Cautious welcome for Transport Acceleration Unit

New DfT Acceleration Unit aims to boost delivery times of major transport projects, as £360m funding is announced.

Leading industry figures have cautiously welcomed the UK government’s newly announced Acceleration Unit within the Department for Transport (DfT), but stressed the need to be wary of mistaking haste for speed as the sector helps society ‘build back better’ post-Covid.

Ministers claim that vital rail and road upgrades that will create jobs, increase connectivity, and boost the economy will be delivered more quickly thanks to the launch of the new Acceleration Unit, which was announced alongside £360m of investment in roads and railways.

The new team of what ministers are describing as “non-government specialists” will join the DfT in order to tackle delays to infrastructure projects and drive forward progress for passengers.

The unit is set to be in place next month and will be directly accountable to the transport secretary. It will be led by Darren Shirley, currently chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport and formerly of Which? magazine.

Alongside the Acceleration Unit, the transport secretary today announced a £343m investment in Wales’ railways. This includes kickstarting design work on plans to upgrade Cardiff Central station and funding to develop plans for upgraded cutting-edge digital signalling on the 241-kilometre Cambrian line from Shrewsbury Sutton Bridge Junction to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli, and proposals to speed up journeys between Cardiff and Swansea, Chester and Llandudno Junction, and the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “As Britain begins to get moving once again after four months of lockdown, no-one should underestimate the scale of the challenge ahead. We want to accelerate Britain’s recovery by investing in vital infrastructure that will help get businesses back on their feet, create jobs to replace those that have been lost and level up our country. The creation of our new Acceleration Unit and investment in our roads and railways will ensure we build back better, greener and faster in the future."

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, said: “This £360m investment in our roads and railways will help drive our economic recovery from coronavirus – creating jobs and levelling-up by ensuring businesses across all corners of the UK have the opportunities they need to grow.”

Darren Shirley, head of the Acceleration Unit, said: “I am delighted to take on this important new role, bringing a fresh perspective and external advice to accelerate the delivery of key infrastructure projects and programmes. The breadth and depth of expertise in my new team will stand us in good stead as we look to deliver the schemes that will help the country to rebuild faster through decarbonising the transport system and levelling up Britain as we emerge from the Coronavirus crisis.”

The Acceleration Unit will also engage experts with significant experience in delivering infrastructure projects including Highways England’s director of complex infrastructure projects, Chris Taylor, who oversaw the construction of the £1.5bn A14 scheme which was not only delivered on budget but eight months ahead of schedule, and Mark Reynolds, chief executive of Mace, which oversaw the construction of the Nightingale hospital in East London in nine days.

Darrell Matthews, director of membership and business engagement at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, said: “We welcome the move which is recognition of our industry’s vital role as a catalyst for wider recovery. However, we need to be wary of mistaking haste for speed as we help society build back better post-Covid. It’s not just any project, but the right kinds of programmes and investment that are needed if we are to deliver a renewed transportation system which is sustainable in every sense of the word, helping society towards its net-zero targets while increasing productivity and playing its part in levelling-up the country.”

Chris Richards, director of policy at the Institution of Civil Engineers, said: “The announcement of an Acceleration Unit shows recognition by government about the need to drive forward delivery and help get the economy moving again. But this isn’t just about spending more money, a stronger focus on outcomes is also needed so that we accelerate the right infrastructure to achieve burning challenges such as decarbonising transport. As the unit develops its work, we’ll be engaging closely to ensure it focuses on strategic drivers to achieving whole industry change."

Marie Claude Hemming, director of external affairs for the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA), said: “Today’s announcement is to be welcomed as the government must have a laser focus on kick-starting growth in the months ahead. We look forward to engaging with the DfT’s Acceleration Unit with our members, to ensure everything possible is done to speed up schemes across the UK, which will drive economic growth, create jobs, and secure the recovery of the UK economy.”

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