E-numbers are often portrayed as a modern day evil, inflicted on foodstuffs by faceless Eurocrats “somewhere in Brussels.”
This is perhaps understandable, as food E-numbers – especially those with complex, evil-sounding names – have suffered consistently bad press over the years. But there’s another set of E-numbers, enjoying a distinctly more subterranean profile, shunned for years by British governments – though potentially very useful to motorists venturing into Europe – and beyond.
In 1947, the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) began operations to promote pan-European economic integration. It grouped together 56 countries, amongst them the fledgling European Union and many then non-EU western, southern and eastern European countries.
A joint United Nations declaration detailed proposed new long distance international traffic routes in these territories in 1950, broadly setting out what eventually became the network nowadays known as E-routes or E-roads. These initial proposals were later refined into a “European Agreement on Main International Traffic Arteries” (AGR) which set numbering guidelines for the new network.
The agreement insisted that the entire length of roads involved be constructed to high and consistent design standards. The many basic requirements laid down ranged from a 100kph (62mph) minimum speed limit to a 4% maximum allowable gradient for a 120kph (74mph) carriageway design speed – and on to minimum hard shoulder widths. Level crossings were banned: E-route railway crossings must be above or below the road.
Motorists venturing across the water from Britain nowadays are likely to be acquainted with E-roads through numbering on principal road signs in most European countries – and signage is slowly becoming more common further afield into Asia.
Yet for British drivers those E-number signs offer potential for confusion – not least because they use white lettering on a green background, similar to British primary route ‘A road‘ signing.
Unfortunately for British travellers they don’t necessarily indicate roads directly equivalent to our A roads, and, also unlike Britain, indicated routes tend to ‘mix and match’ single and dual carriageways, and usually incorporate significant motorway mileage.
Frequently, indeed, E signs and more familiar blue motorway signs are co-located, directing traffic along the same road – though in most countries the motorway itself carries an entirely different road number. So what exactly is going on here?
Enlightenment comes through recognition that mostly (there are numerous exceptions of course…) E-numbers originated in lists of cities to be linked, so the signs designate ‘A to B’ routes, not necessarily specific roads. It also helps to know that major changes in 1975 ensured a geographically standardised layout for today’s E-routes… though exactly which roads comprise those routes was not decided centrally, but by each individual country.
Until 1975, E-roads could run in any direction, and had group numbering: the first 30 were strategic corridors, 31 to 99 were major routes, and numbers above 100 indicated link and branch roads.
Today things are (slightly) more straightforward. Principal east to west routes now carry even numbers, from the northernmost E10 to the southernmost E90. North to south routes have odd numbers – from the westernmost E05 to E125 in the east, while intermediate roads with suitable status are numbered to form a grid between principal routes.
Exceptions are plentiful: for instance, a 1980’s renumbering saw some Scandinavian roads stay with earlier system numbers, and various heavily-trafficked link roads don’t follow this pattern at all…
In a bid to, ahem, reduce confusion, principal continental roads don’t always have an E-number, while some countries chose to replace all or part of their earlier numbering system with the new E-system.
Thus Norway, Sweden and Denmark use E-numbers intensively, while Belgium and Serbia signpost their motorways using only E-designations. The Netherlands has virtually no A roads and a somewhat idiosyncratic national signing system in which E routes appear inconsistently. The British mainland currently completely conceals parts of a dozen E routes, the longest being the E05 from Greenock to Southampton and the E15 from Inverness to Dover, both of which continue onwards into Europe.
The E30 is another transient route, running 6,050km (3,780 miles) from Cork in Ireland, to Omsk in Russia, taking drivers onto the Trans Siberian Highway and Asian Highway 6 along the way.
As you’ll have realised, making full use of these routes beyond Britain involves inevitable sea crossings: here its worth noting that UNECE rulings specify many things, but mandatory ferries where water intervenes doesn’t seem to be one of them.
Leaving aside such minor difficulties, some continental E-routes involve seriously long distances: even the longest overcrowded, ill-maintained roads crossing our sceptred isle seem insignificant alongside the E40, which makes America’s much celebrated and famously characterful 2,400 mile Route 66 seem like a short drive.
It stretches 8,500km (5,312 miles) from Calais to the Chinese border, taking in Belgium, Germany, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Outside Europe, is signing is quite haphazard.
For over 60 years bureaucracy has studiously avoided signing E-routes on UK roads – or even mentioning them in polite conversation. Definitive reasons are in short supply, though unattributable speculation suggests signing might perhaps introduce unnecessary confusion into Britain’s relatively easily understood and (by some European standards) clearly signed road system… or maybe, given the particularly diverse tapestry of road types and characteristics forming Britain’s antiquated network, meeting enough of the many regulatory requirements to achieve designated E road status might just be too much of a challenge.
In 2011 the Department for Transport launched a Road Network Policy consultation, inviting comment on various matters affecting British roads.
International links warranted a few brief paragraphs, with E-routes peremptorily dismissed: “At the present time, there is no intention to sign E-Roads on the English road network,” it stated.
Clearly not a topic for consultation any time soon then.
Key E-road background information is here:
The original 1950 United Nations declaration and agreement is here in PDF format:
The European agreement on main international traffic arteries (AGR) is available as a
fully consolidated PDF document, last updated in 2008. Its here:
On page 14 of this PDF is the current full official list of all E routes, showing start
and end points and intermediate towns.
An official PDF map of all E routes, in Europe and beyond, is here
The DfT road policy consultation document 2011 is at:
Information on America’s Route 66 can be found at:
More about E numbers as food additives can be found at
Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.
Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…