Britain’s transport system must be better managed, make proper charges for use and plough the proceeds into well-planned development of the key routes to reduce congestion, says The Royal Academy of Engineering in welcoming the publication today of Sir Rod Eddington’s review of transport policy.

The Academy supports creating a National Roads Corporation to manage the approximately 50,000 km of Britain’s major roads with the job of maintaining and developing that network to keep people moving. “Network Rail does the same thing for the rail network and better management has started to improve things,” says Professor John Wootton CBE FREng, Rees Jeffreys Professor in Transport Planning at the University of Southampton. “Making one authority responsible for the main road network is essential but the opposite is actually happening – the Highways Agency currently looks after just 12,000 km of our roads as the Department of Transport has given much of the responsibility away to local authorities – they even tried to give away the M5!”

User charging is a key part of the Academy’s strategy - the cost of any journey should reflect its actual cost in fuel, labour, maintaining and enhancing the system, and controlling congestion and reducing pollution. The Academy estimates that about 80 per cent of road journeys would cost no more than they do under the current fuel duty, and in rural areas they would be a lot cheaper. “Crucially, the priority for the proceeds must be to maintain and improve the system rather than be creamed off as tax,” says Professor Wootton. “People will accept direct charges more readily if they can see that the money is being used to update the network. “There is a chronic lack of capacity on both our rail and road systems, which manifests itself as lengthening journey times and a lack of seats on our trains and congestion and delays on our roads. Congestion already costs the UK an estimated £15 billion each year – equivalent to 1.5 per cent of GDP. This figure is 15 per cent worse than France and 40 per cent worse than Germany, and the EC predicts that congestion costs will double in the next decade. While new signalling systems, user charging and the better management of traffic can make better use of existing capacity, some new capacity will need to be built on both our rail and road systems.”

New technology also has a role to play: in controlling traffic, informing people and changing the vehicles we use. “Change is a gradual process,” says Professor Wootton. “If we look 15 years down the line our vehicle fleet will be dramatically different with far more aids to driving. Today’s cars are already far more fuel-efficient and catalytic converters are controlling the non-carbon emissions from vehicles. Further efficiencies will also reduce carbon emissions, as will developing hydrogen and hybrid vehicles.” Ultimately he sees future transport moving towards driverless vehicles summoned on demand by a user for a particular journey. “The seeds are already being sown with autonomous cruise control, lane following and self-parking vehicles.”

The past 40 years of endless transport studies have resulted in little action, so that there is now a desperate need to put in place the management and financial structures that will cure our transport problems.

Notes for editors

  1. Transport 2050, published in March 2005, is available:
    Transport 2050 report (823.13 KB)

    Road User Charging – a statement by the Academy in August 2006 is also available:
    Road user charging report (58.63 KB)
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.