Six things I learned on a works outing to Hitachi’s Train Building Factory in County Durham

1.We live in a world of mysterious blank big sheds inside which much of the economy happens. So good on Hitachi on being so open to visitors in letting people like us have a look at what goes on in their factory and to see some new trains being born. People love to see what goes behind the scenes and there is lots of scope for more of the transport industry to do more of it – Hitachi certainty do as another group was ready to do a tour as we left. And very high tech the trains are too (currently the factory is churning out the new IEP high speed trains for the East Coast Main Line and electric trains for the Scottish central belt) loaded with sensors and threaded through with kilometres of cabling.

2. I like a new train, I like it if it gets me there a bit quicker. It’s nice if it has a racy nose cone. But really what I’m interested in (and would swap a longer journey time for) is are the seats going to be comfortable and will I be able to move my elbows sufficiently to do a bit of work on it. Frustrating therefore how boring, uncomfortable and cramped most interiors for modern trains are – especially when gazillions are spent on their engineering aspects. Symptom of a railway run by engineers and financial engineers – and overseen by an absentee landlord at DfT. None of which is Hitachi’s doing as seat spec is down to the DfT and the franchisee. Word is IEP East Coast trains are going to have more comfortable seating given recent backlashes against ironing-board seats elsewhere. We shall see.

3. The factory employs a lot of people to put parts together and assemble and test the trains. They are also seeking to involve the local supply chain in supplying more of those parts (70% of parts in the IEP come from the UK they say). All good but the question remains how much of the clever parts of new trains could be procured from the UK in new UK trains (for now the body shells, with a fair amount of kit already built in, comes from Japan) and the traction packages, air conditioning, diesel power packs and universal access toilets are all imported. I’m in no way singling out Hitachi on this issue as it’s a Government specification issue. Roger Ford, in his informed sources, column has argued that there should be a minimum spec for high value components from the UK for the UK. The focus we currently have on train and bus building plants (and the outcry if they come under threat) needs to be balanced with attention to how they relate to the supply chain (particularly the advanced manufacturing end of the supply chain).

4. Hitachi are doing some close working with a nearby college to attract young people into the industry (though young peoples’ primary engineering aspirations are aerospace or Formula One not trains they say). You can never start too early therefore and thus they are working with primary schools to give kids some fun in a location they are unlikely to forget soon and to sow some seeds as to what their future might hold before they start to copy the views of their peers as to what’s for them and what is not.

5. How few people who build new public transport vehicles use public transport to get there. We got there on the Darlington to Bishop Auckland branch line (alighting at Heighington) with its less than high tech Pacer trains and hourly service. But at shift change at Hitachi there was a whirlwind of activity in the car park but none of the workforce joined us on the rather grim walk back to the station. There were a couple of bus stops on the road back as well (with shelters) but with no maps and no timetable information – the signage to the station was also poor. Efforts are being made to improve things (with a new earlier service to the station for the start of the early shift) however overall very reminiscent of the ignored and underwhelming public transport access to the Optare bus building factory east of Leeds – which everyone also drives to.

6. The Bishop Auckland branch line may feel like a backwater today but part of it is the route of the original Stockton and Darlington railway. You can define what was the first railway in a lot of ways. But this was the world’s first public railway which used steam locomotives for freight alongside a horse drawn (at first) passenger service. A boarded up pub next to Heighington station can claim to be the oldest extant station building at a working railway station in the world. It’s also where George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number One took to the rails for the first time. And if that wasn’t enough it’s also home to one of the oldest working signal boxes in the country. With the railway museum at Darlington North Road and the NRM base at Shildon further down the line here’s hoping even more can be made of this railway’s historical interest and credentials in the run up to 2025 (the bicentennial of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington).

Jonathan Bray

It’s time for transport to make the connections on climate change

 

Recently it feels like there’s been a shift in the mood on climate change. This is no longer something too big and too distant that we can stuff it in a drawer like a bill we are afraid we can’t pay. Both the ever starker warnings from climate scientists, and the escalation in severe weather, are now hitting home. Saying you can prevent forest fires by raking forests floors ‘like they do in Finland’ feels symbolic of the extractive economy‘s (and their client states) chaotic, fighting retreat in the face of the growing confidence of the clean energy sector and the new economy.

If the mood music is changing, then where do we stand on the race to cut carbon emissions? If you want a succinct summary of where things stand on UK carbon emissions, then then I’d recommend the Committee on Climate Change’s recent ten year progress report and this brilliant suite of blog posts from New Economics Foundation.

