A behind the scenes tour of Traffic Scotland’s National Control Centre

An unimposing building with an unparalleled view of the three bridges sits on the banks of the River Forth in South Queensferry.

Sunday, 17th February 2019, 12:17 pm
Updated Sunday, 17th February 2019, 12:21 pm
Heart of the action...the 46 inch television screens in the control centre are monitored 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

But while the view in Traffic Scotland’s nerve centre is transfixing, the 40 or so operators in the national control centre sit with their backs to it.

Their attention is wholly focused on the computer screens in front of them and the 40, 46 inch television monitors which are at the heart of their work.

For it is here that 3500 kilometres of motorway and trunk roads across Scotland are monitored via more than 440 CCTV cameras on the main arteries between our major cities – 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Panoramic views...of the three bridges are afforded from the control centre but the staff have little time to look out the windows to enjoy the world class view as theyre too busy dealing with incidents. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

The man in charge, Stein Connelly, has worked in traffic control since 1984 so there’s not much he hasn’t seen before.

Clearly passionate about his work and proud of the team he works alongside, he has kindly agreed to give us a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes.

The team is both proactive and reactive in its mission to keep Scotland’s roads moving – planning for issues it can see coming and responding quickly to those that it can’t.

Partnerships play an essential role in the day-to-day operations here.

Man at the helm...Stein Connelly has worked in traffic control since 1984 so there's not much he hasn't seen. The Beast from the East brought the worst weather conditions he's encountered during his many years of service. (Pic: Michael Gillen)

For example, we’re sitting in the resilience room where Transport Scotland, the Scottish Government agency which oversees our transport industry, meets during major crises, such as the Beast from the East.

It is here, too, where action plans are drawn up to cope with major events on the annual calendar or roadworks on vital routes.

A Police Scotland officer is based in the centre at peak times, along with Traffic Scotland’s media officers who Tweet updates throughout the day and INRIX, a radio team which transmits travel updates, both on the website and to most of our radio stations.

From September to April, a MET office employee is also based in the centre.

But Traffic Scotland has many more partners behind the scenes too.

Stein explained: “We work closely with event organisers to ensure people get to the Open or Royal Highland Show with as little disruption as possible, particularly when two major events are on at the same time.

“We also work with the road operating companies, Freight Haulage Association and public transport providers, such as Abellio Scotrail. We co-ordinate road and rail works to minimise the impact for commuters and the Scottish economy.”

With all of the country’s roadside SOS calls also being answered at the centre, there are few down times.

It’s a round-the-clock job and often a tough one, with operators witnessing incidents that take a toll.

Even Stein, despite his many years in the job, isn’t immune.

He explained: “Operators can take a call from someone saying they’re going to jump off the Erskine Bridge, pan the camera round and see them jumping. That can really stay with someone.

“One that sticks in my mind was an accident at Charing Cross in Glasgow.

“The car was a mess and as we panned the camera round we saw a child’s car seat, empty, on the road.

“The room fell quiet but nothing was said. Later on, the police told us there were no fatalities and no children had been hurt – the sense of relief here was amazing.”

Staff have access to counselling, should they need it as a result of anything they’ve witnessed.

But you get the sense of a camaraderie among the team too which undoubtedly helps get them through the tough days.

Last February and March, the Beast from the East proved a real challenge – some operators didn’t make it home for days, while others couldn’t make it in.

Stein was at the helm through it all, steering the ship through the worst road conditions witnessed in Scotland in a generation.

He said: “It was pretty bad in 2010 but the Beast from the East is the worst weather I’ve ever experienced.

“Usually, we can marshall maintenance teams and gritters from one part of the country to help in other areas hit by severe weather. That just wasn’t possible.

“I was camped out here for five days, as was Humza Yousaf, the then transport minister. The operators couldn’t get home either so they just got on with the job, like they always do.

“It was the first red weather warning in Scotland – everyone learned from it.”

A Hilltip Icestriker from Finland is now being trialled on the M80 to ensure recovery teams can access incidents and an electric powered spreader has been deployed on the M8.

As for daily operations, the public also has an important role to play.

“We have just over 440 CCTV cameras on 3500km of roads,” said Stein. “It’s not a lot to cover such a large area.

“So the public are often our eyes and ears, alerting us to breakdowns so we can send out a recovery team.

“We get a lot of thank you letters as a result.”

Those worried about big brother watching need not fear either.

Stein added: “We don’t record number plates or incidents, unless the police ask us to.

“So while we get a lot of requests, we can’t help solicitors looking for accident recordings – we don’t have them.”

Crossing over the Forth is now far more reliable

Traffic Scotland’s National Control Centre was opened on April 16, 2013, by then depute first minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Also used as a contact and education centre for pupils to find out more about the £1.35 billion Queensferry Crossing, thousands of children visited to get a bird’s eye view as the project unfolded.

At 1.6 miles (2.7km), it is the longest bridge of its type in the world and also the tallest, towering 210m (689ft) high.

But has it eased congestion for those travelling along the east coast artery between Fife and Edinburgh?

According to Traffic Scotland statistics, the crossing is very much doing the job it was intended for.

Since September 2017, there have been 20 occasions when the Forth Road Bridge would have been closed to high-sided vehicles due to high winds.

Wind shielding on the new crossing enabled it to remain open, affording far more reliability for commuters and hauliers who regularly use it.

The hard shoulder on the new bridge also means there are no longer lane closures if vehicles breakdown along its span.

Stein said: “The crossing’s improved reliability is delivering benefits not only for commuters but for businesses and the wider Scottish economy too.”