HL Deb 25 July 1973 vol 344 cc1916-23

7.8 p.m.

VISCOUNT HANWORTH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the Ministry Circular Roads 3/73, which provides for better maintenance contracts, there has been any improvement in the performance of strip operated traffic lights which for more than 50 per cent. of the time are defective and have reverted to fixed time intervals thereby greatly increasing traffic congestion and driver frustration. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. I can assure your Lordships that it will not take me much more than five minutes to do so. Under modern traffic conditions pneumatically operated traffic lights have been proving increasingly unreliable, and a point was reached where at any one time 50 per cent. or more of these traffic lights in London were defective and had reverted to fixed time intervals. This has caused increased traffic congestion and frustration to drivers when they have had to wait quite unnecessarily for the lights to turn in their favour.

There are two remedies for this situation. The standard of maintenance can be improved so that the defects are dealt with quickly, or an inductive loop can be fitted in place of the pneumatically operated strip, which is frequently physically damaged by the traffic passing over it. The inductive loop is the device which is in fact fitted to many car parks at stations to-day. The Ministry has recently negotiated with the signal companies four new types of maintenance contract which will provide for much quicker repair. The decision as to which, if any, of these contracts will be adopted—and they allow for varying delays in dealing with a fault—rests with the local authority.

I should first like to ask the Government what response there has been from local authorities in adopting the new contracts and whether, if this response is unsatisfactory, they will bring pressure to bear on the authorities concerned. It seems doubtful whether, in many cases, local authorities have sufficient incentive for spending their ratepayers' money on improving matters, and it is certainly true to say that they have not done so very successfully in the past. If the Government are not prepared, where necessary, to make improvements mandatory, will they consider paying some subsidy for the better classes of the new maintenance contracts? I should also like to be assured that the unsatisfactory state of traffic lights will be kept under review. A more efficient system of reporting on the incidence of defects and the time taken to repair them is needed. It would seem that, taking into account the cost of maintaining the existing unsatisfactory equipment, the amortisation period for fitting inductive loops and new ancillary equipment may not be a long one. Be that as it may, I should like an assurance that there is a phased policy for change-over to the new equipment and that this will be implemented with vigour.

Since the noble Lord, Lord Orr-Ewing, has not been able to stay for this Question, I should like to mention a matter which I know he intended to raise; that is, the provision of some visible warning when traffic lights are defective. It would be salutary if everyone could see this, but the main point is that those concerned would easily know when traffic lights have reverted to fixed time intervals. This is by no means always obvious, and engineers have to open up the control boxes to inspect the circuits.

7.14 p.m.


My Lords, my experience in this matter has been very much the same as that of my noble friend. I have noticed, in going round London, that very few of the old crossroad strips over which one drove to control the lights are still remaining. They were probably either proved defective and so removed, or else they have been covered up by re-metalling. I could not say which it was. But certainly an alternative system such as my noble friend has described is very desirable. I should also like to raise the question that he raised of defective lights. These are not infrequent in London. Very often the green or the red has burned out. There are, of course, repeater lights at most junctions, so that one need not, if one is observant enough, be misled by that, but not all drivers are observant, and if it happens to be the light on one's left (which is the one to which one has to pay attention) one may think that the lights have just been turned off for some purpose and that they are under police control. Therefore I think that the suggestion made by the adviser to the Institute of Advanced Motorists might be a good one for the Minister to consider, namely, that both green and red lights should have two bulbs, so that if one goes the other would still be there.

I should like to raise one point which does not quite come under my noble friend's Question but I hope that I am in order. Are the Government considering the possibility of doing away with the amber between red and green—not between green and red, but between red and green? The reason I ask is that, as everybody knows, so many drivers start off on the amber. Furthermore, they start off when they see, as they often can, the lights on the cross road changing. That could be avoided by putting up screens so that they could not see what the cross lights were doing. I should have thought that there was no need for the amber when moving from red to green. I cannot see any particular purpose for it now except to give one a second to get into gear, but there are so many drivers who are already in gear and dart off the moment the light turns to amber that it is not altogether safe.


