opened in December 1959. It gave motorists the chance to drive 50 miles from St Albans to Rugby as fast as they could manage – there was no speed limit for motorways at the time. The M1 had three lanes each way. The design team anticipated that it would cope with about 14,000 vehicles each day. More than 50 years later, the motorway bears the weight of around 140,000 vehicles per day.

During the 1960s, construction continued on the M1. The road pushed further and further north. Today it begins at the A406 in London and finishes at the A1(M) at Hook Moor. Its length is 200 miles.

Longest Motorway

The M1 is not the UK’s longest motorway, however. This honour falls to the M6. In a sense, the M6 is a spur of the M1: it begins at the M1’s junction 19. From here it runs up through the heart of the UK for 236 miles. Construction began with the Preston Bypass in 1958. Other sections followed throughout the next decade and finished in 1971. The end of the M6 is at Gretna in Scotland where it becomes the A74(M).

Toll Motorway

The M6 passes through some of the UK’s most populous areas. In 1980, to help ease the traffic around one of the busiest – Birmingham – the government proposed a motorway bypass. But politicians dragged their heels. And the possibility of a bypass looked even bleaker because of spending restraints. The government then suggested that the bypass should be a toll motorway. And in 1991, Midland Expressway Ltd won a 53-year concession to construct, maintain and run the M6 Toll Motorway.

The M6 Toll opened in December 2003. It runs for 27 miles from Cannock to Coleshill, both of which are on the M6.

Most Notorious

Of all the remaining motorways in the UK, the M25 is the most notorious. This is largely due to its use and cost. The M25 is more popular than its designers expected. The amount of traffic brings large stretches to a halt every day, especially during the rush hours. The result is that motorists often refer to the M25 as the UK’s biggest car park or the Road to Hell.

The other cause of the M25’s infamy is its cost. When it opened in 1986, the price of the motorway’s construction was £7.7 million a mile. The total cost of its full length – 118 miles – was £909 million. And since 1986, the M25 has proved expensive to maintain.

Vital

But despite the congestion, the M25 is a vital part of the UK’s motorway network. And in just a few decades this network has improved the country’s infrastructure and economy beyond recognition.

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