Glasgow’s Inner Ring Road was proposed as an urban motorway around the city centre. Originally mooted in Robert Bruce’s “First Planning Report” of 1945, formal proposals were not outlined until the "Interim Report on the Glasgow Inner Ring Road" was produced by Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick on behalf of Glasgow Corporation in 1962.
The north flank of the Inner Ring Road stretched from Castle Street through the Comprehensive Development Areas at Townhead and Cowcaddens towards Great Western Road. Ultimately the west and north flanks were the only two parts of the ring road that were completed and today they form the M8, the north flank being the section between junctions 15 and 17.
Like the west flank, the north flank was split in to two phases. These were the Townhead Interchange at the east end of the corridor and the Woodside Section to the west, which in turn joined on to the west flank through Charing Cross.
The corridor selected for the north flank differs to that outlined in the Bruce Report of 1945. As wholesale redevelopment of the local area was planned, the design team decided to use open space to the north west of Townhead and reduce the overall impact on Cowcaddens.
This page details the Townhead Interchange section of the north flank, completed in April 1968. This work involved building a section of elevated motorway towards Cowcaddens, alterations to a number of surface streets like Alexandra Parade and the construction of a complex, sprawling junction that would eventually join the north and east flanks of the Inner Ring Road and connect them to the proposed Springburn Expressway and Monkland Motorway.
Design and Planning
Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick, who had developed the roads plan presented to the Corporation in 1965, was responsible for the design and procurement of the project.
This presented an initial challenge, as the Townhead Interchange was expected to progress through three temporary, interim formats as routes in the wider Inner Ring Road and Highways Plan were constructed and connected to it. These are referred to as Stages 1 to 3.
Like many junctions on the urban sections of the M8, the Townhead Interchange combines elements of several high capacity junction types. The bespoke design included ten bridges, six underpasses, and thirteen sections of retaining wall and could be best described as a "multi-level fork/stack hybrid" incorporating a "channelised diamond" at its northern end. It was chosen to allow free flow movements between the east and north flanks of the Inner Ring Road, the Springburn Expressway and the Monkland Motorway. The design speed was 50mph on the main carriageways, 40mph on the associated slip roads and maximum gradients were 5% and 6% respectively.
Townhead was designated as a Comprehensive Development Area in the late 1950s. This artist's impression, taken from a Highway Plan for Glasgow (1965) illustrates how the proposed motorway system would fit within the redeveloped area.
The geometry of the entire interchange was made more difficult by the surrounding areas being so built up and by the absence, at the time, of design standards for urban motorways in the UK. A number of Scott Wilson Kirkpatrick’s engineers had undergone training in America and seen the development of urban freeways first-hand, so they made use of Barnett's Tables (an American design practice) to calculate curves and gradients. The slip road from the A803 southbound to M8 westbound is particularly striking. Known as "Loop U" it features the second tightest radius of any slip road on the Glasgow network.
The confined sites and constraining topography led to a number of innovative and sometimes infamous solutions like the Stirling Road slip road joining the main carriageways from the right.
Much of "old Townhead" was still standing when construction of the interchange began in late 1965. In this photo from 1966, shops and tenements can be seen at the junction of Castle Street and Parliamentary Road. Supports for the motorway flyover are well under construction by this stage.
As on other parts of the Inner Ring Road, the designers went to great lengths to reduce the visual impact of the new roads—clever landscaping and the compact, two level design allows Townhead to remain relatively unobtrusive given its size, importance and complexity.
The designers and architects recognised that community severance could easily blight the local neighbourhoods, so a network of pedestrian overbridges and walkways also criss-cross the site,
The legacy of earlier land use required special consideration to protect the structures from corrosive materials linked to the area’s former chemical works, the world’s oldest, which had contaminated the site.
This aerial photo from 1966 provides an indication of the extent of the work site. Around 50% of the interchange was constructed on empty land or on the line of the former Monkland Canal, however from Castle Street to Baird Street several properties were cleared.
The Stage 1 contract, valued at £3.1 million, included the construction of the M8 carriageways, connections to Castle Street and Alexandra Parade and the completion of various advance and enabling works for the remaining structures. A variation to this contract was issued on 3rd April 1967 to include construction of the eastern part of the elevated carriageways in the Woodside section.
