EXCLUSIVE: Reasons for new bus station chaos and cost of errors revealed in council report

Bus queues to get into North Gate Bus Station. Heavy traffic around North Gate, Lady's Lane and Sheep Street. NNL-140303-131252009
Bus queues to get into North Gate Bus Station. Heavy traffic around North Gate, Lady's Lane and Sheep Street. NNL-140303-131252009

A mini roundabout that was not included in original designs, taxis making U-turns and selfish parking were jointly to blame for traffic gridlock on the first week day of Northampton’s North Gate station, a report published today claims.

The review - commissioned after traffic in Northampton came to a standstill for several hours on Monday, March 3 - says that work to rectify the issues that week cost £15,000, which will be shared between the borough and county councils.

The report says further works will be carried out, but failed to specify an estimated cost.

The review concludes “the major reason that gridlock occurred was the road layout design on Bradshaw Street at its junction with College Street and King Street”.

This refers specifically to the now-removed mini-roundabout at the exit from the station that required buses to give way to traffic approaching from College Street, King Street and making a U-turn from Bradshaw Street.

Appearing to partly blame private hire firms for contributing to the chaos, though they were obeying the road laws as they stood at the time, the report says: “[The mini roundabout] required buses to give way to traffic coming up college Street, or from King Street / the Park Inn, or doing a U-turn coming east along Bradshaw Street, a manoeuvre partcularly relevant to Private Hire vehicles or private vehicles dropping off at the interchange.”

The roundabout was removed overnight on March 3 and by the next morning a new layout was in place to give priority to buses.

As a result of this, as well as work to enforce traffic regulations to stop prohibited vehicles from using The Drapery or parking in Sheep Street, a spokeswoman for the councils says the traffic has since “flowed freely”.

Although the report admits the borough and county councils had greatest responsibility as they led (borough council) as well as designed and built (county council) the station between them, the report refuses to single out any one organisation or person for failing to predict the mini roundabout problem.

The review reveals that that the problem roundabout was not in the original concept, which was designed around three years ago. It was later added to the site plan that was included in the planning application in April 2012.

This planning application was subsequently approved, however, a later version somehow included a condition that the mini-roundabout should be in place before the new bus station came into use.

The report’s chronology of the mini roundabout being built is as follows:

-MGWSP, the highways company employed by the county council, produced the Northampton Bus Interchange Appraisal Report in 2011. Although not a design document, it did include a ‘conceptual option’ very similar to how the real layout is now. However MGWSP’s vision differed in that Give Way lines were included where the mini roundabout was eventually built. The report said that: “no particular significance was given to this feature of the conceptual design in the report and it was not the basis of the evaluation of options.”

-However, once the site had been selected, design work was then carried out under the project team’s guidance to produce a planning application. The design work was conducted by the county council and the county council made the application, although this was on behalf of the project team as a whole.

-The site plan included with the planning application in April 2012 for the station shows the mini-roundabout. This was approved by borough councillors in the Planning Committee on officer advice. Significantly, conditions on the permission included that the mini-roundabout must be in place before the interchange came into use. The report sayd: “Therefore this element of the design was a feature of the design supported by the whole Project Team.”

-During the project, the layout of the interchange and the road access, including the mini-roundabout, was mocked up on the Claret Car Park - a car park off Harvey Reeves Road designated for used by Cobblers fans - and “buses were driven in and out of this layout to review how it worked in practice. “This led to some amendments to the detail of the design, including widening the splay around the exit at the mini-roundabout.

However the report says: “It was not spotted at that time by anyone involved that this layout could lead to gridlock.”

Addressing the changes to the original design, the report concludes that:

- Some changes that did not in the end cause the traffic jams were nevertheless made after borough councillors on the Planning Committee had approved it, mainly revised pedestrian crossing arrangements outside the main entrance to the Bus Station. The report commented: “An issue therefore is of course the checking/change controls as the project moved away from the original design, even though these design changes were not of themselves the cause of the gridlock.”

-Partners in all projects “need to be open to questioning and challenge with project teams” and “there needs to be a willingness amongst all partners to ask even the most basic questions.”

-It also added that “tightening change control procedures” within project teams needs to happen so “changes to design are fully evaluated and do not cause any unintended consequences.”

-”Time pressures” within similar projects “need be managed through careful planning [and] good effective governance arrangements that engage all partners in a structured manner.” The report says: “As with all major projects with timescales to meet, there was a degree of time pressure on all involved to ensure that the project was delivered on time.”

Better joint arrangements are also to be established between the borough and county councils to manage the impact of new developments on traffic flows in the town centre, the report says.

The spokeswoman for the councils also added: “Further modifications to the traffic flow around the bus station are planned, but as with any large project, it was always anticipated that minor changes would be made in the light of operational experience.

“These modifications are not as a result of the gridlock on March 3.”

Councillor David Mackintosh, leader of Northampton Borough Council, said the issues on March 3 were significant, but said he believed they had been dealt with quickly.

He said: “There is no doubt the situation that developed around the town centre on that day was serious, but all the agencies came together to tackle it quickly, and the changes that were made overnight meant there have been no further problems in more than two months of operation.

“We will continue to monitor the situation closely and are more aware than ever of the need to ensure that we take into consideration the impact that the large number of major change and regeneration projects in Northampton will have on traffic in the town.”

Paul Blantern, Northamptonshire County Council chief executive, said: “It’s regrettable that so much traffic congestion was caused on the first day when the bus station opened in March and I, along with my partners, have rightly apologised for the inconvenience that was caused for several hours.

“However we, along with our partners, worked swiftly to rectify the problems, and consequently not only has the bus interchange operated smoothly, we are also already seeing retail regeneration in that area of the town.

“This project is just one of the far-reaching regeneration projects of Northampton Alive, where hundreds of millions of pounds of public money are being invested in the town centre in the next few years, to make Northampton the county town we can all be proud of.”