Motorway bosses 'sorry' for nine hour M6 delays following death crash

Motorway bosses have finally held up their hands over the botched clear-up operation that caused hours of chaos on the M6, admitting: "We got it wrong."

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Facing a grilling from West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson, Highways England's chief highways engineer Mike Wilson said: "We are sorry for the delays that people experienced as a result of this tragic incident.

"We work really hard to get incidents cleared, the safety of the public is of paramount importance to us.

"We are driven by maintaining safety."

During the hearing, Mr Wilson and two fellow senior Highways England officers were quizzed for more than one hour by Mr Jamieson and members of the West Midlands Police Strategic Policing and Crime Board.

The inquiry heard how West Midlands Police and Highways England did not declare the crash a 'major incident'.

Chief Constable Dave Thompson told the hearing it was the 'right decision' not to upgrade the alert, despite saying it was 'on the cusp of a humanitarian situation'.

But facing fierce questioning, Mr Wilson later conceded: "In hindsight we should have called a major incident. We got it wrong."

Two lorries and a car crashed on the M6 around 1.50am on February 4 between junction 5 at Castle Bromwich and junction 6 at spaghetti junction. A 26-year-old man was killed.

Over several hours, the traffic was allowed to build up 11 miles southbound to junction 10 at Walsall and six miles northbound past the M42. There was also queues of seven miles on the M5 northbound.

But it was revealed catalogue of errors, revealed in a Highways England debrief report, made the situation worse.

Highways England said they were not aware of a large diesel spillage on the carriageway until they were granted access to the scene at 7.10am.

This is despite their contractor Kier being on the scene around 3am.

Mr Jamieson remarked: "Given there was hundreds of litres of diesel how could they not see it or smell it?"

Once Highways England realised there was diesel on the road, it then took them a further five hours to make the decision to resurface the road.

Overall it took 12 hours from the incident to the decision being made.

But then they ordered Tarmac from Leicester 39 miles away when the closest depot used by local authorities was in Ettingshall, Wolverhampton, just 17 mile away.

Then the trucks delivering the Tarmac were caught up in the traffic jams caused by the motorway closure.

It also emerged that Highways England decided against suspending the fees for the M6 Toll to ease the jams.

Mr Wilson said that the incident did not meet the 48 hour threshold needed to trigger the suspension which would have to be approved by the Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin.

Remarkably, Mr McLoughlin and Mr Thompson were both stuck in the queues for six hours –and still this did not prompt the agencies to act swifter.

And Highways Agency director Melanie Clarke admitted there was no 'contingency plan' to deal with major traffic problems in the so-called 'Birmingham Box' affecting the M6, M42, and M5.

Birmingham and Solihull councils were also not informed how serious the incident was.

A Highways England spokesperson said:"Highways England is a highly capable company, committed to customer service. We believe there is always room to improve.

"We take the incident on the M6 on 4 February seriously and have been totally open and transparent throughout this hearing process. We shared our structured debrief with the PCC on his request, provided a lengthy written statement to the committee, and three senior executives to give evidence in a frank, open and honest way. At no point have we sought to withhold information, and we have done all we can to answer questions and provide further details as necessary."

Mr Jamieson received more than 100 submissions from members of the public caught up in the traffic. They included a person who missed their grandmother's funeral, and another who missed their their mother's ashes being interred.

He said the cost to the economy was tens of millions of pounds and there were reports that factories in the region ground to a halt.

He said: "This was a shocking episode. It was completely unacceptable. Not only was it the most awful experience for the many people who were caught up in it, it has cost the economy tens of millions of pounds and not to mention the huge reputational damage this has done to the wider West Midlands.

"It was important we had this hearing in public to show that the public authorities are answerable to the people.

"It is the public we serve. I hope what we have learnt will mean that this does not happen again."

Mr Jamieson will release a report and recommendations on the incident next week.

Highways England has agreed to review how it works with the police and local authorities, and report back to Mr Jamieson.

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