An unfortunately necessary upgrade

Last week, the government announced that a proposed upgrade to the M3 motorway’s junction with the A34 outside Winchester, a cause of major delays going back years, had been accepted for consideration by the government planning inspectorate, with a view to construction beginning in 2024. The plan is to reroute the A34 so that traffic can flow straight on and off the southbound M3 without having to pass through the Winnall roundabout, which is a cause of major delays and has been for decades since the M3 was extended south from Basingstoke in the 1980s; some of the existing roadways are to be repurposed for pedestrians and cyclists. Before that, the A34 joined the A33 at a simple free-flow junction which still exists; the A33 now runs alongside the M3, in parts still dual carriageway, a perfectly good road that is largely unused.

I’m not normally a fan of big road projects, but this will put something right that the misguided extension of the M3 caused. The A34 serves as a link between the M3 and M40 and carries a lot of freight traffic between the south coast ports (Portsmouth, Southampton and Poole) and Birmingham and the north. It’s a narrow, hilly road that contains a lot of accident blackspots, thanks mostly to its piecemeal construction (a bypass here and a congestion relieving upgrade there); in the early 90s the Newbury bypass was the subject of major protests as big road projects came to be seen as environmentally destructive, especially as it passed Newbury on the wrong side (the rural west side, missing the industrial estates and link to Basingstoke on the east, although it’s handy if you want to get to Hungerford). No such protests, as far as I’m aware, greeted the senseless M3 extension to Winchester; that happened when the final missing link was plugged, the Winchester bypass itself, which was rerouted and widened, eliminating the traffic lights where the old A33 crossed the Winchester-Portsmouth road but requiring a large cutting through a hill, Twyford Down, though it also restored access to St Catherine’s Hill from Winchester when the old bypass was removed.

It’s an upgrade that shouldn’t be necessary, but the present interchange frequently causes traffic to back up for miles along the A34; travelling in Berkshire I frequently see warnings of delays on this part of the A34 on the gantries. As for why anyone would think it was a good idea, perhaps the roundabout was installed to save money (a common feature of 1980s and 90s road projects; see also the infamous Catthorpe junction at the bottom of the M6), or perhaps it was a product of London-centric thinking, a bit like how you can tell which trains are going to London in some parts of the UK because they’re the shiny new ones. Much of the A34 by the 1980s had yet to be upgraded (north of Oxford it was single carriageway all the way to Birmingham, before it was diverted to meet the extended M40 in 1991) but the upgrades were in the pipeline. I’m sure this news will make every truck driver who has to travel to Southampton from anywhere north of London breathe a sigh of relief.

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