A PLEA for the motorway at Ballymena to be reclassified as a dual-carriageway to allow tractors easier access to the town’s livestock market has been rejected by Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon.
She said traffic surveys were carried out on market days and ‘observations indicated that no tractors travelled through the town’.
In a letter to Mid & East Antrim Borough Council, Minister Mallon said the issue had been previously discussed “in some detail” with representatives of the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU).
She said: ‘In these discussions it was pointed out that the development of the new Regional Transport Network Plan, which will set out the priorities for future development of the main road and rail networks, is ongoing and the draft document will be issued for public consultation.
‘The UFU may wish to avail of the opportunity at that stage to make representation on the future status of the M2 Ballymena bypass.
‘To help inform our consideration of this matter, and following the initial request to reclassify the M2, my officials undertook a number or traffic surveys on market days to ascertain the numbers of tractors travelling through Ballymena.
‘These observations indicated that no tractors travelled through the town and the vast majority of the vehicles in the market car park were lorries or 4×4 vehicles with trailers, both of which are permitted to use the motorway.
‘Officials also consulted with PSNI Road Policing who stated that they would not be supportive of a change in the current status of the road due to road safety concerns.
‘As such I can confirm there are no immediate plans to reclassify the M2 Ballymena Bypass as the case for this change has not yet been clearly established.’
In response to Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon’s rejection of reclassifying the Ballymena motorway as a dual-carriageway, UFU deputy president Victor Chestnutt told ‘Ballymena Daily’: “The UFU are greatly frustrated that despite an unanimous agreement amongst Mid and East Antrim councillors, and all MLAs and MPs for the area, the DFI Minister has rejected the appeal to downgrade a small stretch of the road that is designated as a motorway on the Ballymena bypass.
“The UFU legislation committee have been lobbying to have this stretch of road downgraded since I began as deputy president four years ago.
“The reasoning behind our lobbying efforts has always been due to safety concerns primarily for Ballymena town dwellers.
“Farmers are forced to navigate large machinery onto the fast lane of the dual-carriageway when coming from the north and it makes absolutely no sense to navigate large machinery through built up areas with schools and shops in the vicinity and endure high levels of traffic.
“This is putting public safety at risk and is an accident waiting to happen. It is in everyone’s interest for the Ballymena motorway to be reclassified as a dual-carriageway.
“Regardless of the traffic surveys that were completed with observations indicating that no tractors travelled through Ballymena town on market days, we have now entered one of the busiest periods in the farming calendar. Slurry and silage season is underway and agriculture machinery travelling through the town is going to increase.
“The UFU will be writing to Mid and East Antrim councillors to ask how we can work together to get this stretch of road downgraded. Our lobbying efforts to reclassify the Ballymena motorway will continue.”
Farmers had previously expressed concern about the dangers they face as they have to come off the Crankill Road dual-carriageway at Teeshan because of the nature of the road lay-out.
Earlier this year the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) raised concerns regarding the prevention of agricultural vehicles travelling on the M2 Ballymena By-Pass.
Classified as a motorway, the prohibition of agricultural vehicles on this section of the road is causing “distress” for farmers who have to take an alternative route through the town centre with large vehicles and agri machinery, the UFU said.
At the time UFU official Victor Chestnutt had said: “It is nothing short of unacceptable that agricultural traffic is forced to travel through Ballymena town centre instead of using the most appropriate route. This is causing distress for our farmers.
“They have to navigate large machinery through built up areas with schools and shops in the vicinity and endure high levels of traffic. This increases the risk of a serious road accident in the town and at the end of the northwards dual carriageway where agricultural machinery has to manoeuvre into the fast lane, when the M2 Ballymena By-Pass provides more convenient access for farmers farming around Ballymena as well as to the mart benefiting all road users.
“In recent months the number of enquires I have received from UFU members about the classification of this stretch of road has increased immensely and road safety is the main concern.
“The situation was brought to the attention of our members following the prosecution of a farmer last year for driving on the motorway with a tractor and trailer, after leaving the mart.
“Preventing agricultural vehicles from using the Ballymena By-Pass and forcing our farmers to endure the intensity of town traffic, is putting public safety at risk.
“It is only a matter of time before a major incident involving an agricultural vehicle becomes an unwanted reality.
“With the number of farming vehicles commuting through the town centre continuing to increase, I am appealing directly to DFI Roads, the PSNI and our politicians, to think logically because it is no longer viable to exclude agriculture machinery on this stretch of road.
