The National Infrastructure Plan: Transport sector

Philip Bates

10/12/2013 Written by: Philip Bates

Last week the UK Government published its latest National Infrastructure Plan, and to celebrate the event we will be posting a series of blogs on different aspects of the plan. The aim is not to provide a definitive summary (you will need to read it yourself for that; see link below) but to highlight those aspects that caught our attention, and to give an overall view on the plan.

Firstly Transport, identified in the plan as the second largest investment sector (behind energy), with a pipeline value of £120bn. In previous years the plan has been criticised as being more of a list of projects united by the fact they cost a lot. The UK Government has clearly tried to address this in its new plan, although Transport still looks like a list of projects. In part this is due to the way the schemes are presented, listed by mode (road, rail, airport and port). There is no obvious attempt to present a theme in a cross cutting manner, as the document claims is the intention.

This sense of silo thinking is further reinforced by all sectors claiming there will be growth. Apparently we are going to drive more, use the train more, and fly more.  A quick straw poll across a mix of people by age, location and socio-economic grouping suggests that, at least in the UK, this is unlikely. Furthermore the document makes much of the Government’s investment plans for digital communication infrastructure and related technologies, but none of this appears reflected in the thinking on transport need, or indeed the role demand management can play in any transport strategy.

However, hopefully this is the last time the lack of an over-arching plan is raised, as the document informs us that the Government will shortly issue the long awaited National Networks Policy Statement for consultation. If this document genuinely looks at all transport networks, we all need to look sharp, and to read, digest and comment on such an important document.

Despite these negative opening comments, there’s a lot to commend this latest plan. Firstly, there’s a renewed focus on maintaining what we have, whether it’s resurfacing and repair of the road network or electrification and new rolling stock for the rail network. Also, while the plan is presented in modal silos, one can discern regional and sectorial focuses of investment if you read carefully. For example, the upgrade of the A14 (without tolls) and the rail freight upgrades between Felixstowe to Nuneaton shows an awareness that port expansion can only occur if links to the hinterland for freight are good.

You are also struck by both the scale of the Crossrail project and how it, in combination with its lower profile but equally important sister project, Thameslink, it will finally break the constraining impact of the ring of mainline stations around London in 2018.

Aviation, given the ongoing deliberations of the Airport Commision, is a little thin on details but there is a clear sign that it’s moving up the transport agenda, with surface access to airports currently rising to the fore.

The new mega project on the horizon is the Lower Thames Crossing. This clearly has synergies with the plans for the port development at London Gateway, but could also link with developing aviation policy (as a link to a new East of London hub airport); it will be interesting to see how this develops over the year. However, perhaps what comes across most strongly, in terms of future investments in transport, is the scale of HS2. It is not particularly easy to directly cross reference the various schemes listed with the total pipeline expenditure given (note to the Government; please make this clearer next year) but one can see that HS2 is around £50bn (infrastructure and rolling stock) and the total pipeline is £120bn (some of this total appears to relate to projects already under construction but not complete e.g. Crossrail). Of course, next year this could be dwarfed by spending plans linked to long term south east airport expansion, but currently it remains the key project in terms of transport spending, and so warrants continued close scrutiny; we cannot afford to get this one wrong.

So overall this year feels like the lull before the storm Next year promises 

  • An overarching Strategic Network Plan
  • The Highways Agency Transformation and associated Roads Investment Strategy
  • Th start of Rail Control period 5
  • The second reading of the HS2 bill 
  • Further progress from the Airports Commission

It’s going to be a busy year and one can’t help but think next year’s National Infrastructure Plan, at least in terms of the content for the Transport Sector, will be very different…

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