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M53. The Mid-Wirral Motorway

 

In the 1960's, Vauxhall Motors decided to build a car factory at Hooton, Ellesmere Port, on the site of a disused airfield. However, the existing road access was totally inadequate.

A new road network was required within the immediate area, to serve the development. Not only was it essential for the supply of raw materials, and as a reasonable means of access for employees, but it was required also for the delivery of finished vehicles to markets in all parts of the country and abroad.

The site was close to Ellesmere Port itself, at the western end of the Manchester Ship Canal, and near to the Docks at Birkenhead and Liverpool.

In particular, access was needed to the A41, the major road between Chester and Birkenhead.

In view of the employment which the factory would bring to the area, the Cheshire County Council was keen to assist in the development. Following negotiations with the Company it was agreed that a new dual two-lane carriageway road would be constructed from a junction with the A41 at Hooton, and a junction with the A5032 immediately north of Ellesmere Port, both of which would be grade separated. The latter would link directly into the site of the new factory and its cost would be met by the Company.

Both the factory and the 2½ mile long road, known initially as the 'Hooton Industrial Road', were built concurrently by the same Contractor.

Although primarily serving the needs of the factory when completed in 1968, it soon became apparent that there was an expanding need for even better facilities. It was decided, therefore, to extend the road southwards, through Ellesmere Port for a further 2½ miles, as far as the A5117 and to provide grade separated junctions. On completion of this section, in the summer of 1975, and upgrading to a dual two-lane carriageway standard, the whole length was designated as the M531, the first 'county motorway' in Cheshire.

Meanwhile, in 1965, G Maunsell and Partners, the firm of Consulting Engineers, was appointed by the Ministry of Transport to carry out a location study for a new route serving the Wirral Peninsula generally. It was to commence from the southern end of the second Mersey Tunnel (Wallasey-Liverpool), at Bidston, and terminate in the Hooton-Sutton area.

Parliamentary Powers for the construction of the second Mersey Tunnel had been granted in 1964 and work on a pilot tunnel had commenced early in 1966. In their Report submitted in the August of that year, the Consultants recommended that the new route should be a dual three-lane motorway from the new Tunnel approach road in Wallasey to connect with the 'Hooton Industrial Road', which was then under construction.

It was further recommended that, in due course, the route should be extended further southwards across the A5117 to a connection with the A41 near Backford.

The proposed road was then designated the M53 and, in 1967, the firm was appointed to undertake the detailed design of that part of the route north of Hooton.

Following a Public Inquiry, a Contract for its construction was awarded, and this included provision for a future interchange at Hooton to accommodate the recommended extension.

The works commenced in July 1969 and included the construction of four interchanges at Moreton, Woodchurch, Clatterbrige and Hooton, along its 9 mile length.

The site investigations along the route had shown predominantly Glacial Boulder Clay overlying Pebble Beds and Bunter Sandstone with some Keuper Marl at the northern end. Low-lying ground in the Fender Valley has deposits of soft peaty clay and silt up to 25 feet thick.

It was recognised at the design stage that, for a length of one mile between Upton Road and Woodchurch, the soil was low-quality alluvium of considerable depth and that special requirements should be specified. These included pre-drainage, the restriction of heavy plant, dry-weather operations only, and the use of selected materials. All material, whether in cuttings or under future embankments was removed for 2 feet 6 inches below formation level and replaced with rock layers.

In the areas of severed land inside the loops of the Moreton Spur connecting roads, the Contractor excavated borrow pits which were reinstated with unsuitable material.

Rock blasting was forbidden in the area adjacent to Clatterbridge Hospital but it was found to be possible to excavate the rock by 'ripping'.

At Moreton a spur road designed and constructed to motorway standard provided the link to serve the Upton/Moreton area. The layout divided the heavy commuter traffic from that using the motorway, by means of exceptionally long slip road connections with relatively easy curves. This was possible because of the low agricultural value of the low-lying area of the Fender River valley.

Mid-Wirral Motorway M53The design of the Woodchurch Interchange was unusual and, at that time, the only one of its type in the country. It is, in effect, a three-level interchange fitted into a two-level site, by having an elongated roundabout with rising gradients. Features controlling the design were the limited headroom under, and in close proximity to, a railway; the Fender River flood water levels; a nearby block of flats; and the limited availability of land due to new development.

Compared with a compact three-level interchange, the adopted design saved about 800,000 cubic yards of imported filling and 500 feet length of viaduct.

A total of 41 bridges was required and, with the exception of two post-tensioned segmented spine bridges, they all comprised precast pretensioned concrete beams. There are two viaducts of eight and ten simply supported spans.

A piled raft formed the base construction of over a mile of carriageway with a total area of 42,000 square yards in the Fender Valley, where peat and silty alluvial sands reached depths of up to 20 feet. The 13 inch thick reinforced concrete slab was supported on driven cast in-situ piles varying in length from 35 to 50 feet at 14 to 16 feet centres. It was necessary to form a shallow embankment as an essential prerequisite to the piling in order to provide access over the bad ground for plant and materials.

Although the cost was high, it showed a considerable saving compared with the alternative of peat excavation and replacement with imported filling.

The Contract was completed in February 1972, following the opening to traffic of the first 'bore' of the second Mersey Tunnel, in June 1971.

The Consultants had recommended that the extension through to Backford, which would provide a by-pass of the A41 and give traffic relief for Sutton, should continue as part of a phased programme of construction. Clearly, however, the upgrading of the route through Ellesmere Port, as the M531, made the prospect of this being achieved in the foreseeable future, very unlikely.

In March 1981, the M531 was further extended by a County Council Contract for the construction of a seven span viaduct over the A5117 roundabout and a one mile length of dual two-lane carriageway motorway to link in to the interchange with the M56 at Stoak. This scheme was completed as M53, and the remainder of M531 renumbered at this stage.

Work on the construction of the final section of the Mid-Wirral Motorway began in June 1980. From Stoak Interchange, it extended over a length of almost 3 miles to connect with the A56 at Hoole Village, on the outskirts of Chester.

It required the construction of four underbridges and two overbridges, the most significant being a four span crossing at the Shropshire Union Canal.

Alternative tenders had been invited by Cheshire County Council for flexible and rigid construction, for the dual two-lane carriageways. In the event, the lower of the tenders, involving concrete construction, was accepted. The Contractor elected to lay the 11 inch thick reinforced slabs for each carriageway, with its adjacent hard shoulder and central reserve edge strip in a single 38 foot width, between fixed forms.

For most of its length the motorway was to be on shallow embankment less than 6 feet in height, the main exception being at the southern end where it reached 25 feet.

In order to ensure the uninterrupted progress of the SGME concreting train, it was necessary to complete all the structures and side road diversions in the first 12 months of the Contract. Sections of flexible construction were to be provided at the underbridges.

The concreting train was required to lay the slabs in two layers, with the upper 3 inch thickness in air-entrained concrete. Using limestone aggregate, construction joints were to be spaced at 20 feet intervals.

The laying of the concrete slabs for the two carriageways was carried out in 12 and 9 working days respectively. The maximum length laid in a single day was nearly 1800 feet.

The section of motorway was opened to traffic in July 1982.