“The necessary steps need to be taken to ensure the safety of the general public and our members, and to ease traffic around Ballymena.”
At a meeting of Mid & East Antrim Borough Council earlier this year, councillors unanimously supported a proposal from Bannside DUP councillor Thomas Gordon to write to the Department for Infrastructure.
Last year a farmer was given three penalty points and a £200 fine when he pleaded guilty to a charge of ‘driving a classified vehicle on a special road’ after he was detected on the Ballymena motorway in a tractor.
A proposal by Cllr Gordon at the council meeting had said: “That this Council supports the efforts of the farming community and the Ulster Farmers’ Union in their bid to secure the reclassification of the stretch of motorway from Teeshan to Larne Road roundabout to dual carriageway; in the interests of road safety, by writing to the Department of Infrastructure.”
Cllr Gordon said in the mid-60s it was decided to build a by-pass around Ballymena to take through traffic out of the town and a stretch of the M2 Motorway was built from the Larne Road Roundabout to Teeshan in 1969.
He said the initial plan was to have a motorway all the way from Belfast to the north Antrim coast “but as we all know that never happened and still hasn’t happened”.
Cllr Gordon told the meeting a further section of the A26 was constructed as a dual-carriageway from Teeshan to Glarryford in 1975 and other parts of the road were subsequently upgraded as dual-carriageways.
“So we have the construction of six stages of dual-carriageway all the way from Dunsilly to the Drones Road Roundabout – 24 miles – except for a small section in the middle from Teeshan to the Larne Road Roundabout as motorway which is four miles long.
“This small section creates serious problems for the farming community and agricultural contractors because tractors are not allowed on a motorway.
“Tractors coming from the Glarryford direction travel up the inside lane of the dual-carriageway but as they approach Teeshan these slow moving vehicles have to move out to the fast lane, where speeds at and over 70mph occur, in order to exit the road and take a detour on roads which the bypass was designed to keep them off.
“This is a most dangerous manoeuvre for slow moving agricultural machinery, exiting the dual-carriageway and there are grave road safety concerns.
“Likewise, tractors and agricultural machinery have to move off the Ballee Road East dual-carriageway onto the slip road onto the Larne Road Roundabout and travel through the town in order to get to Ballymena Livestock Market and other businesses which specialise in farm, equipment and supplies.”
He said he followed a tractor and a livestock trailer from the Seven Towers Roundabout and it passed through the town including close to St Louis Grammar School – “where many schoolchildren were congregating on the footpaths” – and past two more schools on the Broughshane Road.
The councillor said the livestock market was previously situated where the Fairhill Shopping Centre is now in Ballymena and it was then held in Cullybackey and Ballyclare but is now in the Woodside Road Industrial Estate in Ballymena.
“Therefore, I call on the Minister for the Department of Infrastructure to re-classify this section of roadway from motorway to dual-carriageway in the interests of road safety which will also lessen the inconvenience to the local farming community and local agricultural contractors and also lessen traffic volumes on our roads and streets in and around the town.”
Cllr Gordon said perhaps using the hard shoulder on the by-pass as a “crawler lane” would be one way forward.
Seconding the motion, DUP Councillor William McCaughey had said he had been contacted by a number of farmers about the matter.
He said the motorway was a “needless barrier” for the farming community prohibiting access from one side of the town to the other.
The councillor said he could “only feel sympathy for” the tractor driver who was fined and given penalty points for using a tractor on the motorway.
Cllr McCaughey had called on councillors to encourage roads chiefs “to apply some degree of logic and commonsense” and re-grade the short stretch of motorway “sitting needlessly in the middle of 24 miles of excellent and well-utilised dual-carriageway”.
Cllr Eugene Reid (SDLP) said farmers should be allowed to have easier access to the livestock market.
He had said at “silage time and at slurry time” agricultural contractors travelled along roads like the Grove Road in Ballymena “at all hours of the night” in large numbers which he felt was a “health and safety issue”.
Alderman William McNeilly (Ulster Unionist) said he was a farmer and had been contacted by the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
The councillor said a farmer told him it was a “nightmare” to cross onto the fast lane at Teeshan.
He said farm machinery was maybe twice the size and length of twenty years ago and “something has to be done”.
Alderman Paul Reid (DUP) said “some of the tractors are actually quite fast moving now”.
He added: “We are not talking about a 15mph vehicle any longer.”
He said some tractors are now moving at 35-40mph.
Cllr Paul Reid added: “We have to do everything in our power to support our local industries and that includes the rural industries as well. And we as a Council must champion their causes as well.”