Europe’s network of roads: I’ll tak’ the e-road

Map by Kjhskj75 – International E-Road Network, Public Domain

Europe’s network of roads

There is a road which winds from Inverness in the North of Scotland to Algeciras in Southern Spain. It is one of Europe’s network of roads, a network connecting major towns and cities across Europe, from the Arctic Circle to the Mediterranean, and from its Western tip to the border with China.

If you have ever travelled by car on the continent, you may have noticed that some of the main roads carry a green E plate, in addition to, or instead of their national number. What happens, though, when they reach the coast of the English Channel? To all intents and purposes they cease to exist. They are omitted from the United Kingdom’s route numbering system. Nevertheless there is a significant network of them across the British Isles.

E-Route Sign for Inverness–Algeciras: generated by Malarz pl Public Domain

A to D, but no E

European road numbers are not acknowledged within the United Kingdom, which already has its A, B and even occasionally C and D roads. Nevertheless, if you travel any distance at all in Great Britain or Northern Ireland, sooner or later you will be using or crossing an e-road.

From the North Sea to the Mediterranean

The two most significant of them both start in Scotland and run South through England and France, as far as Algeciras in the South of Spain. They are the E05 and the E15. The E5 runs from Greenock down the West side of Scotland to Carlisle and on through the west of England to Southampton. Across the English Channel it makes its way from Le Havre via Paris to Bordeaux in the South-West of France, and into Spain at San Sebastián. It continues southward through Madrid to its final destination.

The other significant route is the E15. This is the counterpart of the E5, running down the Eastern side of Great Britain from Inverness to Dover, via Edinburgh, Newcastle and London. Why are they significant? They are both “Reference” routes, and they are the two most westerly of the major North-South routes. North-South Reference routes have two or three-digit numbers ending in 5 and are numbered from west to east. The fact that they are odd-numbered routes, tells us that they run North-South. Routes with even numbers run West-East.

West–East reference routes

Perhaps because of the underlying shape of the island, there are significantly more Reference routes running west-east across Great Britain. Many of them originate in the Republic of Ireland, the first of them being the route from Shannon to Dublin. Across the Irish Sea it runs across England from Liverpool to Hull, via Leeds. Its final destination is St Petersburg in Russia. 

Further South we find another West-East Reference, the E30, which starts in Cork, crosses the Irish Sea from Rosslare to Fishguard, then crosses Wales and England through Cardiff, Bristol and London. From Swansea to London it uses the M4 motorway. From London it follows the A12 to Felixstowe, where it uses the ferry across the North Sea to the Hook of Holland. Its final destination is Omsk, Russia’s second-largest city, in South-Western Siberia. All West-East Reference routes are numbered from North to South, and have two or three-digit numbers ending in zero.

Intermediate routes

The following routes are West-East Intermediate routes: E16 from LondonDerry to Gävle in Sweden; this joins Glasgow to Edinburgh, using the motorway M8; E18 runs from Craigavon in Northern Ireland to St Petersburg in Russia, crossing the Irish Sea from Larne to Stranraer, to Gretna, then crossing the North of England through Carlisle to Newcastle.

Photo of Doncaster skyline by Harleyamber at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0

Going south we encounter the E22, running from Holyhead to Ishim in Eastern Russia. Its route through England touches Chester, Warrington, Manchester, Leeds, Doncaster and Immingham. Finally we find the E24. This is a little unusual, since it is only 230 km (140 miles) long, joining Birmingham to Ipswich via Cambridge. It is one of four routes contained entirely within Great Britain. The shortest is the E32, which is a mere 30 km in length, and joins Colchester and Harwich. Another is the North-South E13, which to all intents and purposes is the M1, joining Leeds to London.

Older than the EU

It should perhaps be said that these E-routes have nothing to do with the European Union. In fact their creation predates the foundation of the EEC (1957) by some years. They are an initiative of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), first signed in Geneva in 1950.

Over the years there have been a number of revisions, and some renumbering. I remember when the Brussels–Ostend motorway was a part of E05, whose origin was London, and destination İskenderun on the Turkish-Syrian Border. In 1975 the 1950 agreement was replaced by the European Agreement on Main International Traffic Arteries (AGR), and Ostend–Brussels was renumbered E40.

The AGR last went through a major change in 1992 and in 2001 was extended into Central Asia to include the Caucasus nations. There have been several minor revisions since. Today the network extends across Asia as far as the Chinese border.

Global Britain?

As a confirmed internationalist, I am sad that the numbers don’t appear on UK roads, although that hasn’t always been the case. I have a distinct memory of driving past an old-style direction sign, with a green panel and the E-route number. I was very young at the time, so I don’t recall the number, although I have a strong feeling that it was the E30, somewhere in Essex.

It strikes me as strange, when the UK vaunts itself as a global player, that it constantly turns its back on international or global initiatives and insists on going its own way.