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Greengauge 21 on the first National Infrastructure Assessment

The first National Infrastructure Assessment, published yesterday by the NIC, provides the rare perspective of a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s needs over the next 25+ years.

Having considered all the exciting developments ahead in areas such as autonomous vehicles, the Assessment re-states the significant role that rail plays in connecting city centres and in providing the transit systems that enable larger cities to grow and prosper. It foresees a switch in emphasis ahead, with a progressive refocussing of rail spend away from intercity links – once HS2 is implemented by 2033 and Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) is completed some years later – towards major increases in rail spend on networks for large cities.

We think that’s the right call – and in our recent ‘Beyond HS2’ report, we argued for greater use of main line upgrades once HS2 is complete, with just 100 miles of further new purely high-speed lines, alongside a new programme of major rail investment for the city regions of Liverpool, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Newcastle and Birmingham.

But there are omissions in the NIC’s report. The strength of rail in freight markets – for ports, for the construction sector and for national retail distribution – is missing.   We will need to see how the NIC’s upcoming freight sector review addresses this short-coming, and whether it rows back from a previously stated – but surprising – trust in unproven lorry platooning technology as a better way forward than getting more freight on rail.

The NIC’s otherwise perceptive analysis also overlooks a key aspect of investment in city centre-city centre rail networks as provided by for HS2 and NPR, which is this: these projects, by adding rail capacity into major city centres help unlock existing railways to carry substantially more commuter rail services.  Intercity, regional and stopping trains have to fight for space on the main lines into our regional cities.  Once new intercity routes into cities such as Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds are built, there will be space for major restructuring in favour of local commuter services.

In the case of NPR, where the cities it connects are close together, with over-lapping commuter catchments, the benefit to city-region labour markets from better commuter services will be as significant as the business to business benefit that comes from better city to city connectivity.

In practice, the National Infrastructure Commission has been set a limit for public spending on infrastructure (as percentage of national GDP).  Transport inevitably dominates its forward financial plan (because so many other parts of the national infrastructure are privately owned and funded, or – like health and education –  come under Government Departmental spending plans). But because of the %GDP cap, the Commission is unable to argue for an upturn in Government investment in infrastructure, thus being denied the opportunity to drive the improvement of the UK’s lagging international competitiveness by one of the few devices available: better infrastructure to overcome the inefficiency of congestion and deliver better health and quality of life outcomes.

Finally, and somewhat mysteriously, having argued so persuasively on the need for the infrastructure to support a switch to electric vehicles on the road network, the NIC is surprisingly silent and ducks any comment on the need to electrify the national rail network to achieve similar goals.  Electrifying any kind of transport is costly, but as continued evidence of pervasive climate change mounts up, the urgency of doing so is becoming ever clearer.  Switching the national fleet of 30m+ road vehicles has a substantial implication for electrical power generation and distribution as the Assessment acknowledges, whereas fully electrifying the rail network would add only a couple of percentage points to overall electricity demand.

The National Infrastructure Assessment can be access in full here