M2 (Northern Ireland)
|Location Map ( geo)|
|The New Motorway|
|Distance:||23 miles (37 km)|
|Meets:||M3, A12, M5, A8(M), M22 A26|
|Route outline (key)|
The M2 is one of the two major motorways in Northern Ireland, and the majority of the route forms part of the main road between Belfast and Derry. There is an unbuilt section in the middle of the road, leading to the situation that the M2 appears on a map to randomly turn into the M22, whilst there is an isolated section of M2 bypassing Ballymena.
Belfast - Newtonabbey
The M2 is surely the quirkiest motorway in either Britain or Ireland. It begins as a major urban motorway near Belfast city centre. Here, the tiny M3 flows over the Lagan Bridge (that occupies almost its entire length) directly onto the start of the M2 above the notorious bottleneck that is the York Street Interchange. This is junction 1A, and the new motorway immediately loses its 50mph speed restriction and gains the National Speed Limit. No fewer than three lanes flow on from the slip road, ensuring that the M2 begins life with an impressive five lanes heading out of Belfast, and four heading in the opposite direction. It is therefore a serious piece of road, and a spectacular improvement over the old A2 on York Street, that it replaced.
At junction 1B, there is a sole slip road allowing traffic on the southbound side to access Duncrue Street and Belfast Docks; there is neither entry nor exit for traffic on the northbound side. The motorway continues to have five lanes on the northbound side and four on the southbound side.
Then we reach junction 2, which is not for the indecisive. There is a lane-drop here, as lane 1 provides access to the Duncrue industrial estates and the Fortwilliam Docks, from which the ferries sail to Cairnryan and Liverpool. At the same time, drivers are advised that there is a further split ahead, and that the two left-hand lanes will take the M2 off the main carriageway towards Belfast International airport and all points towards Derry (signed as Londonderry), while the two-right hand lanes lead onto the M5 for Whiteabbey and Carrickfergus.
After junction 2, the lane lost is immediately regained, and the northbound carriageway reverts to five lanes; three of those are now indicated to continue towards Belfast International and to Derry, while the outside two continue to advertise the M5. The southbound carriageway also has five lanes at this point, making this sections of the M2 one of the widest motorways in either Britain or Ireland. The motorway runs closely in parallel to the railway line running north out of Belfast.
The indecisive really do need to make up their minds now, as the M2 reaches the second of its quirks. It seems odd that the motorway passing through junction 3 - and which is by far the busier route - leaves the main carriageway here by means of a TOTSO. Three lanes in each direction depart from the main line, where two lanes in each direction run continuously onto the short and relatively quiet M5. To add to the confusion, just after the steep curve where the M2 departs, there is an additional junction road providing access to the A2 on Shore Road.
Having made the turn, the outside lane of which can be quite unnerving in either direction if the National Speed Limit is not observed, the motorway begins the long steep climb out of the Belfast conurbation. The road now has three lanes in either direction, although one might wonder why, as almost all of the traffic invariably uses the middle one. On the northbound side, this might be because there is a lane-drop at junction 4 at the top of the hill, where the A8(M) and eventually the A8 depart for the port of Larne; however, the traffic on the southbound side has no such excuse. At junction 4, there is also an opportunity for M2 traffic to access the A6 on Antrim Road, as well as the B90 into Newtonabbey.
Newtonabbey - Antrim
The motorway then passes into open countryside, and we approach another of its quirks. On the northbound side, the recently-opened Templepatrick Services offer some respite for those traumatised by the five-lane section and TOTSO, not to mention the Belfast rush-hour traffic. These services are run by the Applegreen franchise, and bear a strong resemblance to the Applegreen services familiar to motorway drivers in the Republic of Ireland. Hence we have a unique juxtaposition of what is very much a motorway designed in accordance with British conventions combined with what is very much an Irish service area. The services are extremely pleasant, being very modern and clean, and far nicer than the majority of those dating from the 1960s over in Britain; there is a very nice coffee shop on the first floor. The blue signage on the approach to the services has digital panels informing passing drivers of the prices of petrol and diesel, another quirk rarely found on motorways in the UK. On the other side of the motorway there is no service area, but the hard shoulder has been converted into a bus lane.
We then head along a long, flat, straight section of road, surrounded by pleasant green countryside. As the road begins to descend towards Antrim, it passes under the Belfast-to-Antrim railway line, and we immediately encounter junction 5. This recently-improved interchange carries the A57 across our path, linking Belfast International Airport to the west with Larne to the east. We then pass over Six Mile Water, and approach junction 6, from which the B95 heads into Antrim town.
As the motorway continues to drift gently downhill, we reach yet another quirk of the M2. At junction 7 there is access to the suburbs of Antrim via an unclassified road. However, from the motorway we could be forgiven to not knowing that to be case. The signage on both carriageways implies that this junction exists solely to provide access to the Antrim Area Hospital, and ambulances can be a fairly frequent sight on this part of the motorway. There is probably no other site in the UK where a motorway junction appears to be devoted solely to the access of a public institution.
As if that wasn't enough, the M2 then confounds us by arbitrarily changing its number in the middle of an unbuilt interchange. Immediately after the exit for the hospital, the two carriageways deviate from one another, leaving a vast central reservation through which the main carriageway of the M2 is supposed to continue towards Ballymena. However, all that exists is a large run-off area on the northbound side, which we are deterred from driving down by the presence of large chevron warning signs indicating that the carriageway curves instead to the left. Immediately after this, a sign informs us that the motorway is now the M22.
The Ballymena Bypass
In order to travel between the two separate sections of the M2, it is necessary to continue along the M22 as far as its first junction. From here, the A26 links the two sections of motorway over a seven-mile stretch of antiquated and potentially dangerous dual carriageway with frequent turning gaps, which links the towns of Antrim and Ballymena.
The M2 resumes at a roundabout with the A26 to the south-east of Ballymena. The first part of the Ballymena bypass, between the point where the A26 turns right off the old route into the town and begins to circumnavigate the urban area while still an A-road. However, at the first unnumbered junction, the A26 turns off the main carriageway and makes for the town centre, while the A36 heads off in the opposite direction towards Larne. The second section of the M2 commences here, with two lanes in each direction towards junction 11. Straddling the Braid River, junction 11 provides access to the A42, which heads out of Ballymena towards the coast, where it meets the A2 Causeway Coastal Route near Carnlough. From here, a short detour back towards the town centre will also provide access to the A43, which runs through the Glens and Glenariff Forest Park, which is one of the most beautiful parts of Northern Ireland. This road also eventually meets the A2 Causeway Coastal Route, at Waterfoot just south of the town of Cushendall. It really is worth taking the effort to visit that area, as the scenery is breathtaking.
For the M2, however, the story reaches a premature conclusion. The incomplete motorway reaches its current and probably permanent terminous at junction 12. This is the last of its many quirks, an unusual gyratory which resembles an egg-shaped roundabout, although the motorway carriageways flow freely back onto the A26 in both directions. Beyond here, the A26 continues as dual carriageway for some distance - a section which is being extended at the time of writing, towards the A44 which heads to the characterful town of Ballycastle, and to the sleepy market town of Coleraine, where the incomplete M2 was originally intended to go.
So ends the quirkiest motorway in either Britain or Ireland.
Northern Ireland Road Site
- Info Page
- The M2 Widening works
- A26 Ballee Road East to M2 link Scheme
- M2 J4 improvement works
- M1/M2 busways extension