Industry experts discuss transport infrastructure in the UK

Materials World magazine
,
1 May 2016

Natalie Daniels speaks to experts in transport about infrastructure in the UK – investments, solutions and planning for the future. 

What role could new infrastructure play in driving economic growth?

Amanda Clack 

Amanda Clack is a partner at EY and Head of Infrastructure (Advisory), working with clients across transport, energy, construction and cities. She will take the role as President for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in June 2016, focusing on infrastructure and the built environment, as well as skills and diversity – the cities agenda around transport in London, the 'Northern Powerhouse' and the east.

To stimulate growth you have got to invest in infrastructure and housing development will inevitably follow – infrastructure is a key enabler to housing, in particular. Creating new infrastructure – for example, the new HS2 hub stations in Birmingham are going to open up new opportunities to create more housing.

Philippa Oldham 

Philippa Oldham is Head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). She has published policy statements and reports on life cycle analysis, manufacturing a successful economy, intelligent transport and energy options for transport modes. 

Decisions have got to be made if we are going to meet the UK’s infrastructure demands. I hope the National Infrastructure Commission is going to act as a body to take advice from industry, look at what Government departments are doing, and draw on experts in the field when they make new recommendations to upgrading infrastructure and driving growth. The decision will have to be made quickly – too often we see consultations or reviews or research conducted, yet no decision is made. This delay impacts on the planning time needed which results in it taking a huge length of time for anything to get built in the UK. 

Jennifer Schooling 

Jennifer Schooling is the Director of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure, and Construction, funded by EPSRC and Innovate UK, at the University of Cambridge. 

New infrastructure, such as Crossrail, has made some great steps forward in the UK. It has brought together contractors, investors and other parties effectively. We have seen some great opportunities off the back of this. 

Mark Carne 

Mark Carne is the CEO of Network Rail. He has previously worked at Shell, BG Group and Petroleum Development Oman.

Rail is a huge contributor to the economy. Every day 4.5 million people travel by train. This demand for passenger and freight services keeps on growing, yet parts of the network are already close to capacity. At Network Rail, we are creating a bigger, better and even safer railway for Britain as part of our Railway Upgrade Plan, through significant investment in our infrastructure and smarter working methods.

Is enough being done to ensure a steady growth?

Marcus Enoch 

Dr Marcus Enoch is a Senior Lecturer in Transport Studies at Loughborough University. His areas of interests include sustainable transport policy, planning and systems and future transport solutions and systems. 

There could always be more done. It’s interesting to see how transport seems to be developing – everything is focused on big-ticket projects at the moment. There is a huge emphasis on capital, as opposed to revenue funding, which I think is a mistake – particularly the stripping of local authority offices. There has been a massive reduction in revenue spend at local authorities in terms of road maintenance. I think all of that is a false economy. Focus has turned to huge rail investment schemes and spending across rail generally is really high. On the other hand, bus routes are being slashed, here, there and everywhere.

Mark Carne 

In terms of UK rail, we are committed to spend £40bln until 2019 on running, maintaining and improving the network, delivering 225 million more passenger journeys each year. More trains per day will run between our northern cities. 170,000 extra seats will be available on trains going into our large cities nationwide. 500 more level crossings will be closed. In London, the Thameslink programme will be completed, while in Birmingham, the New Street development has already successfully finished. And, in Scotland, the Borders project will reconnect the Scottish Borders to Edinburgh for the first time in 50 years. 

Philippa Oldham 

The biggest problem the UK faces is planning. There have been massive upgrades to the Underground – for example, upgrading track work on the Victoria line but, by the time the work is done, it has reached full capacity again. We have been examining what good mobility should look like and trying to make a transport infrastructure system that will provide us with that long-term viability. We have got a Victorian infrastructure in a lot of areas and that has provided us very well up until now. At the time, they were looking to the future – it now feels we have to re-do that. 

Amanda Clack 

Essentially, no. We need to improve the existing infrastructure, and then we need to take on board and develop new infrastructures. 

Equally, we need to have new infrastructures, which is why the National Infrastructure Commission is particularly looking at the 'Northern Powerhouse' because that is focusing on new and existing. You can't just do one – fundamentally, we have got to build new, but we can't build new without doing more to the existing and we can't just do that.

Jennifer Schooling 

The short answer is no, there is not, and there is increasing acknowledgement of this. One of the benefits of having smarter infrastructure is that you can get more out of your existing infrastructure. In a nation like ours, that has limited free space, you can't build your way out of a capacity problem, you have got to find better ways of using your existing infrastructure capacity. For example, having signalling systems on the railway that enable you to run trains closer together and run more services. Our underground space in London is already completely crowded – the fact they even found space for Crossrail is a miracle. We have got to make the most of our existing infrastructure.

In which areas of transport is investment needed?

Amanda Clack 

Growth is needed across all transport infrastructure on a guaranteed and sustainable basis to help make it an attractive asset class for further investment. We need investment in all UK infrastructures if the UK is to remain competitive on the global stage. That includes the various modes of transport to move people and goods, energy, and communication networks, plus the development of cities through wider social infrastructure. The National Infrastructure Commission and the National Infrastructure Delivery Plan will contribute to the prioritisation of the major building blocks to the UK infrastructure requirements for the next 30 years.

