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Meet the controller: interview with National Infrastructure Commission Chair

Some decisions can’t be put off any longer says John Armitt

By Jay Elwes  

John Armitt, Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission. Photo: CLIVE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES

Britain has always been good at creating large-scale public spaces. The vaulted arches of Paddington station, for example, the rail terminus in northwest London, are little short of glorious. Built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1854, the station interior is almost cathedral-like in scale. Inspired by Paxton’s Crystal Palace, Paddington’s iron-framed roof is 700 feet long, and the longest of its three arched spans is over 100 feet wide. It is a monument to the art of civic construction. On the concourse, the sound of people and trains meld into a single, constant thrum. It was built over 150 years ago now. Can modern Britain match such accomplishments? And who decides what we need and what we must build?

Almost 36m journeys begin or end at Paddington each year. But one train that occasionally passes through the station is different to the others. It carries no paying passengers and you won’t find it on any timetable. The New Measurement Train Power Car No 43062 is painted bright yellow and it belongs to the Network Rail Research department. Rather than ferrying commuters to the suburbs, or further out into the West Country, its job is to patrol the rail system and assess the condition of the train tracks. The engine has a name on the side, a red, metal plaque, showing the person to whom it is dedicated—“John Armitt.”

“It goes round the rail network all the time towing a series of high tech carriages,” the real John Armitt explained when I spoke to him in his Westminster offices one sweltering July day. A tall man, who smiles easily and chooses his words with care, Armitt explained that the eponymous “power car” gives out a constant feed of information. “It’s a smart way of measuring the state of the infrastructure.”

Armitt is Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission and, like the bright yellow train that bears his name, his job is to keep watch over Britain’s great public structures and ensure that everything’s up to scratch. The Commission was set up in 2015 as a government department without a minister, and Armitt got the chairmanship in 2017, after Andrew Adonis stood down, citing his now well-publicised concerns over Brexit.

Unlike his yellow locomotive namesake, Armitt doesn’t only assess the state of the rail networks—the whole of Britain’s infrastructure falls within his purview, and government is obliged to consider his recommendations. The National Infrastructure Assessment, published by the Commission in July, set out ambitious goals for national broadband coverage, the development of renewable energy systems, as well as new flood and drought resistance spending. It also urged preparation for the coming of electric vehicles and called for £43bn of new transport funding for the regions.

“What Armitt did not say explicitly, but which he hinted at during our conversation, was that Britain has some serious catching up to do”

Armitt’s responsibilities, in other words, cut right across British public life. With that wide remit come big challenges. The information technologies that have emerged in the last two decades have transformed the way people in the UK live, work and communicate. It’s Armitt’s job to ensure that Britain’s infrastructure is fit for the new kind of society that is emerging. To bring Britain up to date will require many tens of billions of pounds, decades of disruption and a healthy dose of political willpower. What Armitt did not say explicitly, but which he hinted at throughout our conversation, was that Britain has got some serious catching up to do.

There are occasions when continuing to try and renew and manage on your existing infrastructure is just insufficient,” said Armitt, in his wood-panelled rooms just off Parliament Square. His painted portrait hung on the wall by his office door. “We are at one of those points now,” he said, and gave as an example the High Speed Two (HS2) rail project, one of the largest infrastructure plans of them all, which aims to connect London with the cities of the Midlands and the north. The estimated price tag of the first phase—the London to Birmingham section—is £27bn. The entire project will cost £50bn.

Big projects like HS2 are eye-catching and their scale alone makes them appealing—but why go to all the effort just to shave 15 minutes off the journey time between two cities? Well, said Armitt, HS2 “is fundamentally not about speed. It’s just that if you’re building a new railway, it’s going to be a faster railway than the old one.” Really, he said, “it’s all about capacity.” Britain’s current north-south rail routes are some of the most heavily-used in Europe, both for passengers and freight. A recent £8bn upgrade was, Armitt conceded, on reflection “a pretty inefficient way of spending money.” “HS2 is an attempt for the first time in 100 years to put down a new railway which links the north and the south of the country.”

A critique of HS2—one that goes for other large-scale infrastructure projects—is that really it’s an expression of the politician’s eye view of the world. Because most MPs take the train when they return to their constituencies each weekend, it’s the mode of transport they care about most and so it comes in for the greatest political scrutiny. It’s a nice criticism, but it shades past the fact that more people want to take the train than ever before. In the first three months of 2011, there were 360m train journeys made in Britain. In the closing three months of 2017, the equivalent number was 428m. That figure will continue to rise.