My Lords, the noble Viscount said that he was going to make a very short speech, and he did. I will make an even shorter speech: I have nothing to add to what my noble friends have already said.

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, I think that after Maplin the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, for having introduced this subject, which my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing last raised some two years ago and which, in substance, concerns the 50 per cent. deficiency in efficiency, to which the noble Viscount referred. We are fortunate in this country in that we are the only country which has all its traffic signals capable of full "v.a."—vehicular actuation. We have been unable, though, to take full advantage of this in the past because insufficient maintenance has led to a serious deterioration in the performance of our traffic signals, as the noble Viscount has indicated. It is for that reason that new maintenance arrangements are being introduced at this time. Details of these new arrangements are included in the Circular, Roads 3/73, which was issued on January 6 this year. This Circular notified local authorities that new arrangements would be introduced as from July 1 this year that in the three months before and after that date the signal companies would have to bring all existing traffic signals up to full working standards.

There are some 5,000 sets of signals in the country which are divided approximately equally between the G.E.C-Elliott Traffic Automation Limited, who have to date brought between 60 and 70 per cent. of their signals to full working standard already, and the Plessey Company Limited, who have the other half and who have already completed about 45 per cent. of theirs. The present position in England is that G.E.C. have dealt with some 289 authorities and have signed 167 new agreements, while Plessey have dealt with 309 authorities and have signed 112 agreements. So we can be reassured that the position is changing fairly rapidly, and the companies expect the remaining agreements to be signed within the next two or three weeks.

These new arrangements make it clear that it will be the responsibility of local authorities to test their traffic signals and to see that they are functioning satisfactorily. In association with this, they will need to institute a formal reporting and clearance recording procedure, so that there will be a fault reporting source formally recognised by the signal companies which will be responsible for informing them expeditiously of any faults that may be found. The noble Viscount said that if my noble friend, Lord Orr-Ewing, had been here he would have asked about detection fault monitoring lamps. I understand that modern controllers with loop detectors have a detection fault monitoring lamp which is displayed externally. More elaborate monitoring arrangements are available with computer control.

The new maintenance contract provides that a signal company must, when a fault report is received, repair the fault within a period defined in the contract. In the event of failure to do so, the company is required to pay a rebate to the council for failing to comply with the terms of the contract. The faults will be classified as either "urgent" or "non-urgent". For urgent faults, the signal company will be required to carry out repairs within the specified period to repair the fault, to carry out emergency repairs to get the signals working, or, in the case of damaged signals, at least to make them safe. For non-urgent faults the same principles apply, but the specified periods are longer. The final clearance of urgent faults which it has been possible to deal with only on a temporary basis will be treated in the same manner as a non-urgent fault.

There is an important innovation in the new arrangements affecting pneumatic detector tubes. Under the old arrangements renewal of these tubes was included as part of the maintenance contract. In future, while under the contract the signal companies will maintain the tubes, their renewal will be paid for as a separate item by the council as and when replacement becomes necessary. The rates of wear to which these detectors are subjected varies widely between different sites. It will therefore be much more satisfactory to pay the actual renewal costs than to expect the companies to attempt to include a realistic standard figure within the charge for installation. New sets of signals are now provided with buried loop detectors, in place of the surface pneumatic rubber tubes. The noble Lord, Lord Somers, mentioned that he had not noticed these, but of course they will not be noticed. The buried loop is invisible to the eye. These are not subject to wear and tear by traffic and are thus less liable to faults.

Of the 1,000 sets of signals on trunk roads, the Department of the Environment have already converted some 700 from pneumatic tubes to buried loops, and the Secretary of State has asked regional controllers to complete this process within this financial year. It is hoped that the Department's example will encourage local authorities to convert their own traffic signals. Our Circular Roads 15/68 stated that from the date of that Circular all new traffic signal installations should be provided with inductive loop detection, and pneumatic detectors would cease to be installed. This Circular is due for re-issue under the five-year rule and the opportunity will be taken to remind local authorities of the advantages of converting their signals.

