Last reviewed 5 June 2018

Daily and holiday travel can still be a nightmare experience. However, major investments are being made into all aspects of the UK transport system, including the introduction of digital technologies designed to improve safety while also increasing punctuality, reliability and comfort. Jon Herbert reports.

With summer suddenly not far ahead after a long winter of coughs, flu, Siberian cold fronts, pollution test frauds, heavy snow and potholes, warmer thoughts are turning towards holidays. The freedom of the open road — rail, wing or cycle — calls. Sadly, so does the great British travel tradition of congestion, jams, delays and queuing. Or does it?

A weaker pound, inflation, plus long security check-ins, also mean that while many people are still flying in search of the sun, a rapidly growing number of families are opting to stay in the UK. Staycations is now a multi-billion pound business sector, but with it comes the tribulations of UK travel.

An overview of how transport networks are developing highlights the growing role of technology in speed, safety, reliability and reducing environmental impacts.

Investment and changing transport habits

In the last half-century, the average spend of travellers on public versus private transport has dropped dramatically. We pay out much more on driving than using public transit systems. But the trend is changing. The cost of motoring has risen by 9% in the last 10 years; however, our public transport spend has in parallel risen by 74%, in part because of more rail commuting, plus a rapid rise in fare prices.

The Government said recently in response to a nationwide pothole epidemic that its total spend on journey improvements is £23 billion. Highways England is committed to a £15 billion of investment in England’s motorways and major A roads under the Road Investment Strategy between 2015 and 2020. That will include 400 miles of new road capacity and smart motorways.

The Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, also announced at the end of 2017 the next stage of a record £48 billion investment to boost rail reliability and punctuality, with major upgrades and new, faster, more comfortable trains over five years. That included in May the launch of the new Network Rail’s Digital Signalling Strategy to cope with rising passenger numbers, ageing equipment and HS2 construction. The aim of faster more frequent trains is that 70% of journeys will benefit by the time HS2 reaches Manchester in 2033.

While many issues concerning the future of civil aviation — including an expected final yes/no decision from MPs by July on a third runway at Heathrow — are still in the air, the size of the Government’s ambitions can probably be judged by an early May call for applicants to potentially share a £3.9 billion fund supporting innovative projects making UK civil aerospace more competitive.

An ordinary day’s commuting

The average person in Britain spends roughly one hour each day travelling, mostly this is by car. The 1964 Beeching cuts were part of a policy switch from rail and public transport to road in the new age of private car ownership backed by the revolutionary six-lane motorway network. The change was dramatic. In 1952, only 30% of UK travel distances were made by car, taxi or small commercial vehicles; 42% used buses or coaches. Only 17% were by rail which was already in decline.

By 1970, 75% of passenger miles were made by private vehicles. This rose to 85% in the late 1980s, a figure that has been remained fairly constant since despite more cars being on the road. In parallel, bus and coach travel has fallen consistently to just 4% based on 2016 survey figures — 10% of what it was 60 years ago. By the mid-1990s, the distances covered by rail reached a low of 5%, although this has risen again to some 10% today.

However, average speeds, particularly for rail passengers, have increased which means that commuters are covering longer distances.

Safer travel

As probably expected, road travel is also much safer than it used to be. Annual fatalities fell by about 40% from 2006 to 2010, a success attributed to better engineering, enforcement and education; in 2010, there were 1800 deaths, a figure that has stayed fairly consistent since. Other factors that could alter the statistics include the possibility that the internet and smart devices are replacing some of the need for time-conscious people to travel.

Unfortunately, there are environmental impacts. The UK is being taken to court by the European Commission over its long-standing failure to meet EU nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) limits said to affect the premature deaths of some 50,000 people. The increasing introduction of electric vehicles (EVs) as standard by 2040 should change this and reduce carbon warming effects. However, the Government is likely to be forced into action in the very near future.

Digital technology — both killing road speed and speeding up train journeys

Ironically, advances in digital technology are both slowing drivers down to save lives and increasing the punctuality and reliability of train journeys — in effect improving speeds.

On the roads

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says speed contributes to 12% of all injuries, 15% of serious injuries and 26% of deaths. Speed cameras were first introduced in 1992. But digital technology is leading to the wider installation of average speed cameras that were first installed on sections of the M1 near Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire, and M621 in Leeds.

They work by tracking the speed of cars between two points — slowing down to go past a camera and then speeding up again doesn’t work. The system records number plates when passing a first camera and a second before performing a quick average speed calculation. Infrared night vision works at night and in any weather.

Riding the rails

Chris Grayling and Network Rail Chief Executive Mark Carne launched Network Rail’s Digital Railway Strategy on 10 May designed to ensuring all new trains and signalling are digital, or digital ready, from 2019 onwards.

The railway version of traffic lights, or in some case semaphore signals based on Victorian technology, has given UK’s railways the highest safety record in Europe, but also an average of 50 significant signal failures a day. More than half of existing analogue signalling systems would need to be replaced in the next 15 years but the £20 billion cost would deliver very little benefit to passengers.

Mark Carne said new digital signalling is more cost-effective and brings significant capacity, speed and reliability benefits while equalling the 1960s’ steam to diesel transformation, as a technological breakthrough promising to vastly improved rail network.

It will allow:

  • more trains to run safely per hour running closer together

  • more frequent services and seats

  • a cut in delays as trains move more rapidly after disruption

  • vastly improved mobile and Wi-Fi connectivity for passengers to make the most of their travel time and connect more easily to nearby communities.

Digital train control is already used on Crossrail and on Thameslink services through London Bridge where “fly-by-wire” operated trains run automatically. By 2024, it should be introduced to cross-Pennines services, the southern end of the East Coast Main Line into King’s Cross and some major commuter routes into Waterloo.

The positive environmental news is that rail is estimated to be 3–10 times less carbon dioxide (CO2) intensive than road or air transport; rail’s energy consumption is less than 2% set against a market share of more than 8.5%. Land use per passenger/km is also some 3.5 times lower than for cars. Negative external factors, such as air pollution, are estimated to be a quarter of those for road passenger travel and less than a sixth of road freight.

The future of air travel

In mid-March, Mr Grayling confirmed that the expansion of Europe’s biggest airport, Heathrow, is on track with a Commons vote due before July. He added that, “We’re moving ahead to the timetable we set when we brought forward our recommendation a year ago.” Any new runway will not be in use before 2025.

Meanwhile, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Innovate UK and the Aerospace Technology Institute are looking for businesses and researchers wanting funds for innovative aerospace projects.

Priority areas include being able to:

  • strengthen the UK’s whole-aircraft design and system integration capability and positioning this for future generations of civil aircraft

  • develop smart, connected and more electric aircraft

  • support the UK as a global leader in developing large complex structures, particularly wings

  • help to advance a new generation of more efficient propulsion technologies, particularly large turbofans.

Planes emit CO2 but also generate nitrous oxide, water vapour and soot which in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere can multiple aviation’s environmental and climatic impact. However, these are targets of engine and fuel development.

Pedalling furiously

As a “foot” note, Department for Transport figures show people walk less but cycle further than 10 years ago. Two-fifths of adults walk at least once a week; one in eight cycles.

Environmental impacts include burnt out brakes and shoe leather.