Rachel Turnbull: When we want to think big we need to use our heads

Tyne Tunnel boss Rachel Turnbull on what we can do to make big projects more attractive to governments and investors

A new report from the House of Commons Transport Committee recognises that, in the past, “new river crossings have all too often been planned with a design life that was too short”.

The Department for Transport (DfT), it says, must avoid the “costly duplication of existing crossings” that this issue creates, when planning future projects.

In particular, the report is looking ahead to the development of new crossings in East London and the lower Thames. I was among those who gave evidence to the Committee as it looked at existing river crossings and talked to those involved.

The ambition to future-proof new crossings is prudent and, if there are lessons which can be learned from the past then it is wise to do so.

However, I am sure that a number of readers will, by this point, have already noted the suggestion from the report that the benefits of the report appear to be targeted at the South.

Having identified in its report that existing crossings have and do require upgrades, to ensure they meet present and future traffic flow, then one would hope that the Committee, and the DfT, might consider the need to prioritise investment in rectifying this, especially if there is money to be had for new crossings.

In the North East, we have been fortunate in having already seen investment, which doubled the capacity of the Tyne Tunnels, a project which was completed in 2011.

Significantly improved traffic flow has been achieved, in comparison with times gone by, when we could only rely upon the 1960s-built original tunnel.

However, to fully meet the potential of, and to future-proof such crossings, one needs to consider, and invest in, the wider infrastructure network.

The full potential of the investment we have seen already here in the North East will only be realised when the important road network connectivity north and south of the Tyne receives the upgrades it requires.

It is excellent news that plans to improve the A19/A1058 interchange at Silverlink are progressing. This represents another piece in the puzzle when it comes to maximising traffic flow on the A19 corridor.

However, there is still much work to be done, and I am sure there are crossings elsewhere in the country with similar legacy issues, which need addressing if their impact is to be maximised.

Here in the North East, these changes, along with those being implemented on the A1, are all part of a necessary widescale upgrading of the region’s road networks and, once complete, will illustrate the benefits of investing in infrastructure on a regional scale, rather than piecemeal.

Away from the issues of achieving traffic flow potential, one of the other areas that needs to be addressed to ensure infrastructure investment is maintained at the levels required, is the issue of where commercial risk of such large scale facilities should lie. This risk is negotiated differently on each scheme.

Such issues of risk need to be addressed and mitigated at a much earlier stage than is often the case. Rather than “floating” an early idea of a project and reaching out for private partners, having a more robust pre-project analysis team would identify and reduce such risks, making the overall project a more attractive proposition.

This is particularly important, as when a private firm or partnership engages with such projects, they do so in line with a contract based upon the entirety of the concession, and targets which must be met throughout. There is little in the way of flexibility.

When considering how existing projects can be improved and the impact of new developments maximised, again, this is highly relevant.

For example, one of the areas of discussion in the report is the consideration of free-flow technology, which would allow traffic to move through tolls, as it currently does at the Dartford Tunnel. This is also in line to be introduced on the Mersey Gateway.

However, evidence from the first month of implementation on one project showed that 15% of users skipped the toll. On many concessions, where these full-term targets are based upon projections of 100% toll collection, such a loss in revenue, even mitigated by the issue of penalty charge notices, are simply unsustainable.

So, if investment money is available for public and private partnership infrastructure projects, we not only need to learn from the past in terms of their implementation, we must ensure existing networks are enhanced to the same standards one would expect in future projects.

Rachel Turnbull is Chief Executive of TT2 Limited, the company which operates the Tyne Tunnels.

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