Philippa Oldham 

One of the key things the IMechE believes is that it is not about upgrading components and entire systems – it is about starting to look at the transport network as a whole. How we promote and enforce sustainable infrastructure, how we reduce congestion and improve the environment we work in. To do that, we need coherent planning across the cities and the entire country. I think there is a big responsibility on the NIC and the work they do. We need to look at how we move people and our goods around to gain a better understanding of why they are using a particular transport mode so, that, we can improve overall efficiency.

Jennifer Schooling 

I think everything needs more attention. The areas I would focus on would be improving the way in which we monitor, gather and store data. We are already starting to do this but we don't yet regard data as an asset in its own right. The UK needs to learn how to articulate that and tackle some of the challenges around sharing data between different organisations.

Marcus Enoch 

I think that some of the investment needs shifting away from roads and railways to look at micro-level improvements. There are loads of footways across the country that are a mess and need investment. I would have a plan where footpaths are maintained and improved – this would encourage more people to walk and would hopefully improve accessibility for everybody. Investments on a small scale can provide multiple benefits to people that would make a huge difference. 

If you address all the micro-points that stop people using public transport, most are inexpensive to fix but there doesn't seem to be a holistic plan to systematically address these issues. Rather than fix HS2 from Birmingham to London, which will only benefit a small part of the population, the Government could revolutionise the rest of the country and everybody would benefit. I am not saying that Crossrail or HS2 is a bad investment but, for me, these would be a lower priority than other things.

Are there any short-term solutions that could have a significant impact on transport systems? 

Philippa Oldham 

There are a few things – if we think about roads, for example, and how we can get people out of their cars using public transport – addressing what the best routes are, how they can get access to public transport in a better way, looking at introducing quick incentives for car sharing and local incentives.

Marcus Enoch 

We don't use what we have very efficiently – a lot of what we have in place is static. I think road traffic and car parking in cities would be better managed, far more efficiently to increase capacity and then there wouldn't be a need to build more because you would be managing your existing infrastructure. If you try and control the current systems through better transport supply management, the big investments like Crossrail might not be needed. 

Jennifer Schooling 

There has been some great work done by Network Rail and some contractors who arm all their construction and maintenance workers with tablets, which means they have instant access to data. A willingness to take a risk, try things out and learn from them is also something to consider. One of the challenges is that we have a very fragmented industry – no organisation sees themselves as responsible for innovation. A recent survey on innovation in infrastructure showed that everyone thinks it is a great idea, but that it is someone else's responsibility. We have to accept some things will fail, because that is the key to innovation and solutions. It is about being willing to try things out and occasionally have them fail, because you learn something from every failure.

Amanda Clack 

I am sure if there were a short and easy solution it would have been found by now, but we need the long-term planning at national level, through the NIC, to be combined with proper devolution to enable cities to help plan and develop their infrastructure on long-term basis. 

France recently announced plans to install 1,000km of solar roadways. Could the UK follow in its footsteps?

Amanda Clack 

It seems like such a simple and effective way forward. The initiative by Wattway, according to Colas, uses material that is strong enough to stand up to regular traffic, even heavy trucks – 20m² of Wattway panels is said to provide enough electricity to power a single average home in France, with a kilometre stretch of Wattway road able to ‘provide the electricity to power public lighting in a city of 5,000 inhabitants.’ I am slightly sceptical, but if the figures are to be believed, why not?

Philippa Oldham 

France is a lot bigger than us, it gets a lot more sun than us, so we have to determine whether it is right for the UK. We don't just want to follow in others' footsteps, but, yes, we should look at what they have done and determine whether it could be applied.

How can the Government and NIC deliver long-term infrastructure solutions in the UK?

Marcus Enoch 

I think there has been too much of a shift towards deregulation. Planning authorities should have a major role in organising things better than we do. The balance is not quite right anymore. Also, we need to free up capital and direct new funding streams that incentivise developers to build homes in locations that are already, or at least could be, well served by transport alternatives to the car as far as possible.

Philippa Oldham 

It is time to start looking at how cities around the world are managing their growth. Take London, for example – it is becoming really congested but, also, because of the house prices, people are moving further out to get affordable housing – this is driving up commuting distances, increasing transport capacity. One of the key things I hope the NIC will look at is cities such as London and apply the lessons to elsewhere in the UK.

Amanda Clack 

Technology is vital – we need to ensure we get more capacity from the existing networks wherever possible. We certainly can’t entirely spend and build our way out of the problem. For instance, digital railways will enable more trains to be run safely on the existing network and shorten journey times. The technology is there, but will require the right commercial model to deploy it and ensure that the benefits come quickly to the UK economy. A strong focus on long-term thinking is necessary. We should look at how technology will deal with the additional demands that will be placed on the system, and answer the key questions around how we get help. We need to be flexible in how we think about improving our infrastructure networks, in terms of the UK’s competitiveness globally. 

It is also important that we take the devolution agenda seriously and make sure that we offer the power and funding to enable cities outside London to become more globally competitive.

The Budget plan for transport infrastructure

On 16 March, the Chancellor of the Exchequer promised improvements to the A69 between Northumberland and Cumbria would be completed by the end of 2016. He also pledged £75m to develop a case for transforming east-west road connections in the North, including a new Trans-Pennine tunnel under the Peak District between Sheffield and Manchester, and extending the A66 and the A69. This is part of the £300m transport package for the north of England, which includes the promise of HS3. Mr Osborne also backed Crossrail 2.