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Autumn Statement: Road and rail can provide economic and carbon wins

EC Harris head of transportation Mark Prior

David Cameron’s announcement earlier this month that investment in infrastructure would form a key part of the Coalition’s broader strategy to revive the UK economy, has been interpreted in some corners as sounding the starting pistol for a larger-scale capital investment programme.

However, with a double-dip recession still a possibility, the government can ill-afford to get wrong any attempts it makes to arrest the UK’s so-called ‘infrastructure deficit’. In cash-constrained times any available funding must be spent wisely.

From a transport perspective the need for ‘quick wins’ should see the government look more favourably upon highways projects for not only do they deliver rapid economic benefits and create additional jobs, they also offer a particularly attractive cost-return ratio.

As an example, a recent report by the British Chambers of Commerce entitled Business Transport Priorities, estimated that junction improvements and road widening on the A303 / A358 to Junction 25 of the M5 could deliver six times the return on investment.

In real numbers it would deliver £1.1bn worth of economic benefits for an upfront capital investment of £184m. John Cridland, Director-General at CBI, echoed this sentiment in a recent speech when he called on the government to bring forward ten major road infrastructure projects including schemes on the M25, M1 and M60.

However, whilst giving highways projects the green light could provide a much-needed shot in the arm to the UK economy it goes against the government’s carbon reduction commitments.

One way in which it could look to offset this would be to shift some of the freight that currently travels on UK highways on to the rail network.

In order to ensure this doesn’t then create capacity constraint problems, the government should consider innovative solutions such as transporting the vast majority of freight at night rather than during the day, thus creating a truly 24/7 railway operation.

Clearly, this could create issues around changes in working practices however the economic and environmental cases make it a viable proposition in both the short and long term.

As Philip Hammond correctly pointed out at this year’s Conservative Party conference, the UK’s infrastructure deficit is not a new problem.

However, the need to finally tackle it has arguably never been greater and without better transport infrastructure the government’s growth agenda will not have the desired impact and the UK’s position as a major player within a fast-evolving global economy, could be under serious threat.

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