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The future of transport: taking Britain into the fast lane

Britain needs new infrastructure. It must become better at deciding what is going to be built and more clear-sighted about the consequences of the projects it chooses

By Jay Elwes  

This article was produced in association with ABP, Jacobs, RSSB, Southeastern, Systra

Developments in technology and engineering have changed the way people move. Prospect convened a group of industry professionals, analysts and policymakers to discuss the future of transport, following its recent report on the subject. The event took place at Prospect’s offices in central Westminster.

James Rowntree, Vice President of Jacobs told the group that, “we’ve always lacked an integrated transport strategy in the UK. It’s always been ad hoc and short term. There’s an endless debate around whether it’s the north of England, whether it’s London. Well it’s all of that.” He stressed the importance of going ahead with investments in digital technologies and new infrastructure for modes of transport including electric cars.

Electric and hybrid vehicles, so recently considered exotic, are now thoroughly of the mainstream. And when it comes to rail, old diesel engine trains are being replaced by new electric models. Cities and towns are encouraging more of their inhabitants to cycle.

Allied to this is a huge change in data collection and management systems. Companies, authorities and also the onboard computers of the vehicles themselves are now able to gather and analyse vast tracts of data, again, a new phenomenon. Transport systems are becoming “smarter.”

Take for example the new braking systems currently employed on some lines on the London Underground. Trains are monitored from a central hub and no train is allowed to get within braking distance of the one ahead of it. That simple-sounding system is in fact only possible because of the data-analytical signalling systems that are being introduced. The current widespread method is a “box” system, where if one train goes into a particular zone, no other may enter until the one in front has left. In comparison to the braking distance model, the box system is extremely inefficient and means many fewer trains can run on a stretch of track.

Remarkably, it was a system first introduced by the Victorians. That legacy is in part a testament to the innovative brilliance of the Victorian engineers who made much of the infrastructure on which we now still depend. But it also shows, very clearly, that Britain has a huge programme of modernisation ahead of it.

The effects could be substantial, “but it’s part of a system,” noted Julie Carrier of Systra. New signalling systems cannot do the job on their own. Challenges arise when for example, a line is being used by both fast modern trains as well as slower freight trains. At this point, the answer is to provide passing places.

There are other challenges too, especially when considering how much of Britain’s transport infrastructure is knitted tightly into the communities it serves. David Statham, the Managing Director of South Eastern said, “our railway was built in 1836. It was built as an elevated railway through Bermondsey so it didn’t scare the cows and the sheep.”

“This fixed infrastructure is finding it a challenge to keep up with growth. Passenger numbers double, and what you see is everything being optimised—the trains, the use of the tracks and the signalling. It’s difficult to keep up with that level of demand so you’re left with two choices,” he said. “Either you build something new, which is unpopular with the people whose lives you disrupt and it’s expensive, or you do something that takes advantage of new technology.”

As HS2 shows, the resistance to large-scale projects can be very forthright. And yet, the benefits of these developments can be huge. Even now, before the new line has been built, the city of Birmingham is starting to reap an HS2 dividend. The anticipation alone is bringing economic benefits. Which is not to say the project has not made mis-steps. Perhaps the title itself—High Speed Two—could have been better thought-out. The emphasis on speed has not been helpful as it is only a secondary consideration. The real aim is to establish reliable connections between areas of economic activity. Messaging, alas, is still a crucial consideration when selling a big project.

When it comes to ports, are they capable of delivering what we expect of them, especially if Brexit goes ahead as expected? Britain has good port infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean more can’t be done to expand it. David Leighton of Associated British Ports pointed out that “75 per cent of cargo that comes in and out of the UK are handled by privately-owned port groups. And most of the investment in ports is done by the private sector.” So there comes a question of how government—which funds the road and rail links to ports—can work with the private sector to make sure the best infrastructure is in place.

Mark Phillips, the CEO of RSSB said that, as road and rail networks become more congested, “the pattern of which ports are used might well change. This is something the rail sector is going to have to face up to, particularly the degree to which it remains efficient to move containers across the country by rail, as opposed to perhaps the ships using different ports.” That might well offset the need for new, expensive road and rail infrastructure around ports.

A huge amount of investment will be needed to bring Britain’s transport system up to date. And that should give pause for thought. There is a danger of being overwhelmed by the promise of the “new.” Technology is no panacea. Experiments in the US with driverless cars have shown haw far that technology has to go before it is fit for purpose. To throw money at new systems on the assumption that they will work would be a grievous error. And when it comes to large-scale government investment, the cost-benefit analysis must include a deep appraisal of the societal effects.

Perhaps the government should pay more attention to the lower-level improvements it could make—to bus-services for example. This was a point made by Ruth Cadbury, the Labour MP and member of the Transport Select Committee, who warned against a fixation with long-term technological goals at the expense of the here and now. “I’m particularly conscious of this in the autonomous vehicle debate.” We shouldn’t be distracted by technologies that are unproven.

It is also important to watch out for the uneven distribution of new transport systems and opportunities. People living in rural Britain, for example, rely heavily on cars. As Richard Bacon, the Conservative MP, told the meeting, his Norfolk constituency has 100,000 inhabitants, but is half the size of Greater London. It would be unfair if his constituents were taxed more heavily for car-ownership, while their city counterparts could simply take a Tube or tram.

Britain needs new infrastructure. It must become better at deciding what is going to be built and more clear-sighted about the costs and consequences of the projects it chooses. Only that will get us out of the slow-lane.

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