“Existing infrastructure is not going to be able to meet those levels of demand,” said Armitt and that goes for both rail and roads. But it’s not only the increase in demand that is behind these new railway projects. Rail is more sustainable than road—it’s less polluting. There’s also a greater psychological aversion to new motorways than new rail tracks. There are vociferous objections to HS2, but imagine the uproar if the plan was to gouge a new eight-lane motorway through west London and out into the shires.

That’s why rail is getting a big push—but the results have been mixed. The electrification of the Great Western Railway has run into a slew of problems, both in building the necessary infrastructure and configuring the new trains. The introduction of the new Northern Rail timetable was little short of disastrous—a reminder that constructing the thing is only half the challenge. Once built, it has to be run as efficiently as possible.

That will mean upgrading the nation’s signalling systems. After all, what’s the point of a 21st-century train network if it’s run using Victorian technology? New digital signalling systems will be costly, but Network Rail, which owns and manages the nation’s rail lines will simply have to pay up. It would, Armitt said, “increase capacity by somewhere between 15 and 25 per cent.”

These new systems will allow trains to run on what’s known as their “braking distance.” This means the gap between trains running on the same line can be determined by the distance it takes them to stop. With this system, you can run more trains on to the same amount of track. Constantly calculating the braking distance requires complex processes which new technology allows—but most of the UK’s rail network is stuck in the past.

“The current signalling system is the Victorian one,” said Armitt. “You don’t let a train pass that signal until the previous train has passed that signal. It’s a block system.”

The new braking-distance system is being used on the Victoria Line on the London Underground. It works—you get more trains per hour, though the tube is always going to have its bad days. Beyond this, though, the new system is beginning to show how train networks might run in future. If you run on braking distance, the signalling centre sends a constant stream of data and instructions to the train.
The driver in the cab is told automatically when to brake and when to accelerate. “In the end,” said Armitt, “the driver comes out of it altogether, and you can control the train from the signalling centre by
radio signalling.”

It’s not an outcome that rail unions would welcome. And yet, said Armitt, “the new technologies are being employed by all our competitors. So if Britain is to retain its competitive place in the world, it can’t lag behind.” He cited Japan and Korea as examples of countries that are adopting new capabilities—and not only when it comes to transport. Both nations, he said, have over 90 per cent full fibre broadband coverage, the fastest type of connection on offer. “We are saying we need to get to that point by 2033, and that’s considered ambitious,” said Armitt, laughing ironically.

“If you don’t have adequate infrastructure systems, then it is more of an uphill battle to encourage people to move their business”

South Korea, like other recently-developed economies, is at an advantage when it comes to developing new large-scale systems. “It’s easier. There’s no doubt about that,” said Armitt. If you’re starting from scratch, then you can get the project right from first principles. In Britain, things are more complicated—especially when it comes to somewhere like the City of London. “It’s more expensive. It’s not straightforward. But if you don’t do it, you’re just not going to have the level of communications and access to digital and data, which is becoming the driver
of everything.”

It’s precisely here that political will becomes so important. Only with support and enthusiasm right at the top can the projects on the scale of Crossrail—the £15bn east-west London rail link—ever hope to get underway. But then, of course, there’s Brexit.

“I can’t complain about the degree of interest that we have from both Treasury and other government departments,” said Armitt. But, he added, “the Brexit debate is clearly a massive distraction in the short-term for government. Day-to-day government business is being consumed by Brexit and so parliamentary time for measures is less than would normally be the case.”

“The budget is clearly always a challenge,” he added, with another wry laugh as he sipped water from a small plastic cup. “It’s impossible to say precisely where we are going to be in the next two or three years. I’m a Remainer. And therefore I’m on the more cautious, or nervous, side of what the implications of Brexit are going to be.”

“What we can’t allow is for this to just drag on. There is a need to come to a conclusion, so people can get on with whatever situation we face and make the best of it.”

I suggested to Armitt that Brexit drag made his job even tougher. “It does. It makes everybody’s job much harder,” he said, remarking that much infrastructure development relied on private sector finance. “The private sector invests when it feels confident. While there’s uncertainty, they’re much less likely to invest.”

All this political uncertainty is accompanied by a geographical one—the question is not only whatBritain needs, but where. A well-worn story is that there is too much economic activity concentrated in the southeast of Britain, especially in London, and so government should do its best to develop the areas where economic activity is weaker, especially in the larger northern cities. It’s an easy-to-grasp mental image of a regional imbalance in need of correction—but does it really work like that?

