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Meeting the infrastructure challenge

A willingness to embrace change, integrate digital technologies – and most important of all – consult with the public: these are all key ingredients of a successful infrastructure project. The New Statesman speaks to Derek Holden of URS to find out more

 The government has announced plans to make major investments in transport infrastructure. What does the average taxpayer expect to get in return?

People want reliable, predictable journeys that take a reasonable time at an affordable cost – and they expect these measures to improve whenever their taxes are being spent. These expectations remain the same whether we are talking about rail, road or aviation. And of course people need to be able to travel without undue risk to their personal wellbeing.

Safety will always be the paramount concern for the general public, even if most people never give investment in safety any real thought. Safe outcomes are simply taken for granted. For example, who would stop to remark on how steady the Humber Bridge feels in the wind? Or who would pause to wonder what steps had been taken to enable a Eurostar train to travel so serenely at 186mph?

There is an unquestioned assumption that transport infrastructure has safety built in. And this assumption is right and just how it should be. We in the engineering industry focus on safety all the time, of course. There is nothing more important in our business. If you are not obsessed with removing danger, then you are in the wrong job. It defines everything we do. Many people only really notice infrastructure when it goes wrong. Perhaps a challenge for both government and the engineering industry is to help more people understand the extraordinary work that goes into planning and delivering transport infrastructure, and making sure it is safe, reliable and able to meet 21st century needs.

Why is it important to invest in new infrastructure? Why not just improve what we already have?

We need to do both, of course. The movement of goods from place to place is the foundation of most business. Business is done by people, who travel to work or need to meet to collaborate. And if they are not travelling for commerce, they are generally doing so in connection with leisure.

If we fail to adapt to the evolving demand for transportation, or if we don’t make use of new transport technologies, there will inevitably be a negative impact on the economy. The financial returns of every pound spent on infrastructure are huge. But the improvements in infrastructure, and the way people live, work and travel, are the greatest benefit of all.

What kind of new transport technologies are you thinking of?

Last week, I travelled to Norway and was able to jump on the Airport Express into Oslo without stopping to buy a ticket. Forget the palaver of searching around for a ticket office; you simply swipe your credit card across a reader on the platform. Register your card online and you’ll receive a receipt by email. And back at Heathrow Terminal 5, you can just swipe your parking ticket in a pod and it will take you to your car.

These are just two examples of how the digital revolution is starting to transform the way we use transport, just as it rewired the retail industry. The American Public Transportation Association is not given to reckless forecasts, but in a recent paper it predicted that future public transport projects “will be built around the smartphone”.

On the face of it, this seems like a strange claim. How can a box of tricks in your pocket provide the cornerstone of a new railway? But this revolution is real and is already happening.

We already see smartphones used to book tickets and hold boarding cards, to collect fares and to plan journeys, as traffic-aware satellite navigation devices, or as a means to monitor congestion or delays, allowing travellers to reroute or even switch modes of transport mid-journey. There are even apps that allow people to pool their cars.

Just imagine where all this is going. At the moment, people typically need to make a conscious effort to seek out, understand and employ new capabilities. But we can expect digital technologies – with innovations we probably can’t imagine – to become ever more seamlessly embedded into the way we get from A to B.

How seriously is this kind of change being taken by government?

Digitisation is seen as hugely important by government. There are already great successes in this area in the UK, such as the Smart Motorways initiative. High-tech signage and remote monitoring of traffic allows variable speed limits and judicious use of the hard shoulder, squeezing the best out of the available road capacity. There are also plans to manage roadworks better, making full use of hard shoulders and alternative routes. And there is a lot more of that to come from the Highways Agency.

Policymakers are deeply aware of how much more effective and cost-efficient it would be for the UK to bring together all the different strands of infrastructure, and if digital thinking were to be fully embedded throughout the entire planning and policy process.

What is the future direction of UK transport infrastructure?

Integration is the key word here. We will see more seamless transport where commuter trains link into bus networks and cycle lanes; where intercity railways are dovetailed into airport services. Where everything is joined up, providing maximum efficiency and environmentally friendly transport.

SNCF, the French railway operator, for example, has made much of this approach, ensuring that its rail timetable is fully integrated with other transport forms, from buses to the availability of cycle rental facilities. This approach is going to evolve, with car-sharing trends increasing rapidly, especially for commuting.

The rejuvenation of King’s Cross station in London is also indicative of future trends. The station has been transformed into a bright and pleasant space, full of busy restaurants and shops. It provides a great example of how ambitious redevelopment can dramatically improve the customer experience.

So, in terms of policymaking, what is the key to successful infrastructure?

It is vital to take a long-term, strategic, integrated approach. We need visionary, transformational schemes such as HS2 and Crossrail, combined with practical shovel-ready projects that upgrade and improve the conditions on our existing transport network.

It is also essential to consult, communicate and achieve buy-in from the public whenever major change is envisaged. We need only assess the range of reactions to HS2, or differing viewpoints on airport capacity, to see that infrastructure policy can provoke very strong reactions among those affected. Local communities will identify more closely with transport infrastructure if they are given a voice in the planning or approval stage.

By contrast, there is more experience of community-financed and managed infrastructure projects in the US. Across the Atlantic, there has long been a tradition of regionally financed projects funded by local taxes raised to meet the transport demand of the populace. Perhaps that is a concept we will see more of on these shores, with transport infrastructure influenced very strongly by the needs of the local community.

As citizens, we want transport options that make our lives simpler and easier. Where efforts are made to move people out of cars for congestion or environmental reasons, for example, we need alternatives to be phased in at the right time. An integrated approach will consider multiple modes of transport including pedestrianised zones, cycling facilities, metro networks, trams, buses, taxis, cars and planes. Effective links between services are just as important as employing the right tool for the job.

Derek Holden is director – infrastructure, Europe, Middle East and India at URS

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