Investment in Transport Involves much more than Public Spending

In mid-October the Institution' of Civil Engineers launched their 2018 state of the nation report on infrastructure funding. This report came a few days after the Department for Transport closed their current consultation on their transport appraisal methods to inform investment. Then at the end of October the Chancellor announced an end to PFI as a way of funding PPPs. The very different approaches set out by government and the ICE define the terms of the debate about how transport infrastructure could be funded in the years ahead.

Conveniently, as a simple illustration of this debate in current transport delivery practice, the investment choices for electric cars and charging points were hotly debated on social media in early October. Isobel Hardman, deputy editor of the Spectator had written an article explaining that she had made a mistake when she bought an electric Nissan Leaf car since the charging infrastructure was not yet practical for her needs. Hardman needed to be rescued from Gretna on the Scottish Border to reach the Wigtown Book Festival to deliver a talk about her new book "Why we get the Wrong Politicians". In her book she argues that politicians are largely decent people and good caseworkers on constituency issues, but they are also commonly poor legislators who end up voting for bad laws they do not understand.

Certainly, the legal and investment framework for transport needs an overhaul, and the approach to EV charging facilities is just the tip of the iceberg. The ICE infrastructure funding proposals are very welcome, suggesting new ways to link willingness to pay for transport with improvements in service and performance. By comparison, DfT's proposed revisions to transport investment appraisal look unambitious, continuing to view public funding decisions largely separately from other complementary investment opportunities.

The current legislation breeds an investment culture that polarises competition between modes of travel. The polarised social media dialogue in the wake of Hardman's experiences showed a gap between the perspectives of EV charging point providers and the perspectives of those who do not perceive battery electric vehicles to be a practical choice. Electric vehicle purchase by a consumer is a finely balanced decision, involving assumptions about the reliability of key infrastructure such as charging points. When Hardman found that the EV charging infrastructure was less reliable than she had assumed she tweeted "...a lot of replies from EV evangelists who claim I needed to plan more...."

I have personally owned an electric vehicle since 2011 and would question Hardman's expectation that she could rely on at least one of two charging locations being operational as probably too optimistic. Nobody tells you that the well promoted maps of EV charging locations hide a raft of reliability and usability problems which you only discover as a user. Hardman's car actually ended up being stranded for some time. Ecotricity who provide the bulk of the open motorway chargers across the UK contributed to the social media debate by stating their aim to deal with problems within a few days, but noted they don't service chargers at weekends.

Companies like Tesla have viewed the availability of reliable charging as critical for growing their EV business, so have internalised the charging infrastructure within their business model. However, it is neither efficient nor sustainable to view private management as the only route to successful future transport delivery. More needs to be done to ensure that shared infrastructure, not just charging points but roads, trains and buses, also have business models to link investment with performance.

Shared EV charger maintenance standards need response times more like those for brake failure on a train than potholes in the road. The government departments overseeing a practical monopoly of EV chargers on the motorway network must be able to frame effective business models which ensure users get the reliability they need, and which they are willing to pay for. There is little in the DfT investment appraisal proposals that would give any comfort that such plans are in the pipeline. Instead DfT note in their consultation that reliability is not currently considered well, but fixing this is too complex for the short term. The ICE proposals are much more positive citing the progress made by the National Infrastructure Commission and the Office of Road and Rail translating policy goals for better maintenance, safety, accessibility, reliability, equity and lower emissions into business models.

Technology systems introduce many more options to manage reliability. With current data, measuring the reliability of road journey times, trains and buses is no longer particularly complex. As the ICE explain, the big challenges relate to the design of the business models. Market design could potentially reward better performance on social goals, rather than the narrower focus on costs at present. Risk management for public infrastructure includes more work to manage public expectations and secure clear accountability with the risks being borne by those best able to manage them.

Current government approaches to the oversight of transport are too adversarial, undermining the capability of investors to help shape better transport. Reframing transport legislation to translate policy goals into business models, would enable better managed, budgeted and realistically financed projects. Getting the business model right for something relatively simple like EV charging points would be a good place to start, including the right balance between private and public funding.

Derek Halden is Director of DHC Loop Connections and Secretary of Scotland's transport think tank STSG