A section of new tunnel under construction for the Crossrail project. Photo: PAUL DANIELS / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

“You can go ’round and ’round with this argument,” said Armitt, after a chewy pause. “What’s clear is that if you don’t have adequate networks and infrastructure systems, then it is more of an uphill battle to encourage people to take their business to those areas.” It’s the same with housing, he explained—people want to live near good transport connections. “If we are to enable the northern cities to play their full part in the economy, then giving those cities the investment confidence by showing you can get from Manchester to Leeds in a sensible time, compared with similar journeys in the south, is important to the confidence of those cities—and to investors in those cities, whether they’re coming from inside the UK, or outside.”

But then how does the further development of Heathrow feed into this picture? At first blush, the construction of another runway at what is already the country’s busiest airport looks like a decision predicated solely on the interests of the southeast, and London above all.

“It’s based purely on demand,” said Armitt, quickly. “Airport capacity in the southeast is absolutely full.” Whereas Birmingham and Manchester airports run at 50-60 per cent capacity, Gatwick is at 85 per cent, and Heathrow at more than 95 per cent. London is the “entry port” for long-distance global air transport, Armitt explained, especially from Asia. If you’re flying goods into or out of Britain, chances are they’ll go via Heathrow—1.7m tonnes of freight goes through the airport each year.

Armitt was a member of the Airport Commission which made the Heathrow decision. “I spent three years listening to all the arguments and debates around this,” he said with a laugh, and just a hint of exasperation. “We were looking at a government decision that had already been made twice, which was to expand Heathrow. And then people get cold feet and they start to back off. So what do you do—oh well, let’s have another commission, to kick it into the long grass for another three or four years.” The government had spent too long delaying the inevitable. On Heathrow, it was time, Armitt said, for No. 10 to accept the verdict that it was trying so hard to ignore.

Even after Heathrow is expanded, Armitt said, the system will soon come under strain again, a point that will rile environmentalists who see airports as especially polluting. By 2040, he predicted, the question will be being asked once more—where can we put another new runway? The answer to that might well be Birmingham, which, with an HS2 connection could style itself as “London Midlands Airport.” After all, it’s only 35 minutes to London by train, Armitt pointed out, the same time as from Heathrow
or Gatwick.

“By 2040, Armitt predicted, the question will be being asked once more—where can we put another new runway?”

So far, so technocratic—but what happens when a grand-standing politician starts poking his nose in, looking to attach himself to some new headline-grabbing project? Boris Island, for example—was it ever taken seriously? “Oh yeah,” said Armitt. “In fact we spent twice as long looking at it as we originally intended in order to give it proper consideration.” Boris Island was the former London mayor Boris Johnson’s idea to shutter Heathrow and put up an entirely new airport on an island in the Thames Estuary. “But then you’ve got to connect that airport to London,” Armitt said, “and the cost of that infrastructure would have been absolutely massive—it was in the tens of billions. It was not something the airlines wanted.”

“I said to Boris at the time, ‘Boris—you are proposing two massive projects at the same time. You are going to build a new airport and at the same time you’re going to have to consider what you’re doing with an enormous area in the west of London where you are going to deprive tens of thousands of people of their jobs… and you are undermining and will have to re-build Britain’s whole air freight industry, which is built on Heathrow.” Johnson’s island airport idea was ultimately dismissed, as were the proposals he backed for a new crossing over the Thames, as well as another bridge, briefly suggested, across the English Channel.

Armitt, by contrast, has not sought the attention that attaches to these large construction projects. His instincts take him in another direction. “It’s always an enjoyable day to get out and see these projects. One that sticks in the mind was a small hydro scheme up in the northeast which was simply taking the power of the river to provide several thousand homes with electricity.” A modest project, but one that worked. His satisfaction as he described it was palpable.

No-one voted for John Armitt. He has never held elected office. And yet this affable civil engineer—like Brunel before him—will help to change the face of Britain more than any government minister and in ways that could last for centuries. The degree of influence he holds gives some pause for thought—the technocrats put into power in the southern eurozone economies after the crisis proved so politically provocative precisely because they were not elected. Armitt’s role is not so controversial as that—but it is sensitive nonetheless.

And the decisions that he now urges Britain to make cannot be put off any longer.

Read more from “The Future of Transport”

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