Chapter 12. Britain's First Motorway: The Preston By-pass

Volume 1 Part 4
Brief résumé of Chapter 12:
Britain's First Motorway: The Preston By-pass

L. J. Cox CEng, FICE, FIHT
formerly Chairman, Tarmac National Construction
Vice Chairman, Tarmac International Ltd
Agent for Tarmac Ltd, Preston By-pass 1956-58
Past President, IHE

Chapter 12While it helps towards understanding of the course of the past to see into the way in which decisions for intended action were taken, and into the influences at work upon them, it is just as important to see what happened in the taking of the action: For example, the tale of strategy and tactics in war is incomplete without the experience of soldiers in the field, and the mud. So the essays in the foregoing chapters are now followed in this chapter by the words of one the most eminent practitioners and managers in and beyond his generation in the Contracting industry with a vast range of structures to his credit, including facilities for nuclear science. Here John Cox presents insights illustrated from his experience, predating this chapter by half a century, in constructing the Preston By-Pass - the first section of British motorway. It is a story of being stuck in the mud indeed - but also one of prior prescription, the gathering of unexpected information on site, of snags in geography and geology, preparation, the interventions of exceptional weather and of managerial personality, of consequent improvisation and, in the outcome, of failure avoided or retrieved by learning from experience.

John Cox was the engineer put in charge by Tarmac (now Carrilion) on site when they succeeded with their bid in 1956 to build 8.25 miles of carriageway and 19 bridges - constituting the Preston By-pass. His experience had been in the rapid construction of airfields in World War II. He rose in his subsequent career to become Managing Director of Tarmac (now Carrilion) National Construction Ltd and joined the international company's Board, retiring in 1982, by which time he was President of the Institution of Highway Engineers, (subsequently known as the IHT). He has been active in a wide range of charitable activity, and as a member of the group which became the Motorway archive Trust

John Cox writes :

"The coat of arms of the Newcomen Society has a motto for which the accepted translation is 'That the future may learn from the past'. I think this justifies my writing the story of some of the lessons associated with the building of the Preston-by-Pass, Britain's First Motorway. It is now sufficiently distant to allow one to be objective whereas immediately after the completion of the contract, it would not have been.

Chapter 12 - 1It was on 5th December 1958 that hundreds of people met at Samlesbury to witness the official opening by the Rt. Hon. Harold MacMillan, many of whom had participated in the design and construction of the project and were proud and pleased with their achievements.

Satisfaction was short lived, soon being dispelled when on 21st January 1959 the road, which had only been in use for 46 days, was closed due to frost damage. On reflection, one cannot be surprised at this failure; in fact the surprise should have been that it had been built at all, bearing in mind the site, weather conditions and specification.

Trunk road construction had been curtailed and virtually non-existent since the beginning of the 1939 war, and the road construction of the 1930s tended to follow ground levels. Grade separated interchanges were never envisaged. A new learning curve was involved with the construction of Motorways and the concept of uninterrupted traffic flow. In the case of the Preston By-pass, this was a very steep one. I think this was what the Ministry of Transport had in mind when it stated that it was an experiment for all other British Motorways.

One of the best design features was the provision of a 32 foot central reserve. This was with the intention that a third lane could be added without interfering with the bridges. This duly took place in 1965. However, the hard shoulders were located only between bridges and were not continuous throughout the motorway.

This provision was inadequate to accommodate the growth in traffic density and the bridges, which had been designed and had a life of 120 years, had to be demolished after 30 years when the carriageways were increased to 4 lanes with a continuous hard shoulder."

Moreover, the headroom on all the bridges was 17 feet to allow for the additional surfacing which was planned, as the original running surface was always considered to be of a temporary nature.

Another good piece of planning was the erection of high level lighting at interchanges. It was a pity the Department of Transport decided that they should be removed before the motorway was opened, due to change of policy. PRO file MT121/32. explains their odd view."

A more detailed description of the Preston By-pass can be found in the North West Region pages.