Embrace once-in-a-lifetime chance for change, say transport experts

Long-term investment plans, net zero, digital transformation and embracing diversity are vital parts of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help shape the future of transport, say leading industry figures, reports Rob O’Connor.

Post-Covid transport should embrace change, said speakers at Infrastructure Intelligence's recent webinar.

Long-term investment plans, net zero, digital transformation and embracing diversity and inclusion are all vital parts of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help shape the future of transport as part of the post-Covid recovery, according to leading industry figures at another well-attended webinar on Friday 28 May.

New ways of working and grabbing the chance to build a better transport system for the environment and society were also major themes at the latest Infrastructure Intelligence Live series of events, with a webinar looking at the future of transport in the aftermath of the Covid crisis. 

The webinar, organised in association with events and communications strategic partner, BECG and hosted by Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker, saw a typically strong industry line-up take the online stage for a lively Friday morning online debate.

Transport experts including Katie Hulland, until recently president of Women in Transport and currently a director at Turner & Townsend, Mike Batheram, growth director at Atkins, Paul Wilkes, business services manager at the Fleet Operator Recognition Scheme (FORS), David Clarke, technical director of the Railway Industry Association, and Jamie Gordon, director of specialist communications consultancy BECG all provided insightful visions of what the future of transport could look like.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a drastic effect on the transport sector. Aviation has been decimated and the rail industry is a shadow of its former self, with the government intervening in the UK to keep it afloat. Net zero and concerns about sustainability and air pollution are causing governments to look afresh at transport and it’s likely that 2021 will be a pivotal year for the sector.

Katie Hulland stressed the importance of diversity and strategic planning in helping to build back better. She said: “Following the devastating impact that Covid-19 has had on our lives, the economy and passenger levels, we know that we will need to invest and grow our transport systems and infrastructure. Our ask is simple, we would like to see a transport workforce that from planning, through construction and into operation is truly representative of the customers it serves and paid fairly to do so. 

“To get there we have made a series of recommendations that we would like the government to action - including a fully comprehensive, fleshed-out plan led by government working in partnership with the industry to address gender parity in transport.

“The size of the prize is huge, getting this right won’t just put us on a path to a fairer and more innovative future, a new look model for our transport workforce could build capability for international export and further boost the competitiveness of UK infrastructure on a global scale – so let’s take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build back better.” 

Mike Batheram agreed that the industry has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine what normal looks like, and focused on digital transformation, diversity and inclusion and net zero as three key areas for change. “As an industry we have talked a lot about these topics in 2020, now we need to accelerate our actions and make more tangible progress in 2021” he said. “Covid presents us with a once in a generation opportunity to fix some of the country’s most long-standing problems, most notably levelling up regional disparity and improving productivity levels, which have been holding us back for decades.

“Covid has shown us that attitudes and behaviour can change quickly, and that artificial intelligence can inform decision making. Too often, decisions have been delayed in the past through over consideration and through fear of getting it wrong. This adds additional cost and months and years to programmes. Benchmarks, predictive analytics, machine learning and the use of artificial intelligence can all help inform our approach and make these decisions easier and more assured.” 

Highlighting diversity and inclusion, Batheram said: “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting our money where our mouth is and delivering on diversity and inclusion. Skills is also a huge part of this, recognising and embracing the fact that engineering now requires a different set of skills to ten or even five years ago, means we will attract a more diverse range of people.”

Switching to net zero, he said: “Our priority should be enabling and accelerating the delivery of green infrastructure. This include electrification of the railway, bringing in more energy efficient trains, active travel schemes and future mobility projects that integrate DRT and connected and autonomous vehicles. Addressing global warming will require the behaviour of every person, and their transport choices in particular, to change. We are all going to need to make different travel choices to achieve net zero.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine what normal looks like together as an industry. The chance to rebuild with purpose and vision, locking in the collaborative behaviours, the agility and focus that has been so evident during 2020. The opportunity is here for the leaders of our sector to work together like never before to transform the way we design, build and operate our transport systems.  Lets all make sure that this opportunity does not slip through our fingers.”

Paul Wilkes focussed on road transport and highlighted the importance of the freight sector that helped keep the country running during the pandemic, especially when lockdown first hit last year. “The movement of goods is essential to life as we know it, especially keeping vital public services like shops and hospitals open,” said Wilkes. “The transport industry can be proud of what it does and continues to do throughout the ongoing pandemic.

“Many people have been forced to take stock and review their operations. That’s meant embracing the benefits of new technology and new ways of working. For example, the national lockdown meant we couldn’t do site audits, so FORS developed a new remote audit system. Training in an online environment – supported by new technology – meant we looked at alternative learning methods, including virtual reality and drama training methods.

Looking to the future, he said: “As we develop new technology, I d like to see HGVs move away from diesel and embrace greener technology.”

David Clarke stressed the need for a long-term view and called for a 30-year transport plan to help the post-Covid recovery and achieve net zero by 2050. “As an organisation we’re optimistic about the recovery,” he said. “We think over time that people will come back to the railways. It may take some time, people will need time to regain confidence, but rail is already back to 45% of pre-Covid travel rates. Road transport has more than recovered, so there’s a huge pent-up demand for travel.”

Highlighting the importance of continued rail investment, he said: “Long-term investment is exactly that – the benefits last long-term and will be felt for generations to come. Passenger numbers will recover and freight is still performing strongly. Investment in rail benefits the whole of the UK – the network is spread right around the UK and has a strong social value. We also need to invest if we’re to meet the 2050 decarbonisation target. We have a window to get things done, so let’s get on with it.”

Jamie Gordon said: “Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a drastic effect on the transport sector. And the issue is we just don’t know yet what the long term effects will be on behavioural change and travel patterns. Will everyone, as many employers are now allowing, work from home two days a week? So the challenge for transport now is the great unknown and we hear discussions around the future of transport in a way that probably hasn’t been heard since the invention of the internal combustion engine, probably more so.

“But the challenge isn’t just due to Covid. For way over half a century everything has been pretty predictable, pretty easy for the public to understand. A new airport here, a port there, a station here, and motorway there. But it gets more complex. Couple the EV rural uptake with the extra challenges of decarbonising domestic heat in rural areas and the potential additional draw at the extremities of the grid will be huge.

“Because the future of transport won’t just be about vehicles and the traditional infrastructure of road and rails. It will be as much about electricity grids, energy storage and connectivity. Sustainability will be a far greater player than it is currently. And infrastructure projects associated with transport will come under far greater scrutiny and will be accountable for a carbon footprint covering both operation and construction, throughout the whole supply chain.

“Now it may sound like I’m being rather pessimistic and there’s no doubt the future is not going to be easy. Projects are going to be difficult to justify, will have to be far more robust in their numbers and design solutions will have to take more factors into account, potentially making them far more creative, and surely all that is a good thing.

“The transport sector will no longer be just about tarmac and steel. It will be as much about applications, AI and automation and I hope you’ll agree, that does sound rather exciting.”

Infrastructure Intelligence editor Andy Walker said: "Transport will be a key issue as the UK and indeed the world emerges from the pandemic and it's clear from the insights we heard at this webinar that there is a significant opportunity to change and rethink to ensure that we have a more fit-for-purpose, affortable, sustainable and affordable transport system in the future." 

Click here to watch a recording of the Future of Transport webinar.

The Infrastructure Intelligence LIVE series of events is organised in association with our Events and Communications Strategic Partner, BECG.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email