This work was awarded to Marples Ridgeway Ltd November 1965. Work began a few weeks later on 3rd December after a small ground-breaking ceremony attended by Willie Ross, the Secretary of State for Scotland. Much of the site clearance and demolition had been undertaken in advance, causing considerable changes to the character of Castle Street, Parliamentary Road, Alexandra Parade and Royston Road. Other enabling works, like the 1963 infill of sections of the Monkland Canal, were also complete.
Townhead Interchange was the first section of motorway constructed within the city boundary. Work was well advanced when this photo was taken in May 1967, eleven months before the scheduled completion date.
The Baird Street bridge entered service in mid-1967 (making it the oldest motorway bridge within the city), as did the altered Alexandra Parade. These changes were necessary to replace Parliamentary Road, which was scheduled for removal as part of the Townhead Comprehensive Development Area proposals. The extension of Baird Street transformed it into an important arterial route to the city centre from areas like as Royston and Bishopbriggs.
Landscaping was a key part of the design and was well established by the mid-1970s. Stage 1 made allowance for later expansion. This included sufficient space for additional slip roads as seen below the M8 overbridge.
The motorway sections opened to traffic on April 5th 1968, the first sections of the Inner Ring Road completed in the Glasgow city boundary. With no connections the motorway was initially rather short, linking temporary termini at Craighall Road to the west (replaced May 1971) and Alexandra Parade to the east (replaced May 1975).
In all, around 1.25 miles of dual carriageway and all-purpose roads were constructed as part of the Stage 1 contract.
By the mid-1970s, clearance of most of the buildings on Castle Street and Parliamentary Road had been completed. Stage 1 of the interchange had a fairly small footprint, but this increased considerably with the completion of Stages 2 & 3.
Completion: Stages 2 and 3
A further two iterations, spread over several construction contracts, expanded the interchange throughout the 1970s and 80s into the form it takes today.
The first of these was an enabling contract for construction of the eastbound M8 slip road to the northbound Springburn Expressway (A803) and the realignment of Castle Street. The main contractor was Costain.
The main Stage 2 contract followed this and saw construction of the “Loop U” slip road to the M8 westbound, advanced earthworks in preparation for Stage 3 and sections of new drainage and retaining walls. This work was completed in the early 1980s by Lilley Construction and Whatlings.
The interchange was completed by the mid-1980s. Despite the large number of slip roads and structures it has a low visual impact. This is down to the efforts of the design team who were keen to ensure all junctions on the Inner Ring Road have no more than two levels where possible.
The final contract was completed in the mid-1980s. Stage 3 included the east facing slips roads to/from Stirling Road, the west facing slip roads to/from Castle Street and both carriageways of the Springburn Expressway (A803).
Overhead sign gantries, high mast lights and various alterations made to the surrounding local road network took place in each of these Stages.
Provision for connection to the east flank of the Inner Ring Road (already considerably downgraded in scope) was also included and remains visible today.
Aside from the widening of a short stretch of carriageway in the 1990s, Townhead Interchange has changed little in the last 35 years. It remains a critical link in Glasgow’s motorway and roads network, carrying up to 100,000 vehicles every day.
One curious impact of the cancellation of the east flank is that temporary connections to Castle Street and Stirling Road remain in place after almost forty years. This convoluted layout has created a traffic bottleneck at the southern end of the junction. and Glasgow City Council has indicated that it wishes to make alterations to rectify this.
Pedestrian walkways through the interchange remain busy though anti-social behaviour has blighted some parts, particularly round Castle Street Plaza and the Baird Street underpass. After more than fifty years of service many parts of the interchange are in need of some care and attention—significant refurbishment of the structures completed in Stage 1 is expected in the coming decade.
Townhead may lack the architectural interest of other sections of the Inner Ring Road, but it retains a unique charm thanks to its ingenious design and construction.
From the Archive
People who worked on the construction of the Inner Ring Road/M8 periodically make contact with the Scottish Roads Archive. Ian MacFarlane, an engineer who worked for Lilley Construction on the main Stage 2 contract, reached out to us in 2019. Lilley was a Glasgow based contractor best known for the Springburn Expressway and their work to reopen the Argyle Line.
Ian prepared a small paper about his work on the contract revealing some interesting stories from the job.
This fascinating and valuable insight is available to download here.
This article was first published in October 2020. Updated March 2022.