In a brave new world, it pays to plan ahead

The UK transport sector must embrace the right technologies in order to satisfy changing passenger needs.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Increased public funding represents a unique opportunity for the United Kingdom’s transport network as a whole, and rail in particular. The Autumn budget announced big investments. More than £600m is earmarked to be spent across projects such as the Oxford Corridor and Digital Railway, and £300m on HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse. That’s on top of the £1.7bn going into local connections through the Transforming Cities Fund, and more again to support the Roads Innovation Strategy.

With ambitions to deliver “the biggest rail transformation in modern times”, it seems GB Railways has arguably the most to look forward to. However, as technologies, disruptors and demographics continue to evolve at pace within the transport sector, a strategy that focuses on technology and innovation is needed to ensure these proposed investments deliver a transport network that is “fit for the future”.

The £490m Digital Railway commitment speaks, in some ways, to the government’s support for technology innovation in rail, but it seems a long way off hi-tech examples such as the Shinkansen in Japan. What’s more, as Hyperloop, Tesla and Space X become mainstream, what we consider innovative today could quickly appear outdated if we do not invest in the right strategies for the future.

The £40m set aside for a series of rail innovation competitions is further proof of an ambition to look to the future, but how will these great ideas be made effective in reality? Dedicated funds set aside for technology or infrastructure development could help, or we could rely on the private sector, as suggested in the Hansford Review. This has the potential to accelerate innovation more holistically as major British corporations invest in new technologies, such as Virgin’s recent backing of Hyperloop One.

If government and industry together support the brave new world of transport, we could harness significant technology innovations to deliver the right returns for our people, our businesses and our trade networks.The counterpoint lies in whether we even have the skills base to develop a transport system that harnesses modern technology. There has been recent scrutiny of the UK’s ability to secure the expertise and resources needed for technology-led innovation, particularly in transport. At PA Consulting Group, we’ve found the UK has only explored the skills needed for autonomous vehicles, for example, and is yet to start developing them.

Beyond the immediate opportunities that infrastructure projects offer in terms of job creation, these investments set out to deliver what the UK needs to improve access to labour markets, and the transport of goods around the country, in the longer term. UK PLC might want to “give everyone the skills to succeed in the modern economy and get better paid jobs”, but would a transport infrastructure that doesn’t offer the latest in connectivity, capacity and speed really make the UK a great place to live and work?

Politics continues to cloud the conversation around investment, as seen through claims that the current rail franchising model has failed. Debate focuses on the politics, rather than the issues we face – emerging technologies, changing demographics, connectivity and more. Separating the two is hard, but essential to achieve a competitive and successful transport network. Homegrown issues, in combination with Brexit, threaten to hamper our ability to entice those around the world to join us in making the most of our transport.

Recent government papers on mobility as a service and sustainable transport don’t mention rail at all. And the Strategic Vision for Rail almost completely ignores road transport, how the rail and road networks should work together, and how this might change with new technologies. As we move to an increasingly connected world, our transport investment strategy needs to take a connected approach.

Without considering innovations like autonomous vehicles, drones and hyperloops, we’re not able to understand how the world will look in the future. For example, self-driving cars could impact rail travel almost as much as they do current car usage given the parallel experience they offer, along with greater convenience and independence. There needs to be objectivity about which investments, particularly in technology, will deliver the best opportunity for the UK in the long term. To safeguard our future in transport, the UK government needs to focus on shaping the world to come, rather than managing the world we currently live in.

Jonny Buckley is a rail and infrastructure expert at PA Consulting Group.