Let’s be honest, the A329(M) is all a bit of a mess. But in Autumn of 2015, its long-running white paint-based tinkering from the Highways Agency was finally completed, and with it the road’s downgrading from ‘Motorway’ to ‘Rush-Hour Car Park with added Peril’. To understand fully how this sorry transformation has unfolded, over many years, we need to look back at the history of this unfortunate motorway.
The A329(M) was a project with grander visions than a Reading-to-Bracknell expressway. It was supposed to become the M31 – a link from Reading and the M4 to the M3 and potentially to the M25 the other side of Woking. Dreamt up in an era of frantic motorway making, you can see the benefits of such a route, not just locally but also for journeys from Bristol and the West to South London, Kent and the Channel Tunnel. The vast J10 complex we have today is a relic of that aspiration.
Although I can’t find any references to prove it, it seems evident to me that the then Berkshire authority had aspirations of continuing the route across the Thames and towards the M40. I think this is proven by the fact that the stretch from the M4 northwards has been built with a large central reserve that could accommodate a further lane in each direction. Neither of these major extensions came to fruition so the motorway has only ever known life as a more local solution.
The A329(M) opened in 1972, initially with the J10 interchange and a short link either side to the existing road network. The stretch from Winnersh to Sutton’s Seeds (A4) was due to open at the same time but tragedy struck during construction. A span of the elevated carriageway above the River Loddon collapsed, sadly killing three construction workers. That section eventually opened in 1974, with the final stretch to Coppid Beech completing in 1975. A flyover from Sutton’s Seeds into Thames Valley Park, and some tinkering with the slip roads around Winnersh Triangle came some time later.
In the 1990’s, the flaws in the design were starting to show as traffic volumes built. With no onward link over the Thames, far more traffic was heading from the south onto the A4 for central Reading than over the flyover to Thames Valley Park. Large queues formed along the slip road and onto the motorway. The authorities converted the hard shoulder to a bus lane, principally so that the RailAir Heathrow bus could skip past the queues. In doing so, the motorway had to be downgraded to an ‘A’ road, providing us with the bizarre A3290.
With the A329(M) simply becoming the A329 at the Bracknell end, all the road signs directing to the motorway, from either end now, actually point towards a road that leads to the motorway rather than the motorway itself. Confused? Well, road sign convention has the answer – a road name in brackets means “road to…”, hence the image at the top of this post from Sutton’s Seeds labelled bracket A329 bracket M bracket bracket. Beautiful. Perhaps better names would be (Nowhere) for the northbound carriageway, and (New-found Frustration) for the southbound? Anyway, with the A-road downgrade, the hard-shoulder had to be hashed out, meaning our future-proofed eight-lane corridor through East Reading was down to four usable strips of tarmac.
There have been other issues with the road. It’s well known that Reading lacks an ice rink. But on cold winter mornings, the A3290 bridge over the Loddon, seemingly with a climate of its own, spins into action and has led to many accidents. In fairness, recently gritting is very thorough. But this risk, coupled with memories of the 1972 construction disaster meant that Wokingham council wanted to take no chances with the safety barriers on the bridge. A project to renew them was very badly managed a few years ago, leading to monumental delays, even though the eventual solution was just to plonk some free-standing concrete barriers on the now hashed out hard shoulders. But the damage was done. So bad were the queues that the M4 ground to a halt and the Highways Agency allegedly threatened Wokingham with temporary closure of the A329(M)/M4 slip roads unless the congestion being caused by the barrier repair was alleviated. This was not forgotten.
The M4 is part of the national network, whilst the A329(M) – the motorway that never was – is managed locally by Wokingham. Queueing traffic on the M4 is unsafe and compromises the effective running of the motorway, so the Highways Agency developed and executed a project to remodel the slip lanes. Apparently unopposed by Wokingham, this scheme has eliminated the queues that backed up to the M4, but it has effectively re-purposed the A329(M). It’s no longer a Reading-to-Bracknell expressway. It’s now just one large junction for the M4. We already had spacious grass verges wide enough for two lanes of traffic. We already had hashed out hard shoulders. Now came the final act – the hashing out of one of the two running lanes, to provide a new dedicated lane for the M4. Not only that, but the M4 traffic now gets two chances to join the A329(M): first with its own lane, but then again with a merging slip lane. Motoring convention sees many drivers switch right one lane to create space for the remaining slip lane. The upshot really is that Reading-Bracknell traffic gets about two thirds of a lane, whilst the M4 gets about a lane and a third. The Highways Agency has concocted a solution that hugely advantages “its” M4 traffic, over the needs of local traffic using the A329(M).
Here is a diagram showing today’s ((((A329(M)))))
It’s very clear to see where it all goes wrong, but just in case, the big red circles are a hint. The grand visions of the M31, reduced to a single lane track with less capacity than a country lane. Traffic now queues back into Woodley and Earley just for the debatable privilege of driving to Bracknell. So how do we solve this mess? The quickest, simplest, and fairest option would probably be to grab a tin of paint and hash out the second joining M4 slip lane, restoring 50/50 parity: the M4 gets one lane to itself, and the A329(M) gets one lane to itself. For many days that would probably ensure free-flowing traffic.
However, there is one remaining issue. The Sun. No, not the newspaper, the actual glowing orb in the sky. The contours of the road mean that low sun reduces the road to a crawl, particularly towards Coppid Beach on winter mornings. Whilst the new configuration means free-flowing access from the M4 in most circumstances (and new queues back into Woodley for local traffic), the sun can mean pain for all, as shown in the screenshot below from last week.
The proper solution now has to be to keep the newly enhanced M4-to-A329(M) capacity, but to expand the capacity for local traffic. The motorway dream has long since died. Now is the time for pragmatism. The hard shoulder should be converted to a running lane for the full stretch between Winnersh Triangle and Coppid Beech. That new lane goes to the M4, with two running lanes through the junction, just like there’s always been. The whole road would then be downgraded to an ‘A’ road, and a lower speed limit of 50 or 60 Mph for the entire length would be advisable, given the lack of a hard shoulder, and the frequent lane changing needed by different users (signed from overhead gantries). The speed reduction would cost off-peak users driving end-to-end only two or three minutes, whilst the extra capacity would drastically reduce peak time journeys. This isn’t environmentally reckless road building – this is just using the capacity of the corridor that’s already been carved through our area. Here’s the result:
So there you have it – the potted history of Reading’s most butchered, and now frankly broken road. It can be fixed, but only if Wokingham’s council takes its responsibilities to the whole central Berkshire area seriously. Let’s hope they do…Follow @readingonthames