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M54 still a vital lifeline 30 years after opening

Wolverhampton | News | Published:

The rain came down, the brollies went up and 30 years ago, a new future dawned for Staffordshire and the Black Country. That was when the M54 was officially opened by transport secretary Nicholas Ridley.

It had a huge impact on the area, linking Wolverhampton to Shropshire and beyond.

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

The benefits have been there for all to see and the motorway continues to bear fruit – the i54 where Jaguar Land Rover is building a £500 million engine plant would surely have never come to fruition without the M54.

It was a vital lifeline for industry and particularly those firms which were feeling the full force of the recession of the early 1980s.

Unemployment was high and traditional industries which had been such a key part of the scene were struggling.

Coupled with the designation of an enterprise zone in Telford, the new motorway laid the foundations of a revival of fortunes of the new town in the later part of the decade by making it more attractive and convenient for commerce and industry.

But it was not just about improving the communications infrastructure to give businesses a helping hand. The M54 has also saved an incalculable number of lives.

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Before the motorway arrived, the main route into Shropshire from the east was the A5. Fatal accidents were sadly commonplace. In contrast, fatal accidents on the M54 are rare.

The new route was many years in the making. It took 16 years and three planning inquiries. There was much controversy about the route which went through 700 acres of mainly farmland in Staffordshire and Shropshire. When the bills came in, it cost £3.5 million a mile.

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.

On the negative side, apart from the loss of farmland, the motorway destroyed much of the site of what was once Tong Castle, and an archaeological rescue dig was done before the bulldozers and earthmovers did their work. It was claimed that the road brought Birmingham within half an hour's travelling of Telford. But even at the time this smacked of optimism.

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Another thing that was odd even at the time was that although the M54 connected Shropshire to the M6, it was a link only for traffic travelling south.

It was argued that as this was the direction most traffic would be going, there was no need for a northwards link.

Time and experience has changed the view about that and there are currently proposals which would make an M54-M6 link for traffic travelling north as well.

And 1983 did not, as you might have supposed, herald the opening of Shropshire's first motorway.

That had come on December 11, 1975, when 4.5 miles of motorway dubbed the M54 Wellington bypass opened. It ran between Ketley and Hollinswood where it stopped abruptly – an obvious sign of unfinished business. It was another eight years before the extension to the M6 was opened.

Even after the opening of the M54 the problems of the A5 west of Telford to Shrewsbury continued, but were solved on August 11, 1992, with the opening of the £65 million M54 extension and Shrewsbury bypass.

Road cost three times its original estimate

  • The 18-mile long road cost the taxpayer £62 million – three times the original estimate
  • Despite warnings that poor terrain made concrete surfacing unsuitable, three of the contracts for the M54 were built in concrete and only the most easterly used Tarmacadam
  • In the first eight years, £5.3m was spent on repairs. The concrete surface in the Telford stretch was particularly troublesome
  • The road was used as a testing ground by the Department of Transport. Some sections were surfaced using a mixture of cement and pulverised fuel ash
  • During the construction 250,000 trees and shrubs were planted as part of extensive landscaping
  • Eight nesting boxes were installed under bridges to encourage swifts to nest

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