In this blog post, we look at some of this year’s transport updates, highlighting those that may have slipped under the radar, while providing a bit of background information. 

The 20mph Speed Limit 

Since Mark Drakeford stepped down and Vaughn Gethin was elected as First Minister for Wales, there has been speculation that the 20mph default speed limit in Wales will be rolled back. It could be said that the introduction of the speed limit was not universally popular (my entry into the 2024 understatement of the year competition). Indeed, over 450,000 people signed a petition to reverse the decision – a Senedd record. That the Conservative Westminster government, with willing assistance from the right-wing press chose to use the legislation to attack the Labour Welsh Government, rather than debate the merits of the policy was unfortunate, though not unexpected. There was also misinformation spread about it being a blanket 20mph speed limit (implying every single road), rather than a default 20mph limit, where the presumption is that areas with a 30mph speed limit, would see it reduced to 20mph, but with local authorities able to give exemptions where it made sense.

What does the evidence show? Well, speeds have reduced by an average of 4mph, from 28.9 to 24.8mph on a sample of road over a three month period following the change, which should be good news for road safety based on an average 6% reduction in collision for every 1mph reduction in average speed. On the basis of the scheme being to improve safety, it can be said to have achieved its objectives. 

But, is it a war on motorists? Depends on who you ask I suppose. The editors of the Daily Mail, Telegraph and GB News would probably say yes. Rishi Sunak certainly thinks so, having stated ULEZ clean air fees and 20mph zones “aren’t the right values of the British people” and people “rely on their cars to get around and we should be supportive of them”. It’s hard to know where to start with this; presumably safe and livable streets are not British values, nor is clean air. It is also deliberately divisive,  seemingly forgetting that many motorists also cycle sometimes, just about all motorists are pedestrians sometimes, and all motorists live somewhere and would probably like clean air if given the choice.  

Was the policy undemocratically implemented? Whilst some people would say yes, the actual answer was that it was in the Welsh Labour manifesto, who were democratically elected, it was debated and subsequently voted for in the Senedd following due process. 

Is it a radical policy? Not really, most Scandinavian countries have had 30kph limits in urban areas for decades, it’s also the limit for Spain, Ireland, many large cities in Europe including all of Paris, and, oh yes, large parts of Scotland and England including most of London.

Will it be reversed? Short answer, no. Slightly longer answer, there might be some localised changes where it makes sense, which has always been with local authorities’ power. 

So that’s settled then.

Hydrogen Cars

In other news, there have been reports on new models of hydrogen cars, so could these overtake electric vehicles in future? This author’s view is that they will not. Whilst they overcome a key drawback of EVs in that they can be refilled quickly, there is next to no hydrogen infrastructure in the UK. There are 14 stations in the UK, five of which are within the M25 and most hydrogen currently is produced using fossil fuels. Conversely, the electricity grid covers the whole of the UK, the charging infrastructure, whilst still insufficient, is improving, faster charging options are increasingly available and battery technology has, and will continue to move on. Beyond that, there is the first-mover advantage; there are millions of EVs sold worldwide each year and increasing, with most manufacturers offering electric variants. Conversely, there are 2 – 3 production hydrogen models, with annual global sales measured in 5 figures, mostly in Japan and California. As an aside, battery electric vehicles potentially also form part of the renewable energy solution, with bidirectional charging able to smooth peaks and troughs in electricity demand.

Public Transport 

In public transport, rail and bus passenger numbers continue to grow, but remain below pre-pandemic numbers, according to government figures, there were 1.4 billion rail passenger journeys in the UK for the 22-23 financial year, down from 1.8 billion in 18-19. Bus journeys remain further behind at 2.8 billion in England in 2022-23, compared to 4.1 billion in 2019-20. Wales has been harder hit with figures of 52 million journeys in 2021-22 compared to 91 million pre-pandemic. However, in Wales, there are some reasons to be positive.

The rollout of the South Wales Metro continues with new trains running on some lines and to be cascaded to others. Just this week there are timetable changes that will increase the frequency of service on some lines. Eventually, there will be 4 trains per hour travelling from each of the four heads of the valleys, with the Treherbert, Aberdare and Merthyr Tydfil lines merging at various points to provide 12 trains per hour from Pontypridd to Cardiff. This genuinely turn-up-and-go service, coupled with new, comfortable trains should help further drive up passenger numbers. More work needs to be done to create a truly integrated transport system. In many parts of the country and Cardiff being a prime example, bus and rail effectively compete against each other. If they could be covered on one ticket, with integrated timetables that would solve some of the first/last mile issues and help drive up numbers on both modes. If and when Cardiff gets a replacement Nextbike service, this could be added to the mix. Coupled with this should be affordable and simple fares with Oyster style daily and weekly caps to reward those who travel frequently. It is understood that TfW has plans to integrate the stations into the communities they serve as part of the upgrades. This will be the subject of a separate article, but at a very basic level, this in itself could be an effective way of driving up non-fare revenue and also encouraging people to use the railway. The fact is that only a small percentage of the population use rail frequently and many people never use or engage with it. There is no one size fits all, but services available at a station could include, for example, EV charging, parcel lockers, farmers markets or community service co-located at the station. If people start to engage with it, they become more familiar with the travel options available. 

Connected and Autonomous Plant

Finally, one thing that hasn’t been in the news but I think should be is Connected and Autonomous Plant, i.e. bulldozers, diggers and the like. Maple Consulting, in collaboration with  ITEN partners, has been working on a project led by Costain for the DfT on the potential for plant using machine control to improve construction efficiency and quality, increase safety, lower environmental emissions and potentially contribute billions to the UK economy. What’s not to like and why isn’t it being used everywhere? The report will be published soon and will answer some of those questions. 

As ever, you can expect updates like the aforementioned report to be featured here and via Maple Consulting’s LinkedIn page. Follow Maple Consulting for the latest news.

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