Your time would be better spent reading them than this – but if you have time to do both – here are my thoughts on what on earth we do next on climate change…

1. In the UK there has been remarkable progress in decarbonising the grid – mostly through the dethroning of King Coal as the main source of the nation’s heat, light and power. However, as David Powell, Head of Environment and Green Transition at the New Economics Foundation, points out in his blog post this was the relatively easy bit. Summarising the Committee’s report, he says: “The Government…needs to pull its finger out on pretty much everything that isn’t electricity generation: that means what we manufacture and consume, and the industries in which we work; how we get around; how we heat our homes and what sort of homes we build; and what we do with the land, and the soil, and our food. All of that stuff isn’t mere technocratic tinkering that happens around the edges of ​‘the proper economy’. It is the economy.”

2. The Government has a strong narrative on reducing carbon emissions but when it comes to the big decisions too many go the wrong way for the climate… and unfortunately, we haven’t got time for this one step forward, one step backwards policy dance. Pumping billions into expanding the inter-urban road network, making motoring increasingly competitive with public transport and bending over backwards to ensure air travel is often crazy cheap are three examples at the level of detail on transport where the need to reduce carbon has not been a consideration. The failure of the Budget to even mention climate change is an example of it not being a consideration at the level of strategic direction.

3. One of the reasons for this is that measures to tackle climate change are seen politically as being a drag on the economy. Not only that, but also unpopular with the public as they are seen to either increase living costs or limit lives (through, for example, increasing fuel prices or making foreign holidays more unobtainable). The tenor of the debate can too often convey a sense that this is a race we will probably lose whilst also consigning us to increasingly austere but lofty lives of penance and abstinence. This also plays into the recent global phenomenon around ‘taking back control’ from the technocrats who are seen as manipulating complex situations in a way which leads to people already struggling, struggling more, whilst those same technocrats ensure their own privileged lives are insulated from the impacts of their advocacy. The current fuel protests in France are an echo of those in the UK in 2000 and show how prices at the pumps can act as the spark plug for wider discontent. However, there is an alternative to environmental policies being seen as technocratic, elitist, hypocritical and life limiting and that is to recast them into a broader transformative vision which also incorporates wider social goals. There are signs of this ‘taking back control’ of the environmental agenda in how quickly the ‘green new deal’’ proposed by newly elected US Congress representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has gained momentum. The ‘green new deal’ isn’t all about the complex fiscal and taxation measures that makes the economists purr, the technocrats preen themselves, the media bored and the public suspicious – it also emphasises that this means jobs and it means: “This is going to be the New Deal, the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil-rights movement of our generation.”

4. In the UK we also need to move away from the current ‘bittiness’ of carbon policy as an accidental beneficiary or victim of other policies to something which is far more integrated into decision-making as a matter of course. Only then will people start to feel more agency and less anxiety (of which there is more than enough to go around already) over climate change. And only then too can we really scale up and tackle the difficult bits that David Powell talks about. In addition, we can also start to get away from a debate on policies on climate change which tend to be dominated by fiscal and taxation issues to showing how measures which reduce carbon and improve climate resilience can also make peoples’ lives happier, healthier and more financially secure.

5. Some cities are pursuing these connections in a more comprehensive way than others. In Shenzen, China, all its 16,000 buses are now electric and all taxis will follow by 2020. It is also seeking to become more of a ‘sponge city’ through greening its urban landscape so that it absorbs heavy rainfall like nature does rather than the hard concrete surfaces of a conventional city which channel water into drains that fail to cope. With hundreds of years of water management behind them, it’s no surprise that cities in the Netherlands are also taking a comprehensive approach.

In Rotterdam any new development has to leave water management better than it found it. So, for example, a significant proportion of the costs of Rotterdam’s transformed Centraal Station were paid for through building a huge water tank above the underground station car park in order to hold excess rainfall and then release it when the drains can cope. In Berlin, there are multiple initiatives to make the connections between renewable power generation, smart electricity grids and smart electric vehicles. Smart grids have the potential to work with smart vehicles and smart buildings to move electricity around so it can be stored within the system – reducing overall energy use. There are ‘sponge city’ schemes there too.

And closer to home there is Nottingham, which has its own power station, electricity grid, electricity retailing arm, bus company, fleet of electric buses, the most extensive programme of greening the council house stock in the country, its own regeneration company, a major university green housing research centre and extensive ultra low emission vehicle initiative. There is enormous potential here for the kind of synergies on carbon that can be harder to achieve in other UK cities where the levers are held by privatised water, energy and public transport utilities, with short term agendas, enmeshed within impenetrably complex nationally organised regulatory frameworks overseen by absentee civil service landlords.

