Sean O’Neill looks proudly upon a 3m-high, 15m-wide, 4.2-million pixel screen wall, pin-pointing the major traffic routes in Ireland.
“We are in the brains of the Motorway Traffic Control Centre operations; this is the future,” says O’Neill, communications director for Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII).
“It is going to keep an eye on everyone travelling along our motorway network: the M50, also Dublin Port tunnel, the Jack Lynch tunnel and some of the motorways coming in and out of the M50 itself.”
The control centre based in Dublin’s docklands, set to be fully operational next year following a €60 million upgrade, will according to TII offer greatly enhanced management including “100 per cent video coverage” of the M50 and give controllers the power to send targeted messages to drivers. This will help to cut the number of accidents and improve safety, it adds.
Every centimetre of the M50 will be available on camera 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unlike now, says Andrew O’Sullivan who is senior operations manager for TII network projects.
“People in this room will be getting information from incident detectors in the road, automatic number-plate recognition systems, emergency response telephones, CCTVs and weather stations, among others.
“We will be able to measure the level of surface water and wind speed, close lanes and reduce speed depending on what we see here.”
Sure enough, during The Irish Times tour the screens highlight a number of problems on the national network: an abandoned car between Junction 8 and 9 on the M9, a spillage between Junction 14 and 13 on the M8, and another abandoned car on the M18 between Shannon and Sixmilebridge.
The new management controls on the M50 – the most heavily trafficked road in the country, with nearly 145,000 vehicles using all, or part of it daily – will let controllers regulate speed, or close lanes when required.
“There are three parts to this. The M50 Traffic Flow Optimisation project; the Network Intelligence Management system and the Motorway Operations Control Centre,” says Jeff Burt, manager of motorway and tunnel traffic with TII.
“Information will come in here and information about any actions being taken will be fed back out to motorists through variable message signs, [and] slip road signals.
“The job that we do in this building is getting information to road users on what they need to do to travel safely when using the network,” he said.
A study of M50 traffic flows began after planning permission was given to widen the motorway in 2005. Cutting speeds is the key, reducing congestion and, counter-intuitively, ensuring motorists get to their destination in less time not more.
Better management of traffic flows could also help to manage ever-heavier traffic volumes in the years ahead, says TII.
Traffic volumes are already at record levels, reaching 178,770 vehicles a day between the N3 and N4 junctions on May 18th last year. Figures for 2019 are expected to show further increases.
Improved communications to drivers is a central part of the plan. The number of gantries – large overhead signs – showing messages to drivers will rise from 32 to 99.
The improved surveillance will come into force ahead of Christmas from south of Junction 6 Blanchardstown, to east of Junction 4 Ballymun. This first phase of the rollout incorporates 25 new gantries, 106 sensors collecting data on vehicles, 14 variable messaging signs and nine CCTV cameras, among other sensors which collect data on weather conditions.
TII has for some time wanted to change the M50’s tolling rules to ensure that people using part of the motorway paid a fee based on the distance travelled and whether or not they crossed the Liffey. The new technology would make this a possiblity, although the move would be politically unpopular.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said so-called multi-point tolling would not happen until public transport improved.
The upgraded system, says O’Sullivan, marks a transition from monitoring roads to actively managing them.
“This marks a change in TII’s role from being primarily a road builder, to being a road operator,” he says.