In the past, no effective guidance has been given to local authorities on the maintenance of traffic signals, and therefore in many cases the regular monitoring of their performance has not been up to the standard that one would like to see, which is the point made by the noble Viscount and also by my noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing two years ago. This position has been rectified with the issue of our Circular Roads 2/73, in which paragraph I of Appendix A states clearly, that it is the responsibility of local authorities to test their signals and to report faults. To this end, we have been running a series of one-week courses to train and assist local authority staff on the new maintenance arrangements. We think that these have been very well- attended and appreciated. We have so far run some 18 courses, which some 220 representatives of 129 authorities have attended. So long as there is an interest and demand, we shall continue these courses. The indications are that most, if not all, authorities who have responsibility for these matters in their areas will adopt the new maintenance arrangements. New contracts with one or other of the signal companies have been signed by about half of the local authorities in England. But in Scotland and Wales the dates for the introduction of the new arrangements are likely to be September 1 and October 1, 1973, respectively. Four different classes of maintenance are available at different costs to suit roads of varying traffic importance.

As I said, this maintenance is the responsibility of the local authorities and there are no specific grants issued in this respect. However, expenditure on traffic signal maintenance is relevant expenditure for the purposes of the rate support grant. From meetings which the Department have had with local authorities, we have every reason to think that the majority are opting for as high a class of maintenance as the signal companies are able to offer within their areas. It is too early yet for factual evidence to be available of any improvement resulting from the introduction of the new arrangements. After these have been in operation for a few months the Department will be repeating an earlier survey in order to make an assessment.

The earlier survey carried out during 1972 showed that, out of 884 sets of traffic signals in South-Eastern, Eastern, South and West Midland regions, 40 per cent. were working on fixed time cycles instead of with full vehicle actuation, as they should have been. This unsatisfactory standard of performance showed very clearly the need to up-date the arrangements for traffic signal maintenance, and led to the introduction of the new procedures. Their success will obviously depend upon the quick identification and reporting of faults, and the speedy and effective response of the signal companies to these reports when they receive them.

The timing of traffic lights is the responsibility of individual local authorities. Initially, the timings are set by the signal companies, generally in the presence of, and to the requirements of, the local authority staff and the Department's regional electrical engineers. Not all local authorities have sufficient trained staff to carry our regular checks and to adjust timings. Instructions on the timings and signals have been fully set out in the Road Research Technical Paper No. 56, which was issued a few years ago. More recently, we have called the attention of local authorities to the availability of computer programmes to optimise the timing. This will have a very important effect in encouraging larger cities to install computer control, which is the purpose of the noble Viscount's Question. This, of course, optimises the timings over a wide area, and also automatically monitors faults. Computer control is operating in London, and is, as the noble Viscount knows, only in its first phase, as is also the case in Glasgow. In London, it is being rapidly expanded by the G.L.C. Contracts have now been let for computer systems in Leicester and Liverpool as well. Tenders have been or will be invited during this year for four other cities—Coventry, Nottingham, Northampton and Wolverhampton—and seven more are due in 1974.

So although many factors have indeed led to a deterioration of the maintenance of traffic signals in this country, it has caused concern for some time within our Department. Local authorities have been upset; and the signal companies, obviously, have not liked having to produce an inefficient machine through inefficient maintenance. The Department initiated discussions, as I have said, with the signal companies and the local authorities to evolve an improved form of maintenance, and this action has been generally welcomed by all the bodies concerned. There has been extremely good co-operation, we think, by all concerned in reaching agreement so far; and, although I say it hopefully, I now confidently look forward to an improvement in the standard of maintenance which will lead to more efficient working and a reduction in delays to drivers.