The A5 at 25: How the Shrewsbury to M54 link road changed the way we travel
It was the biggest engineering project Shropshire had seen since the days of Thomas Telford.
Thirty years in the planning, at a cost £65 million, and involving the construction of 25 new bridges, the link-road between Shrewsbury and the motorway network was a huge project which has transformed the way we travel around the county.
It is 25 years today since the 19-mile stretch, which connects the county town to the M54 at Wellington was opened by roads minister Kenneth Carlisle, and today we take it for granted that it is possible to travel between Telford and Shrewsbury in just 20 minutes.
The road ended decades of congestion at the many bottlenecks between the motorway and Shrewsbury, and included two separate bypasses where the road split into the A5 west and the A49 heading north.
It has also played a major role in boosting the town’s economy, but it was road safety, not commerce, which was the prime motive in constructing the road link.
Back in the 1990s, the A5 was the most dangerous road in the county, and Mr Carlisle predicted the new road would save 40 lives a year, and prevent up to 1,500 accidents. He also said it would make the town a cleaner and more pleasant place to live.
The need for a major new route between what would become Telford and the county town of Shrewsbury had been identified in the early 1960s. The explosion of car ownership after the Second World War meant that the existing A5 bypass, built in 1933, was just too overloaded to cope. But it would be another 10 years or so before the basic idea of the joint A5 and A49 bypasses emerged.
The preferred route did not materialise until 1979, following a public consultation exercise, which included fierce debate about whether the road could be justified on economic grounds.
But was another five years, and a major public inquiry, before the road got final ministerial approval in 1984 – only to hit more snags.
Two aggrieved landowners challenged the Secretary of State’s approval and took their case to the High Court. They managed to stall the scheme while countless drivers fumed in their stationary cars and lorries. The judges were unimpressed with the landowners’ case – “manifestly without merit” one of them remarked – but it was 1990 before the final public inquiry was heard.
However, with all the legal hurdles out the way, it was full-steam ahead and the actual construction was remarkably swift. Two contractors were appointed, Surrey and Birmingham-based Edmund Nuttall would carry out the work from Emstrey to beyond Montford Bridge, with the rest – including the main dual carriageway linking the M54 to Preston, just outside Shrewsbury going to Alfred McAlpine.
Neither part of the job has been without snags. The schedule was always tight, tied especially to construction of the four bridges over the River Severn. Quite early on, it was discovered that the piles which carried one of the bridges, on the northern A49 link, needed to be longer to find a firm base. This was a major problem and McAlpine was granted an extension of the contract period.
However, the company quickly got to grips with the problem and the work was back on target by the early part of 1992.
Nuttall had to build a railway bridge at Hookagate in a seemingly impossible time – the track was closed for only 43 hours.
New age travellers also posed problems, with security staff having to be posted at access points to prevent them camping on the sites.
The new road did play a major role in reducing the casualty rate, although it suffered its first serious crash within three weeks of opening, and there were two fatalities in the space of a week in its first 18 months.
On November 25, 1993, Ashley Buchanan-Morris, of Minsterley, was killed when his car burst into flames after crashing with a van. A week later, Christine Jones, 32, from the Mountfields area of Shrewsbury, died and 13 others were injured in a crash over the River Severn.
Even before it opened, it had faced criticism that it didn’t go far enough in addressing the problems with the A5. While the main stretch from Wellington to Preston island just outside Shrewsbury was a dual carriageway, coroner David Crawford Clarke was unhappy that parts of the two bypasses around Shrewsbury were only single carriageway.
Derek Conway, who was Shrewsbury MP at the time, also had his reservations.
“This road has been necessary for Shrewsbury, but I don’t think that it is a safe stretch of road,” he said, after the second fatality. I have seen so many near misses, the whole stretch to Oswestry can be lethal with people overtaking.”
North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson has been campaigning for more than 20 years for the dual carriageway to be extended beyond Shrewsbury.
Back in 1997, he secured a parliamentary debate to discuss the matter. He highlighted the problems of long-distance drivers from the south of England making effortless progress on modern roads until they reached Shrewsbury, at which point the traffic ground to a standstill.
“It is extraordinary that we expect long-distance goods traffic and express buses to travel at high speed all the way from Dover, and then suddenly to cope with the demands of a narrow road built in the early 19th century, competing with local traffic, local buses, local delivery vehicles and local people going to school and trying to cross—there are 94 access points to the A5, 23 junctions and 23 footpaths,” he said at the time.
“The result is confusion.”
Mr Paterson last year persuaded present roads minister John Hayes to visit Oswestry to see the problems with the single-carriageway stretch of the A5.
But while Mr Paterson is confident progress is being made, no funding is imminent.
In 2015, the Preston Island was replaced by a new traffic-light controlled junction, with the aim of reducing congestion.
Meanwhile, Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski has continued his campaign for the dual carriageway into Shrewsbury to be reclassified as a motorway.
Mr Kawczynski believes that putting the town on the national motorway map will boost business in the town. Peter Bettis, president of Shrewsbury Business Chamber, agrees, saying he could not understand why it was never classified as part of the motorway network in the first place.