In last week’s blog (Here) we looked at how it came to be that the Government are considering spending £250m of Taxpayer money on a 250 acre Lorry Park, and, astoundingly, have the full backing of the local MP, Damian Collins. Despite the fact the Park clearly won’t solve the problem of Operation Stack. Today we’ll look at that in more detail.
Operation stack is a flow rate problem. It occurs when the flow rate of HGV traffic out of the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel falls below the flow rate of HGV traffic into the county of Kent.
There are three basic ways you can try and solve that kind of problem:
- Improve the flow rate out. – Make sure the Tunnel and Port stay open as reliably as possible with as much capacity as possible.
- Reduce the flow rate in – In the long run, this would be things like increased use of rail freight, or reducing dependency on the Port of Dover and Tunnel for continential HGV freight. In the short term, when there is a crisis, it means finding a way to stop vast numbers of HGVs piling into Kent when there is no way for them to get out. (There are many possible ways this could be done – using phone apps with GPS for lorry drivers to advise them when it is ok to proceed into Kent for example – none has been significantly explored as a solution to this problem)
- Do neither of the above and when there is a crisis of the flow in being greater than the flow out – put the excess Lorries somewhere. Operation Stack is this kind of solution. The new Lorry Park is also this kind of solution.
There are many reasons why (3) is a poor option: Operation Stack blocks up the M20, but actually, simply moving those lorries into a massive lorry park, while it might help with that particular aspect of the problem, doesn’t really solve the problem in the broader sense. For example, many Lorries through Dover carry perishable goods with short life spans. Their loads become worthless if they sit in a lorry park for hours.
The biggest issue of all however, is that the Lorry Park won’t even solve the M20 Operation Stack problem. Here’s why in a nutshell:
The vast lorry park (which will sit dormant for 360+ days a year) will take hours to open up in the event of a crisis. By the time it is open, a queue will develop on the M20 waiting to get into it stretching back miles and acting exactly as Operation Stack does now. When it does open, the rate at which lorries can reasonably be expected to enter the park will be not significantly faster than the rate at which lorries will continue to add to the back of the “Operation Stack” type queue on the motorway. The result is the queue may never clear before the Lorry park reaches capacity or the problem causing Operation Stack resolves. Note, the size of the park is not the problem here. The problem is the flow rate in and out of the park, which will actually get worse the bigger the park gets.
To look at this in a little more detail:
A “Worked Example” of Why the Lorry Park Won’t Solve Operation Stack
The first point to note is that the park cannot be instantly available when needed. It will sit idle for months or years, and then be called into action at short notice. This will be no small task. Highways England say it will be ready in “A few hours”. At the most favorable interpretation this presumably means at least 3 hours, but could be more.
In the interim period, between a crisis starting and the park becoming available lorries will park in the M20 in traditional Operation Stack style, until the Park opens.
Around 6000 Lorries a day use the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel. That is an average of 250 hour, but the peak flow can be over 1000 lorries an hour.
By its very nature, Operation Stack scenarios happen when there is high demand, i.e. at peak flow. We can therefore assume that if the park takes just 3 hours to get open, there may already be 1000 lorries waiting in a queue to get into the lorry park by the time it opens for business, even assuming that there is still some operating capacity through the port and tunnel. If this were a “total shutdown” scenario (such as if both Port and Tunnel were completely closed due to a terrorist alert) then three hours could see a backlog of maybe up to 2,500 Lorries in a worst case scenario.
The Lorry park will hold 3600 lorries. However, the flow rate into the park is a maximum of 800 lorries an hour according to Highway’s England.
The lorries can only come off the motorway in a two by two queue. They will then go through an area much like a toll plaza on a toll road with up to about 9 or 10 lorries going through gates in parallel. Here the large size of the park will actually slow admission. Each lorry must be processed for its details, its dimensions, and destination and then marshaled to an appropriate space within the park. Highway’s England say this will take 40 seconds per Lorry. This would be only around 90 Lorries an hour, but because they are processing 9 or 10 lorries at a time, they reckon they can hit 800 lorries an hour.
There is much we could say about this, but for the moment let’s pretend we believe Highways England that this massive piece of infrastructure, having sat idle for months or years ,can, at 3 hours notice, immediately start processing lorries at 800 per hour.
So, we have a queue of, lets say, 1000 lorries, which starts clearing at 800 hour. Except, it won’t clear that fast, because Lorries will still be arriving onto the back of the queue. Let’s say peak time has passed and lorries are now only arriving at half of the peak flow…lets say 500 lorries an hour for an hour and then dropping right back to just 250 lorries an hour.
This means 300 lorries would be cleared in the first hour and 550 lorries in hours after that.
So, two hours after the park opens, five hours after the instigation of the crisis, there are still 150 lorries sat in the queue on the M20 and Operation Stack would still not be lifted.
i.e. Operation stack phase 2 would most likely be in action for most of a working day even assuming perfect function of the Lorry Park.
Short Stack or Long Stack? Does the Lorry Park help either way?