6. Connections also need to be made at the national level. For example, Daniel Button in his NEF blog on climate change and the health, points out that the healthcare system in the UK makes up 10% of our economy and around 10% of the workforce, and the sum total of activities of the NHS, public health and social sector is the largest public sector carbon generator in Europe! But given all this, what is the NHS doing to join the dots with on transport and carbon? Most of the debate around transport and the NHS is concerned with fund raising for helicopters and free parking, yet some estimates are that 5% of traffic on the roads is related to the health sector. There is much more that could be done around location of healthcare facilities, on inefficiencies with non-emergency patient transport and with the promotion of active travel as a way both to tackle diseases associated with inactivity.

7. One of the areas I’m exploring during my Visiting Senior Fellowship at LSE Cities is how we can raise awareness in UK city regions around both what world leading cities are doing in an integrated way on making the connections on carbon and climate change. But as well as that, to provide better guidance on how carbon reduction and climate resilience can be factored in to the day-to-day decisions they make on operations and infrastructure. These are things that they were going to do anyway but where there are choices and add-ons (some of which may be cost-neutral) which could contribute to this much bigger goal.

8. As the grid decarbonises, a big dimension to transport’s role in cutting carbon is always going to be about how rapidly we can ensure more of the domestic journeys that are made are powered by that decarbonising grid. But that shouldn’t be the only game in town – especially with aviation being allowed to let rip and current transport policies making carbon emissions worse from the sector.

It’s time to make as many connections as we can – and make city regions healthier, happier and more prosperous places by doing so.

Jonathan Bray is Director at Urban Transport Group

Debating with data

Data Hub computer image

What is Data? A character from Star Trek? Or is it factual information or numbers that can be used to help inform decision making?

Both are correct, of course. But in an era where disinformation and ‘fake news’ are playing an increasingly key role in driving geopolitical crises, it’s more important than ever that we all strive for higher standards of data and the presentation of that data. This is particularly key for the world of transport.

That’s why in July 2017, the Urban Transport Group launched the Data Hub – an online, interactive tool allowing users to create bespoke visualisations of key transport data. This unique tool has proved very popular, with thousands of people visiting the hub to explore data and produce their own visualisations to help support the work that they’re doing on transport.

Back in July 2017 whilst I was at Nexus, I was working on the early stages of developing a new Bus Strategy for the region. Seeking the data to support statements in the draft, the Data Hub was able to instantly present to me the trends of bus patronage and bus trips per head for Tyne and Wear. Previously, such a task would have required trawling though spreadsheets for hours on end to get the data I wanted. The Urban Transport Group has recognised that transport planners and policy makers from across its membership were likely doing the same tasks and so the Data Hub was born, turning long spreadsheets into usable data for everyone.

When I joined Urban Transport Group on secondment earlier this year, it was clear to me that the organisation did not want to rest on its laurels. Driven by the positive experiences and constructive feedback from users, overseeing an upgrade to the Data Hub became one of my main jobs.

Select, visualise and share

The upgrade has involved two key elements. The first was working with engineers AECOM to carry out upgrades, including the introduction of Geocharts (or maps) to allow data to be paired with maps and the ability for users to add their own data to charts. The Data Hub, once loaded, should also now be faster too when creating new visualisations.

The second key upgrade was the significant expansion of data that was on offer. From station entry and exit data to road safety statistics, I have spent the last few months trawling through some of the Department for Transport’s and Office of Rail and Road’s largest and greatest datasets, bringing them together in a more presentable and useable format.

Ultimately, we believe that this work has expanded the ability to ‘select’ the transport data you’re interested in, ‘visualise’ that data in graphs, charts and maps, and to ‘share’ it on websites, social media or in presentations.

Data Hub infographic 2018

This isn’t the end though, and there are lots more exciting developments in the pipeline as we continue to evolve the tool – including even more data sets (from beyond just the UK city regions) and the ability for our members to capitalise on the software behind the Data Hub.

This has been a thoroughly enlightening project to work on. I never knew there was so much excellent data on city region transport out there and I’m pleased the Data Hub will be able to raise the profile of this data.

All that is left to say, is to ask you to head over to the refreshed Data Hub and to get stuck into the new data that is available and explore the new functions we’ve added. Visualising this data and presenting it to others will help you sell your message and continue to make the case for investment in transport with accurate, informed analysis. Go on, give your work the integrity and substance that is so often lacking in today’s key debates and discussion. Debate with data!

Stephen Bellamy is Business Development Officer – Policy at Nexus, and oversaw the upgrade work to the Data Hub whilst on secondment to Urban Transport Group