With over 70% of the UK’s freight transported on just 2% of the UK’s most important trunk roads (the strategic road network), roads receive less attention in house debates than air quality, energy or rail, Rosser said.
The WEETF event on the future of England’s road network and developing the second road investment strategy (RIS2) held at London’s Caledonian Club was attended by a number of key industry figures in the UK transport sector yesterday. Rosser’s opening remarks set the tone of the day as an industry which is facing numerous challenges to adapt to technological changes, but receiving little kudos or support for doing so.
Despite over £15bn being earmarked for road investment between 2015 and 2020 as part of RIS1, the future of RIS2 is in no way a certainty. While it remains the intention of the DfT and Highways England to push the government for RIS2 investment, any decision will likely come down to the ability of the stakeholders to deliver RIS1 on time and on budget. The future availability of finance in any future RIS2 package in a post-Brexit world is also a material concern. Despite a current funding gap identified by the Office of Rail and Road the forum was staged with optimism RIS2 will happen - not least because of the continued need for improvements but also the proven economic advantages of doing so.
A key conclusion from the day’s presentations is the need for highway developers to change business models from a capital intensive constructor to a service provider, something most assume is an inevitable transition. The advent of smart motorway technology, autonomous vehicles and the rise of technological powerhouses such as google in the electric car market mean the industry could be a “sitting duck” for aggressive competition in the coming decades if action is not taken, according to professor of transport demand at University College London John Polak. “Without action infrastructure providers will be knocked down the pecking order as they have been in communications technology markets,” Polak forecasted.
Combined with the ongoing pressures placed on transport infrastructure by a changing climate the CEO of Connect Plus – the consortium of firms which manages the M25 – Tim Jones warned the industry their business models are in need of change to provide the road network of the future. He begged engineers to get a grasp of climate change quickly as he has experienced first hand the impacts of increased precipitation and temperature fluctuations on road assets.
When combined with population growth and increased car use he expects to see the emphasis of the industry change from constructing tarmac and installing signs to treating the road network as a living, breathing animal which requires constant nurturing, maintenance and observation. This will help to improve safety, manage traffic flows and increase productivity while also allow an asset owner to take into account carbon, particulate and NOx emissions. When levels get too high operators can reduce road accessibility at certain times of the day for the most polluting cars.
Data will play an ever increasing role in the ability of highway developers to nurture their assets. CEO of Highways England Jim O’Sullivan reflected on his surprise when he joined the agency two years ago that he had virtually no information on his road assets, which were instead held by the engineering and contracting firms. This is something he is gradually repatriating in order to better understand the network in order to improve planning processes for the future.
To date in RIS1 Highways England had added around 100 miles of new lane capacity with much more expected towards the end of the programme as around 120 schemes will start construction such as the A303 tunnel by Stonehenge and the Lower Thames Crossing. These mega schemes present flagship projects for Highways England with environmental impact assessments needed for both to demonstrate their suitability and viability. While air quality and noise continue to be issues to keep an eye on O’Sullivan was keen to break the stigma of roads as “bad things” given the advantages of cars and their use in modern society.
One of the main aspects of controversy during the day was the friction between local authorities and the DfT and Highways England. While the government has made £15.2bn available to the strategic road network (mainly motorways) little money has been made to available to local road systems. A number of local authorities including Kent County Council and Portsmouth City Council lamented the impact of housing development on their region’s roads and the lack of support from the government to help ensure roads are ready for the influx of higher vehicle numbers. While O’Sullivan respected the views of local councillors he pointed out the issues sit outside his agency’s remit.
A presentation from the head of infrastructure and legal at the Campaign to Protect Rural England Ralph Smyth also questioned if simply building new roads is really the answer to the country’s congestion issues. Something which was slightly contentious given the volume of developers and engineers in the room. He announced the CPRE will be launching a report in March this year critically assessing the impact of building more roads on the environment - cue a few uneasy glances from attendees in the room.