Flashback – November 1983

1983

On Friday, November 25, 1983, a new future of rapid road travel between Shropshire and the West Midlands dawned.

Transport Secretary Nicholas Ridley stood in the rain and cut the ribbon to open the M54, the long-awaited motorway which, it was claimed – clearly by somebody who had never got stuck on the M6 – would bring Birmingham within half an hour's travelling time of Telford.

The recession was biting, unemployment was high, and traditional industries which had been such a key part of the economic scene were struggling.

So the new motorway was a vital piece of infrastructure, at last plugging the growing town of Telford into the motorway network but also literally saving lives.

At the time the main route from the Midlands into Shropshire and beyond was the A5.

This single carriageway road was clogged with heavy traffic, including lorries of course, and there were frequently horrendous accidents. During holiday periods there was the additional strain of all the traffic heading towards the Welsh coast.

The economic impact of the M54 as a transport corridor which stimulates growth is clear today, as evidenced by such developments as the huge Jaguar Land Rover plant created alongside the route.

In Shropshire it was hailed as the biggest leap forward since the coming of the railways for the region’s transport infrastructure.

Final cost of the new 18 mile road was £62 million, three times the original estimate.

However the advent of the M54 came only after a long, protracted, and bitter battle.

It took 16 years and three planning inquiries, with many protests and arguments about the route and the environmental impact.

The motorway carved its way through 700 acres of mainly farmland in Staffordshire and Shropshire.

Efforts were made to make the new motorway environmentally friendly. It was dubbed Britain’s ‘first environmental motorway’.

It was not an idle claim. Much of it is invisible in deep cuttings, and nesting boxes were installed under bridges.

In line with the downgrading of the population target for Telford, and lower traffic forecasts, the decision was taken in the late 1970s that the new road would be built as a two-lane motorway rather than a three-laner, as had been originally envisaged.

The line of the motorway took it through the site of Tong Castle. Although demolished, or rather deliberately blown up, in the 1950s, there were still remnants on the ground and so there were emergency archaeological excavations in advance of the road going through.

In a planning decision which was a long-term strategic mistake, the M54 link with the M6 was created only for traffic heading south, as traffic flow statistics showed that the majority would be heading in the Birmingham and ultimately London directions.

For traffic on the M54 heading north, getting on to the northbound M6 was awkward, and continues to be so, the problem being aggravated by the advent of the M6 toll road.

There are plans to correct this with a new link which will be vastly more expensive than if it had been done at the time the M54 was built.

Another hugely expensive mistake was with the choice of road surfacing for the stretch which passes through Telford, which actually predates the rest of the motorway by eight years.

For all but the most easterly section, which was surfaced with tarmacadam, the M54 was built of concrete, and that included the 4.5 mile stretch which had been opened in 1975 as the "Wellington bypass" and had stood in inglorious isolation until the rest of the motorway was completed, extending the M54 all the way to the M6.

Warnings that a flexible asphalt surface was needed because of the many old mine workings along the route were borne out, and the section proved very troublesome, with the carriageway showing signs of breaking up after only two years.

Running repairs made it a nightmare for motorists and then in 1994 it was announced that the M54 Wellington bypass was to be ripped up and completely relaid at a cost of £12 million, and that every bridge along the stretch would have to be mended.

The process of creating a motorway service station on the M54 was also protracted. After years of wrangling, it finally opened on the outskirts of Telford in March 2003.

Although the M54 has generally been known as the Telford motorway, its value to all Shropshire was increased with the building of a £65 million dual carriageway extension and Shrewsbury bypass which opened in August 1992.

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