Arise Metropolitan Britain

Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy fans know the answer is usually 42, but this year's National Infrastructure Assessment goes one better. It wants £43bn spent on transport in regional cities to improve productivity, reduce congestion and underpin growth in housing and business.

Government and cities need to act now to ensure that space in cities is used effectively, with room allocated for fast, frequent public transport systems, well-connected and affordable housing and pleasant public space.

The presumption that this is about public transport should be noted. With London and its Crossrail 2 project treated separately (and apparently undergoing a deep review), it signals a major shift of investment to the larger provincial cities.

The National Infrastructure Commission has alighted on a spending area that has been absurdly neglected. Most people would struggle to think when the nation last spent significantly on metropolitan transport infrastructure. On this kind of scale, the answer would be 40 years ago, on Tyne & Wear Metro.

Its genesis lay in the 1968 Transport Act that created the Passenger Transport Executives (no longer with us) and in a belief in planning (the Tyne & Wear Plan). The stimulus to action was the upcoming cost of major renewal expenditure on a suburban railway: the electrified 'North Tyne Loop'. Its completion depended on surviving the 'IMF crisis' of the mid-70s.

The Merseyside 'Link and Loop' project was a similar effort destined to create a city region metro by adapting existing railways lines and targeting investment on new arrangements in the city centre. The new service patterns did away with inefficient suburban shuttles (with a quarter of operational time spent on 'turn rounds') and provided new cross-city linkages. Investments that also avoided major fleet renewals – such as the Bury-Altrincham starter line for Manchester's Metrolink network that would follow in the 1980s – also boosted benefit cost ratios: the Do Minimum case was itself costly.

The attention paid to cost and efficiency in the 70s/80s reflected a general sense that investments reliant on 'user benefits' – or on presumptions of demand growth were inherently risky. How things change. Nowadays it is hard or impossible to elicit 'like for like' renewals expenditure plans for rail at a local route level, except for major signalling renewals that run on a 35-year cycle. And the opportunity for radically shifted service patterns that generate operating costs savings are somehow buried under the continuity expectations built into the rail franchising process.

Instead of addressing costs, investment plans for both highway and rail networks are increasingly shaped by projected benefits: accommodating 'much needed' housing growth; reducing congestion; urban 'agglomeration' benefits.

Of course, smart investment planning for new metropolitan public transport networks should be able to address both operational efficiency and economic benefits. The National Infrastructure Commission has recently offered to provide resources to help city/local authorities develop their plans, sensing a skills shortage. It will do well to supplement its assistance with an assessment of how the operational efficiency of metropolitan rail networks can be improved. In Germany, there are plans to convert the S-Bahn networks to automated train control, staring with Hamburg (announced July this year), with the expectation that capacities can be increased, and energy and other operating costs reduced.

Okay, outside the South East, we don't have S-Bahn networks to automate. But if the larger city regions outside London – with or without the resource help on offer from the NIC – are to win a slice of the proposed £43bn, some new ideas including the use of digital train control technology – and of British S-Bahns – are going to be needed.

HM Treasury is going to want to see what kind of investments could be forthcoming. At this scale of funding, it will want to see how the UK-wide economy is going to benefit, and it will be delighted if some of the contribution comes from more efficient local rail service provision.