Trunk Roads Then and Now

Trunk Roads Then and Now?

The United Kingdom has a vast and complex network, consisting of various grades of roads, from quiet country tracks to full blown motorways. A large proportion of the road network are Trunk Roads, providing a strategic network of major routes linking centres of national importance.

How it all began

Back in the 1930s, car use was increasing, and people were beginning to travel further afield and more frequently. The government realised this, and realised the importance of a simple system of roads that would link the major urban centres. In addition, the upkeep and quality of these major routes seemed to be a little inconsistent, with standards seeming to vary between local authorities.

Previously, you had to know which towns you had to pass through, like a giant road dot-to-dot. Numbering meant that you only needed to remember a couple of roads.

So the government decided that a new system of road classification was needed, one that would highlight the importance of specific roads. By doing so, a strategic network could be established that would link together the major cities, ports and other principal places.

For more detailed information see: The Trunk Road Act 1936
Click here to download: 1936 Trunk Road Map (pdf)

The Network Expands

Following the end of the Second World War, the country was beginning the slow process of returning to normality. The government wanted to make it easier for goods and produce to be transported around the country, as well as provide a network that could suitably meet local and national planning needs.

The Transport Act 1946

It was decided that a second Trunk Road Act would be passed, which would allow for the reorganisation of the Trunk Road network. Principally it added more roads to the trunk road network, and upheld the requirements of the original Act of 1936. In addition, the Minister of Transport was given additional powers over these roads, plus the newly allocated routes.

Areas of focus:

  • Infrastructure
  • New Roads
  • New Numbers?
  • New Bridges and Junctions

Click here to download: List of Trunk Roads Added in 1946 (pdf)

Trunk Decline

The mass expansion of the motorway network during the 1960s saw these roads join the trunk road system. The result was a large number of parallel routes, such as the M6 alongside the A6, A49, A50 and A34. This eventually led to a review of the trunk system, with a large number of roads losing their trunk road status.

The first mass declassification of the trunk road network in England took place during the early 1990s, with a huge part of the network being detrunked. Many of the traditional roads were affected, including sections of the A2, A4, A5 and A6 – all being bypassed by motorways.

One reason for this was to allow the trunk road network to be passed to a new agency, operating somewhat at arms length to the government. This new agency, aptly named the Highways Agency, was established on 30 March 1994. The reason for the Agency being set up was due to the belief of the then Transport Secretary, John MacGregor, that a separate managing agency could provide faster improvements and better management of the trunk network. By shrinking the trunk network, and passing the remaining roads into the control of the local authorities, the Highways Agency would be able to better manage its time and resources onto the most important roads, to be known as the Strategic Road Network.

The Trunk Network Today

The United Kingdom still retains a dense and comprehensive network of trunk roads, covering the length and breadth of the country. These vary from six lane super motorways to small twisty single carriageway routes through mountainous regions.

All in all, there is approximately 8,500 miles of trunk road across the British mainland, of which about 2,160 miles are in the form of motorways.

There has been a fall in the length of trunk road across the UK, particularly in England. In Scotland and Wales, the reductions are much smaller, as generally all primary routes are also trunk roads – these networks have remained pretty much consistent, with the only major changes resulting from the construction of bypasses and motorway upgrades.

Click here to download: Current Trunk Road Network Map (pdf)

It is important to understand the history and development of our road systems in order to learn and adpt to the growing needs of our communities. At Vemco Consulting we take pride in our history and look forward to participating in the development of it’s future.

Source: Trunk roads –


Basil Jackson

Basil Jackson

Managing Director at Vemco Consulting
VEMCO was established in 2012 by Basil Jackson, a chartered civil engineer with more than 20 years’ experience in local government. Designations: BEng, MSc(Eng), CEng, MICE, DMS Managing Director, Vemco Consulting
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