Alan Clawley talks about the closest thing we have to our ‘own’ motorway.
After the ‘successful’ temporary closure of the A38 Tunnel this summer, the Council is now wondering about closing it permanently. This seemingly drastic downgrading of the city’s once proud innovation, opened by the Queen in 1971, looks like part of the council’s on-going efforts to break the ‘concrete collar’ of the Inner Ring Road that resulted in the demolition of Masshouse Circus and the laying out of the Moor Street Boulevard.
That the council can even contemplate destroying what was once conceived as a vital link in the city’s road system suggests that, like many other projects built in the 1960s and 1970s, the city fathers now regard it as an embarrassment, a symbol of the past, a terrible mistake.
So what was so special about the A38 in the 60s that it deserved its own tunnel under the city centre? The answer, as with so many official ‘grand’ projects is that it was intended to put Birmingham on the national road map. The Tunnel would enable motorists to speed from the Bristol Road to the M6 via the A38(M) Aston Expressway without stopping or diverting to the city centre.
But why was the A38 chosen for this underground honour rather than the A41, the A45 or the A34? The A45 was for many years the prestige route to the airport and an M45 spur was even built to join the M1 before the Midland Link of the M6 was opened. It is now hardly used. Could it be that the A38 happens to be the only other trunk road with two digits that connects Birmingham to other major cities? Its northern destination is the city of Derby beyond which it ends rather ignominiously in Mansfield. In the other direction the A38 disappears off the map at Taunton in Devon after passing through the city of Bristol.
As in many other areas of life, Birmingham feels the need to show the world that it can keep up with London. It doesn’t help matters when Birmingham doesn’t lie on any of the top-status single-digit trunk roads that radiate from the capital. The closest, Watling Street or the A5 passes well north of the city. Even Birmingham’s own Roman road, Icknield Street, is lost without trace as it passes the city centre to the west heading north from Metchley Fort to the A5 at Wall. After passing Lichfield the modern A38 follows it to Derby and the A6. Strangely, the M6 north of Birmingham is nowhere near the A6 and only gets close at Lancaster. Likewise the M5 doesn’t follow the A5 and even fails to touch it before becoming the M6. Did the council lobby the government to ensure that the motorways round Birmingham at least carried the single-digit numbers of two trunk rounds that radiated from London?
Secondary trunk roads with more than one digit, like the A38, were devised to fill in the gaps between the single-digit roads and are seen as having a lower status. So, if A38 was the best Birmingham could do it was going to make the most of it. When the Queensway Tunnel was opened in 1971 there was no M5 or M42 to enable fast through traffic to avoid the city centre. The first sections of the A4540 Middle Ring Road were only built in 1981 and it took until the 1990s for the circuit to be completed. Then it was re-named the Ring Road when the Council started to downgrade the Inner Ring Road.
The absence of chaos on the city’s roads during the Tunnel closure suggests that that its original purpose of speeding traffic from south-west to north-east has been taken over by other roads. On the other hand its prospective demise suggests that the council’s love affair with ill-considered and expensive capital projects results only in brief and ephemeral bursts of national prestige.