We’re hurtling towards a high-speed future but we still haven’t written the plan!

21/08/2013 Written by: Philip Bates

In 2009 I gave an interview to Local Transport Today (LTT) under the heading “HSR could be an answer but are we asking the right question?” Well, the situation in 2013 looks both different and depressingly similar.

For those who don’t keep back copies of LTT, the interview had three main strands:

  1. Question everything – a plea to think about what the UK will need in the 21st century, not what it needed in the 20th (or even 19th) century
  2. No need for speed? – a brief discourse on my concerns about the over-reliance in the HS2 business case on time savings
  3. Less is more – a discussion about potentially greater benefits from lower cost schemes more targeted at capacity enhancement

So, where do we stand today? On the first issue, Question everything, it’s safe to say that as a nation we have totally struck out; the UK still seems to have decision-makers who gauge what needs to be delivered by what other countries have done. The recent announcement by transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin on the reforms to the Strategic Road Network included as a justification the line “…underinvestment has seen us fall behind many of our economic competitors. Since 1990, France has built more motorway miles than exist on our entire network, while Canada, Japan and Australia all spend four times more on their roads than we do.” What does this really tell us? It doesn’t actually mean that their investments were wise and have made a big positive difference to their economies, or more to the point, are relevant to this country.

The problem is the UK doesn’t have a plan. Even the government’s promises of a national policy statement for transport, essential for the Nationally Significant Infrastructure Projects planning regime, has not been delivered; this is a national scandal! But what worries me more is the absence of a wider plan for the UK, and what role transport plays, relative to investment in education, energy etc. Where are we going as a nation in the 21st century?

The problem today is that the country has simply drifted in the global market place. As a consequence, like a company without a business plan, we don’t know where best to invest to aid further growth. We certainly need national transport plans, but before that we need a national economic plan.

On the issue of no need for speed I do sense some progress. House of Commons public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge recently said with regard to HS2 that “…the Department has produced a business case that is clearly not up to scratch … Some of their assumptions are just ludicrous.” Meanwhile, the National Audit Office, in a more moderate tone, said “The Department’s methodology for appraising the project (HS2) puts a high emphasis on journey-time savings from faster and more reliable journeys. However, the relationship between these savings and the strategic reasons for doing the project, such as rebalancing regional economies, is unclear.” It continued on to suggest the Department for Transport and HS2 should “…carry out research into how business travellers use their time on trains.”

We are at a point where we are about to commit tens of billions of pounds on a scheme largely based on the belief that there is a benefit to moving business travellers more quickly between our major cities, without actually understanding how these people use their travel time. However recently Lord Mandelson confirmed what we all suspected. The attention-grabbing headline in the Evening Standard’s 3rd July edition ran: “Labour bombshell raises HS2 doubts – Mandelson’s shock admission; rail link was driven by spin.” This was based on an article in The Financial Times in which Lord Mandelson stated that the project was “…politically driven” and that the cost estimates had been “almost entirely speculative…Perhaps the most glaring gap in the analysis presented to us at the time was the alternative ways of spending some £30bn.”

Which brings me neatly to my last point; “less is more?” In 2009 when I delivered my previous interview, the recession was already biting, but I suspect most of us didn’t really believe that in 2013 we would still be stuck with unemployment at around 8%, no real economic growth and high inflation eroding real incomes, plus a global outlook that is still far from re-assuring. What is more, even if the global economy does start to recover, it’s difficult to believe that our largest trading partner (the Eurozone) is going to lead the way. Now, more than ever, we need to invest our money wisely. Given that, it is depressing but not surprising to read the House of Commons public accounts committee statement that “…the Treasury’s Infrastructure Plan is a list of projects, not a real plan with a strategic vision and clear priorities” and that “…consumers will bear the brunt of the costs of the projects in the Infrastructure Plan through higher charges but the burden they face has not been quantified.”

This of course brings us full circle. As a country without a plan we can’t even answer a simple question such as “Could the money be spent more wisely elsewhere?” However, while we need a plan, what we need even more is an evaluation framework to test a range of plans. Not easy but not impossible. It seems to me now more than ever that it’s time for professionals to step forward and grasp this challenge. Let’s stop following others and start leading the way by making sure our decision-makers ask the right questions. 

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