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Tuesday, 22 July 2014

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What the Carlisle western bypass will mean to shops and firms

Committee Room Two, the Old Courts, Carlisle city centre. Cumbria County Council is holding a briefing for councillors and journalists to discuss the western bypass.

Heavy traffic photo
Heavy traffic in Stanwix, Carlisle

The man from contractor Balfour Beatty describes the road’s route and then points to the screen behind him, which will show a computer-generated aerial view.

A patchwork of fields comes into vision. The fields inch closer. Painfully slowly. Frame by frame. At this rate the five-mile route will take decades to illustrate.

The man from Balfour Beatty looks hopefully to the technical guru at the back of the room and says: “We’d better start again.”

It feels as if somewhere up above, the Bypass Gods are mocking. Who’d have thought it? The first view of Carlisle’s long-awaited western bypass. And it’s happening much more slowly than expected.

This road has been talked about for more than 30 years. The theory sounds simple. Five miles linking the A595 at Wigton Road with junction 44 of the M6, looping around the west of Carlisle. Allowing vehicles to travel to and from west Cumbria without going through the city. Slashing traffic on Eden Bridge and Scotland Road by more than a quarter and cutting rush-hour journeys by up to 10 minutes.

The reality has been rather more complex. Everything from failing banks to the removal of great crested newts has held up the bypass. Funding has come and gone and come again. Work on the £176m road is finally due to begin in October.

The northern section – the Kingmoor / Kingstown part – is scheduled to open in August 2011. The rest should be ready by April 2012.

All the delays have not been lost on council staff. Someone points out Geoff Holden, the council’s silver-haired highways project manager, and quips: “He had dark hair when this started.”

Stanwix used to be a village and it retains that homely feel in the rows of independent shops at the top of Scotland Road. But the pastoral mood is spoiled somewhat by the rumble and thunder of lorries on their way to and from Hardwicke Circus. Many are en route to or coming back from west Cumbria.

Rarely does a minute go by without at least one of these beasts roaring past. They frequently travel nose to tail, spewing acrid grey smoke.

But not for much longer... possibly. In The Stanwix Bakery, Margaret Chung has heard many empty promises of a bypass. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” she says. “They’ve been talking about it since I came here in 1968.”

If the bypass does happen, she will welcome it. “It will take a lot of heavy traffic off this road. It’s constant, morning ’til night. All the locals are in favour of it. That road’s a nightmare. With Sainsbury’s coming as well it’s going to get even busier. It’s an accident waiting to happen. There’s been a few near misses. Some of the heavy stuff – you hear the brakes going hard as the traffic lights change.”

Is she concerned about losing any passing trade? “I don’t see it making a difference. If the road’s quieter, people might get parked a bit easier.”

Ian Brown pops in to buy some rolls. “The bypass is a good idea,” he says. “This road is noisy and smelly. Some days it’s difficult to cross, especially for the old folk.”

Penny Griffiths of Lowry Hill is waiting at the bus stop outside The Crown. “The bypass will ease the congestion. When the schools are open it’s even worse. At peak times it’s just terrible. You get queues right back to Kingstown.”

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If all goes to plan, within three years Stanwix will be much quieter. And much of the traffic which would have poured down Scotland Road will instead be flooding past Newby West.

This village on Carlisle’s south-west fringe consists of a dozen or so houses and farms, down a cul-de-sac off Wigton Road.

Rows of fence posts in the fields skirting the village show where the half-mile stretch of tarmac linking Wigton Road and Orton Road will be widened in preparation for a huge increase in traffic, much of it lorries.

Newby West resident Hugh McGarr is not particularly concerned. “I’m all for it,” he says. “I’ve waited 30 years for this. It would have been even better when I lived at Cockermouth and worked at Kingmoor.

“It’s just a pity it doesn’t go right across to junction 42. A lot of traffic from west Cumbria doesn’t go to Scotland, it goes south.”

Hugh’s only concerns are more noise and the prospect of it being harder to turn out of and into Newby West. “It will be awkward for us getting in and out. The residents requested a ‘ghost lane’ so that if we’re waiting to turn right into the village, we can wait in a filter lane rather than holding up all the traffic behind us.

“United Utilities have a depot here. There are lorries coming in and out all day, and farm vehicles. You’re going to get a line of traffic building up behind them while they wait to turn in. We were told there was ‘not enough vehicle movement’ to justify a filter lane.

“But I’m very much in favour of the bypass. It will be good for the area. It would have been a lot cheaper 30 years ago, mind.”

Karl Barrett is walking his dogs in a quiet lane around the corner from Newby West. When the bypass opens it should become even quieter.

“At the moment people use these lanes as a rat run from Kirkbampton. That should happen less when the bypass opens.”

Karl says many dog walkers, cyclists and joggers use these roads. His only concern is that they will struggle to cross the bypass.

The county council has no plans for a footbridge but a spokesman says: “Nothing we’re doing now would prevent improved crossing facilities in future if this was viewed an essential requirement. On the Wigton Road and Orton Road roundabouts there will be splitter islands which will make it easier for pedestrians to cross.”

Like many people in and around Newby West, Karl’s concerns are outweighed by the bigger picture. “It’s a very good thing for Carlisle itself. I’ve heard a couple of people from Dumfries say they don’t like coming into Carlisle because of the traffic. Being a driver and a motorcyclist, I know what it’s like.”

Those who have argued for the bypass claim that businesses in Carlisle and west Cumbria will benefit from more direct transport links. Andrew Tinkler, chief executive of the Stobart Group, which has more than 1,800 wagons, agrees.

“I haven’t worked out the figures but it all adds up. Every little helps. It will release pressure from the roads.

“You do spend quite a bit of time sitting in traffic in the north of Carlisle.

“It can only be beneficial for the environment and the economy. They’ve got to make sure they get it right, but I’m sure they will.”

New Balance running shoes travel from the company’s Flimby factory to 58 countries. But first they have to make it through Carlisle.

Business development manager Liam Burns says: “The opportunity to improve distribution with the bypass is very welcome. Transport costs are a significant factor for us. Cutting those is important, as is getting our product to the customer as quickly as possible.

“You can’t change the distance but you can make the journey easier.”

A road can rarely have been greeted so enthusiastically. No one is chaining themselves to trees. They’re more likely to offer to chop them down if it will help speed the bypass into being.

But there is at least one dissenting voice, from Copeland’s Green Party parliamentary candidate Jill Perry.

“It’s really bad news,” she says. “It’s woolly thinking on behalf of the Government.

“They have just done some really good work on climate-change policy on one hand, and on the other hand they build roads that carry traffic and increase CO2 emissions.”

She is not convinced by the argument that the bypass will lead to fewer emissions because vehicles will spend less time crawling in traffic jams.

“People should be encouraged to do their journeys by other means. The money would have been much better spent on public transport.

“All that happens when people are encouraged to travel by car is that they travel longer distances.”

County council deputy leader Stewart Young is confident that this time the bypass really is going to happen.

The only concern he has heard is that cars might come off the new road into Carlisle above the speed limit.

He echoes the thoughts of many in the south of the city when he says: “What I’d like to see is a link from Peter Lane to junction 42 of the motorway, to complete the circle.”

This is not on the horizon at the moment.

And bearing in mind the western bypass’s long and winding history, no one is about to start holding their breath.

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