Highways England helping emergency services in West Midlands

Image showing Frank Bird along colleagues in the control room at the West Midlands Regional Operations Centre.

Frank works along colleagues in the control room at the West Midlands Regional Operations Centre.

Frank Bird who usually works in the West Midlands Regional Operations Centre in Quinton but is currently working from home – is currently helping to co-ordinate the regional response to the coronavirus outbreak across more than 1,600 miles of the Midlands.

We’re using our signs to keep road users informed of the Government advice: Stay home. Essential travel only. Save lives.

Safety is our number one priority and we always apply the Government’s latest advice. We have well tested contingency plans and our on-road teams, control room staff, and the people who back them up are all working hard to maintain a safe road network.

As people follow government advice to stay at home if possible, traffic volumes and incidents appear to be reducing. Maintaining a safe road network is our priority and that’s what our on-road teams, control room staff, and the people who support them, are all working hard to do.

He says the work of Highways England is vital in ensuring that colleagues in the emergency services can plan journeys on the Midlands motorway and major A-road network to get vital supplies to their destination.

I’ve been working at home since the new guidelines came into effect but that doesn’t mean the work stops. We’re on calls and Skype meetings every day with partners from the emergency services including the police, ambulance and fire service.

We have a new regional temporary hospital – NHS Nightingale – being built at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham next to the M42. We all know how busy the airport and the NEC can get but this is now a location of national significance and that means we must make sure that we keep that junction open and flowing at all times. It’s vital that we make sure that the equipment needed can get there safely and on-time for when it is needed.

We have dedicated traffic officer patrols on standby to get to the location and deal with incidents as and when they occur because we know that, more than ever, time is off the essence. We’re geared up to help and we’re doing our bit behind-the-scenes to make this happen.

The Midlands motorway network stretches from Junction 16 of the M6 at Stoke down as far as Strensham Services off the M5, shortly before it meets the M50. It also includes the main A-roads running west towards the Welsh border and spans as far east as Banbury. In total the control centre monitors 800 miles of motorway, including the M6, M5 and M54, and 860 miles of A-road including the A5, A38 and A50.

As part of the ongoing work, Frank says that communication is key to making sure things run smoothly.

One criticism that we sometimes get on social media is that we don’t align with local authorities and partners around our work,

he adds.

That actually couldn’t be further from the truth. For instance, we work really closely with the West Midlands Resilience Forum to make sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing during times like this.

We’re all in this together and without constant communication and planning with one another, it simply wouldn’t work.

Frank has been working as a senior network planner for over 15 years. He first joined what was the Highways Agency back in February 2004 as a manager for the traffic officer service.

I loved my job on-road because it was very rewarding to be able to help people who needed it.

I dealt with all sorts of incidents from RTCs to broken down vehicles and it was nice to know you’ve made a difference to someone by getting them back moving again.

The most memorable incident I ever dealt with was probably a family who had a son who desperately needed to get Birmingham Children’s Hospital for a life-saving transfusion. So whilst we helped recover his Dad’s stranded car on the M5 we put the young lad and his mum in to another patrol vehicle and whisked him off to hospital. He made the appointment with five minutes to spare. This is just one of many stories where traffic officers have been able to help people in need.

I did that job for two years and I gained some great experience. Being in that sort of role gives you an appreciation for what you need to do to keep traffic moving. When a new position came up in the control room, I leapt at the chance. That experience of knowing how quickly congestion can build when you have an incident has stood me in really good stead for what I do now. I always take into account ways of getting traffic moving around the region when we do encounter unforeseen challenges.

A former bus inspector from Transport for London, father-of-two Frank moved to the Midlands in 1994.

Having worked on the London routemaster bus network for nine years and also as an inspector, Frank decided to swap the likes of Tower Bridge and Big Ben for Spaghetti Junction and the Oldbury Viaduct. He was also heavily involved in helping to keep traffic moving during the Olympic torch relay and Olympic games back in 2012.

Frank’s love of sport transcends into his day job. He is currently working on plans for the Commonwealth Games in 2022, all the new structures that need to be built around the region need the road network for the deliveries to get through.

He says his knowledge of the region is an ‘absolute-must’ for his role because you need to constantly think ahead when incidents and unforeseen events occur.

It is like playing a game of chess while juggling.

We work really closely with local media to get real-time traffic updates out to people advising of incidents or events that are coming up so that motorists can plan their journeys.

We also offer a real-time Twitter service from inside our control room with advice on closures and diversion routes as and when they happen. We do that, so we can help people to avoid congestion.

We always encourage people to check their journeys and vehicles are roadworthy before setting off because know how quickly traffic can build when an incident occurs. We also know people will change their routes especially if they have local knowledge and know a shortcut when they can’t go the way they normally do. That is why we always try and keep traffic on our network because we don’t want to cause congestion on local roads.

The Midlands is the heartbeat to the country and we have around 520,000 vehicles travelling through our patch every day on both the M42, M5 and M6.

Our regional operations centre in Quinton also monitors wind speed readings which are particularly important for the Midlands’ roads as the region has the highest concentration of elevated motorways anywhere in the UK.

Anything above 30mph can seriously affect high-sided vehicles. Anything above 25mph and ‘High Wind – Slow Down’ is automatically displayed on the gantries. This is really important because we know that lorries are delivering supplies to supermarkets which people rely on and we need to make sure we can keep those deliveries flowing.

While traffic volumes appear to be down by nearly half compared to this date last year, Frank says the work doesn’t stop to make sure that safety remains paramount on the motorway and major A-road network.

Frank added:

We still have our teams in the control room monitoring our extensive CCTV network and setting lane closure advice when incidents do occur. We’re complying with the social distancing rule and the desks inside our control room are quite far apart anyway as an individual operator can have up to four screens to work on.

We are the eyes and ears of the West Midlands motorway network and we’re doing everything we can right now to help those that need it most.

General enquiries

Members of the public should contact the Highways England customer contact centre on 0300 123 5000.

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