By setting out its preferred route for the second phase of HS2 earlier this month, the Government has reaffirmed its commitment to building much-needed capacity and connectivity on the UK's rail network.
Throughout history infrastructure connectivity has promoted economic activity, demonstrated by the rise of different transport modes, from the canals and ports that fuelled the industrial revolution to rail, roads and aviation. But given the present-day challenges facing the country, including population growth and climate change, improving connectivity between transport modes will be key to maintaining economic prosperity. Modernisation of the UK's transport networks must focus on both building capacity and improving connectivity between modes.
The UK's rail and road networks suffer from severe overcrowding and heavy congestion, yet there is still little connectivity or coordination between the two. To achieve an integrated transport network, different transport modes must not compete or be planned in isolation. A vision of an integrated transport network connects railways with roads, ports, airports and strategic freight depots. Joined-up thinking and an integrated approach to infrastructure planning would improve both city and rural life and pave the way for more sustainable transport solutions such as electric and driverless cars. In towns and cities traffic congestion would ease and more integration between buses and rail routes would bring coordinated timetables to rural areas.
Greater integration of UK transport is a theme that has consistently come through among respondents to this year's CBI/AECOM Infrastructure Survey, which was published in November. Three-quarters of respondents to the survey viewed greater integration between roads and alternative modes of transport as a critical or important outcome in road infrastructure that needed to be secured in the long term. With many European countries more advanced at connecting rail infrastructure with other transport modes by integrating freight hubs along key routes, the UK must take similar steps if it is to compete more effectively on the global stage and improve productivity.
Under an integrated transport vision, the case for HS2 is clear. As the first new major railway north of London for over 100 years, the north/south route will create much-needed capacity and release space on existing lines, helping to take freight off the roads and on to rail. Economic growth spurred by initiatives like the Northern Powerhouse and the Midlands Engine for Growth will require better connectivity and HS2 is an important step towards creating better links between cities, ports and airports.
The National Infrastructure Commission will play an important role in defining the vision for an integrated transport network. In the autumn statement the Chancellor. Philip Hammond, announced he has asked the NIC to make recommendations on the UK's future infrastructure needs using a fiscal remit of between 1% and 1.2% of the UK's GDP each year from 2020 to 2050. The group is expected to publish a report in 2018 setting out a vision for UK infrastructure up to 2050, and this will be updated once during each parliament. The NIC has recently issued a request for evidence enabling all interested parties to contribute to this process.
This is an opportunity for industry to ensure the UK transport network is truly connected. A long-term plan that recommends how national infrastructure should be prioritised and implemented by successive governments will bring clear direction for the next 30-plus years. Post-Brexit, the need for this long-term strategic approach to infrastructure will be even greater if the country is to remain competitive.
One of the most exciting – yet challenging – aspects of future transportation is the impact of new technologies. In addition to the development of new sustainable transport modes themselves, innovative technologies have the potential to improve capacity and operation, aid more efficient maintenance and change the way we all work with one another. This underlines the importance of the continually updated 30-year infrastructure vision.
Planning for the UK's long-term growth and prosperity will clearly need a broad, integrated approach to infrastructure. The link between transport and long-term plans for other vital infrastructure such as energy, water, waste and housing must also be considered. A clear vision for integration will be essential to accommodate the UK's projected population growth and maintain economic prosperity.
High-profile projects like HS2 that provide a step change in capacity and connectivity are important first steps towards an integrated infrastructure network. Momentum must be maintained.
Reference: Transport Times December 2016 Issue