There are two basic kinds of Stack: Short term and Long term. A short term crisis is far more common and normally leads to the instigation of stack for only a few hours, before things return to normal. It should be abundantly clear from the worked example above that in a short term scenario a massive lorry park is cumbersome and unwieldy and will simply not help the situation.The problem will resolve before the Park gets up to speed. After 5 hours, the point at which the Park actually starts “earning its keep” in the above scenario, the crisis that caused Stack may already be dissipating.
The second kind of stack is the longer term kind. The kind that plagued the summer of 2015. Scenarios which reduce capacity for days or weeks. Again, it should be abundantly clear that the Lorry Park will not help with this from the operation stack point of view. Once the Lorry Park reaches capacity (Which in an extended stack scenario it almost certainly will do..particularly with the increase in traffic predicted over the next decade) Operation Stack will have to come into play. You cannot endlessly increase the capacity of the park, and, as previously stated, the bigger the park, the more tricky its operation, the longer it will take to get up and running and the slower the flow rates in and out of it…which negate any benefits.
It should also be noted that, in the case of a longer term stack scenario, surely the correct response is to stop the lorries coming into Kent in the first place? It may be arguable that in a short term crisis this can’t be done (I think it could), but in a crisis going on for days or weeks, it must surely be possible to stop the problem at source and not allow the catastrophic build up of lorries to occur at all?
Stack Aftermath: The Lorry Park Protracts The Crisis
The problems get even worse at the end of an Operation Stack Scenario. Highways England say they can get a maximum rate of 800 lorries an hour into the lorry park. They have, however, no clear answers on how fast they can get them out.
And there is an obvious reason for that: It could well be absolute chaos. As one Highway’s England representative told me, they may need to have operatives running around the park, banging on drivers doors to wake them up and get them moving if they have been sat for a long period of time. The marshaling system, designed to marshal 3600 lorries correctly to either Port or Tunnel in the same order they came in, will be an extremely difficult thing to make work swiftly and smoothly.
And this is a problem for everyone, not just the Lorry drivers, because the plan is that any excess lorries on the motorway will have to be processed through the park. Therefore, the rate determining step for controlling how fast Operation Stack can be lifted will now be the traffic bottleneck at the exit of the park. This is certain to be significantly slower than the current clearance rate of operation stack, where Lorries simply drive off in turn down the motorway.
It is inconceivable that clearing 3600 lorries from the Lorry Park will be anywhere near as smooth, and the last lorry in Operation Stack will not be cleared until the last lorry leaves the lorry park.
£250m is about to be spent on something which may actually not just fail to solve the problem but make it worse.
And What if it All Goes Wrong?
Thus far we have assumed the following: A) That the Park opens within 3 hours B) That it immediately functions perfectly at a maximum design entry speed of 800 lorries an hour C) That there is still some flow through Port of Dover and Eurotunnel and D) Based on traffic figures for 2016, not what they are projected to be in 10 or 20 years.
In other words, the disaster listed above is a best case scenario.
Can the Park really be opened in 3 hours? Highways England won’t even say how long it will take, except that it will take “A few hours”. 3 hours is merely a most generous guess. It could be six, it could be ten hours. If it’s at the longer end of the scale then, first, the crisis may well pass before the park becomes operational and second, the amount of backlog on the M20 before it opens will be so great that for the reasons of flow rate previously discussed, the situation will be unrecoverable until the crisis resolves.
The park will be mothballed for months or years. Then, at short notice, it is supposed to spring into action, presumably staffed by people who may be unfamiliar with the procedures. Virtually no major piece of infrastructure functions perfectly on its opening day. For most things, this doesn’t matter too much, but for this Lorry Park it is crucial; if it doesn’t work right first time, it’s not going to work at all. And it might be another 2 years before it’s next used, by which time there may be a new problem to iron out.
If the processing rate into the park is significantly below that target of 800 lorries per hour, the park will be a catastrophic failure.
There are certain highly foreseeable scenarios where the Park will take longer to open: Snow in winter for example. Clearing 250 acres of snow from the park to make it usable is going to be thousands of tonnes of snow, even for a light snowfall. A precise scenario where the park might be required for a short time at short notice is precisely a scenario where the park will be useless.
Junction 11 – The Final Nail In the Coffin
If residents of East Kent are in any doubt about whether the Park is beneficial, there is a final point to make: Currently, Junction 11 of the M20 is still operable during Operation Stack, but Highways England say it will have to be closed while the Park is in Operation. This will cut off the entry point to the M20 for Numerous East Kent Villages, Hythe, and the most direct access to the M20 to Canterbury. The Lorry Park will create a road access scenario which is unequivocally worse for residents of the Folkestone and Hythe area.
So why is the Local MP, who is surely fully apprised of the facts, so supportive of the Lorry Park Plan? There are many theories, which we will cover in the next post, for now the summary point is this:
The Government seems determined to waste vast amounts taxpayers’ money, damaging local village communities, and at significant environmental cost, on a project which demonstrably cannot deliver what it is supposed to – and may, in fact, make the problem worse.