It could easily be mistaken for the surface of Mars as huge dump trucks and diggers remove hundreds of thousands of tonnes of earth from the north Lancashire countryside to clear a path for the Heysham M6 Link Road.
It’s an impressive sight, as the very fabric of the landscape changes, new hills are created, and a 20m wide – and in some places 14m deep – groove is cut out in preparation for what is the biggest infrastructure project Lancaster has seen since the M6 itself was built.
The driest September in over 100 years has helped Costain’s 250-300 link road workers make good progress in multiple locations along its 4.8km length since the work started earlier this year.
Project manager Andrew Langley, who I joined on a tour of the construction sites last week, says that the scheme, which is on schedule to be completed in July 2016, is one of the more challenging he has had to manage.
He said: “Technically it’s a really challenging scheme, as we have to cross a river, canal, and the West Coast Mainline, as well as going over or under smaller roads.
“The weather has helped us to pick up the pace though, and we’re hoping for more of the same.
“At the moment one of our main jobs is moving the material away.
“We have twenty tonne and thirty tonne dumpers shifting 10,000 cubic metres a day, travelling up to 92 miles each.
“There’s a total of 1.7m cubic tonnes of muck to move.”
“Most of the material will be used to shore up other parts of the road.
Andrew said that work to the new M6 northbound and southbound slip roads was now well underway.
“You’re now getting slip roads that meet good standards,” he said.
“The new slip roads will be a lot longer and will ultimately reduce queuing on the motorway for vehicles trying to get into Lancaster.
“We will also need to open the northbound off slip road before the job is complete to allow some access.”
The land between Caton Road and the M6 is also beginning to take shape as a Park and Ride facility, which is included in the £124.5m scheme.
It will be accessed off the new northbound slip road.
On the Morecambe side, the roundabout at Lancaster and Morecambe College has traffic filtering measures in place, making it tough going for motorists. An underpass has been put in place to allow the college access to its playing fields, and a huge ridge of earth will connect this to a new bridge over Torrisholme Road at one side, and the “Folly” bridge over the West Coast Mainline at the other.
Work is due to finish at Lancaster and Morecambe College by the endof the year, and the widening of the road between Northgate and Morecambe Road should be complete around the same time.
As we make our way around the site, Tony Crowley, Costain’s community relations manager, takes calls from members of the public about all aspects of the work.
Andrew said: “We constantly monitor what people are saying. What we are looking for is tell tale signs about a particular issue. This helps us to react effectively and address any major issues.
“One such issue is construction times, which is always contentious, but people realise that getting the job done as quickly as possible is beneficial for everyone. Above all we really appreciate people’s patience.”
As we make our way onto what was previously open farm land off Torrisholme Road, the sense of scale becomes apparent, as does the impression this dual carriageway will make on the landscape. The new bridge over the West Coast Mainline is well underway, as is the one over Lancaster Canal, which will eventually be encased in stone.
We arrive eventually at the site off Halton Road that will become Shefferlands Roundabout, where cutting and removal work is already taking place and where Green Lane will pass over the new road.
Construction of Beaumont Bridge, to allow the new road to go under Green Lane, is due to start this winter, as is the construction of the new M6 J34 northbound sliproad off the motorway into Lancaster.
Other key dates include:
The key date for traffic on the link road is project completion 2016.
The M6 southbound on/off slips will be open to traffic summer of 2015.
The Lune West Bridge will be complete by winter 2015, however connection onto the bridge won’t be completed until summer 2016.
The Northbound on/off slip roads will be partially opened before the final completion date to accommodate the closure of the existing slip roads as they’re currently in the way of the Lune West Bridge. Costain said dates and design of these are yet to be decided.
Costain has been working with Lafarge Tarmac of Carnforth, and has picked up their method of placing a flag on the roof of smaller vehicles on site to alert large ones to their presence.
Seventy of the 250-300 staff staff working on the project are from the local area.
Costain has already employed 64 unemployed people from their target of 100, and are around a third of the way through the job.
There is a “wet wheel wash” for vehicles coming off the site onto local roads, to keep dirt on the construction sites. There are three road sweepers working constantly, and six tractors with water bouncers which help to reduce dust.
At the Lune bridge huge metal piles have been driven into the ground to stop the river flooding the site.
A “fish disco”, which is usually reserved for off shore work, has been active during the work. The machine pumps air into the water near where construction is taking place.
The fish are attracted to the noise, but the bubbles turn them away.