Tech transforming transport

Good transport links are vital for business. An event in Manchester examined whether the UK’s infrastructure – particularly in northern England - was fit for the job, and how technology might help matters.
Published —
08.12.17
Writer —

TWO-THIRDS of company decision-makers believe the UK’s current transport infrastructure network inhibits international trade, according to research from DWF Law.

This year the company surveyed C-suite representatives of 180 companies across retail, construction, utilities, logistics and manufacturing.

Some 81% of them agreed that updating regulation to support the deployment of smart transport technology – such as driverless vehicles, smart motorways and drones – would offer the UK a competitive advantage over other countries.

“There is widespread agreement that a high-quality transportation network is essential for business growth, yet many business leaders think the UK’s current transport infrastructure is actually costing them money,” said DWF’s head of transport, Jonathan Moss.

Against that backdrop, more than 50 regional business leaders and local authority transport managers gathered to discuss Transport Technology in the North in a session hosted by The Business Services Association and DWF in Manchester.

Alastair Richards, who is responsible for Transport for the North’s £150m integrated and smart travel programme, pointed to Treasury estimates that rebalancing the economy between northern England and the south would be worth £44bn in real terms – or £1,660 per individual – in the north.

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By integrating smart ticketing across bus, trams and rail, TfN’s 10-year vision is for daily price capping across key city hubs and a simplified fare system, similar to that across London.

“Passenger information is felt to be part of the barriers preventing people using public transport, in particular information and concern about fares,” said Richards.

Ease of use – or lack of it – was another sticking point for many people who opted to drive over using public transport. In particular, having to predict journeys to secure advance fares on trains was a deterrent and Richards said it could be addressed by a fairer and more convenient billing system, with journeys paid for using phone apps, contactless cards or top-up cards.

“Not everybody knows in the morning if they are going to need a return ticket. They might get a lift back with somebody so it’s about giving people choices,” he added.

Having to work across multiple authorities, with numerous operators and ticketing systems makes it a more complicated scenario than in London but Richards said: “There’s no point looking at one operator and one system. You need to link them up all the time.”

David Yip, public sector technology lead for KPMG, said: “The thing that’s going to improve [transport services] most is not smart ticketing, it’s capacity.

“The road and rail network [between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds] is full at certain times of the day.”

He pointed to digital railway technology in use overseas that uses sensors to monitor the speed of other trains on the line to maintain safe distances, allowing shorter gaps between services.

“Imagine if you had that on the Trans-Pennine route. The technology isn’t the problem – it exists already.”

Jen Hawes Hewitt advises cities around the world on liaising with business to incorporate smart tech. She said the attitude local government had taken to open data had ‘changed the game’.

“It’s now common practice that most cities are striving to have more accurate, more professional open data regimes,” she said, pointing to Citymapper as a prime example.

“It means a lot less pollution, different engagement with public transportation. It’s changed the dynamic because it wasn’t Transport for London that made the app.”

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City leaders now recognised they were responsible for broader enabling of transport rather than delivering from end-to-end, she added.

“There’s an innovation team at Transport for Greater Manchester. There might not have been that a few years ago.”

Many of the benefits are in cost-savings.

As Sam Li, innovation officer for Manchester’s Cityverve Project, put it: “Do we need to pay £5,000 for real-time information signs or can you use people’s mobile phones and a £50 beacon to reach the same solution?”

Cityverve is working with SMEs to incorporate Internet of Things technology into several projects in a bid to improve road safety, parking, tram services and information for bus passengers.

Monitoring journeys made on the city’s hire bicycles could help planners decide whether the infrastructure is in the right place, while hard braking picked up by car telematics could help identify hazard spots.

Li said it could transform the way spending was allocated, adding: “It becomes a really interesting proposition, being data-driven instead of politically driven.”

David Owens, who heads Costain Highways Sector’s design and building information modelling, said: “If you get ‘stardust’ from the Open Data Institute into infrastructure you can do something incredible. You can improve the productivity of the UK at large.”

A decade ago, the construction industry used 30-year-old paper-based systems, he said. But Owens explained that being given just three years to build 112 lane-kilometres during the widening of the M25 ahead of London’s Olympics had prompted him to introduce 3D modelling into the project.

“This is the norm now,” he said. “The prototype will work before you give it to the contractor. Designing that, you’re spending £50,000 a week. If you stand still on site [because you’ve hit an unidentified problem] you burn £250,000 a week.”

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