Planning rail investment over a series of five year cycles has been a great policy success. The malaise of UK transport investment for decades was its dependence on annual budgets, at the mercy of summary cuts if the economy faltered. It was a system that militated against coherent planning, not only for road and rail network managers but also for contractors and suppliers, who had no sound basis to decide how big a workforce they needed, and making it a gamble to take on trainees and apprentices.

Now, on rail, we have sensible long-term plans under which longstanding bottle necks are being addressed and main lines are belatedly being electrified. The funding package, moreover, has survived the recession more or less intact. Why shouldn’t the same approach work for roads?

There is much to commend in the DfT’s approach to its first road investment strategy, due to be put into effect by the Highways Agency once it is reconstituted as a publicly owned company next  March. Roads have suffered from the same problems as rail, with stop/start funding resulting in a patchwork quilt of a road network; away from the motorway network, design and construction standards on the same trunk route can vary widely within a distance of a few miles. Dual carriageways suddenly turning into single carriageways are not conducive to free-flowing traffic or to safety.

The DfT’s new philosophy takes a pragmatic but well thought through approach to addressing some of the long-standing anomalies of the road network, with the A303/A358/A30 route to the South West the most obvious example. And it aims to tackle road problems through rigorous business case justification combined with a mature, 21st-century attitude to environmental issues multi-parliament consensus on roads can develop as it has for rail, removing roads as a controversial policy area and protecting the programme from cuts.

However, there are important differences between road and rail. Rail investment is to a large extent non-controversial. Its green credentials are widely accepted; in general the projects taking place in the two investment plans since 2009 aim to improve the efficiency and capacity of the network while remaining for the most part within the existing footprint of the rail network. Plans for new alignments excite the same controversy as new road schemes, as HS2 has shown.

For roads, though increasing motorway capacity using the smart motorway approach is much to be preferred to the wholesale widening proposals that characterised roads white papers of the late 1980s and early 1990s, many object to increasing capacity at all. Environmental groups argue that new capacity will generate more traffic and simply fill up again.

What is missing from the DfT proposals is a mechanism to lock in the extra capacity and break this cycle. In this issue, Prof Stephen Glaister points out in the context of urban mobility, it is through pricing that governments have the biggest opportunity to influence change. Pricing offers the potential to manage demand by time of day, on both public transport and roads, and even out the load.

Some form of demand management is the missing ingredient that could make the DfT’s investment strategy a wholly rational proposition. But the outcry against that would be on a different scale altogether.

Reference: Transport Times December 2014 Issue

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