The Rail and Road Pod Episode 15: Inside Highways UK

30 November 2022
The Rail and Road Pod gets out and about as we attend the Highways UK event at the NEC in Birmingham.
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Smart motorway in England

We joined the ORR Highways team at the event which brings together people responsible for planning, developing, managing, maintaining and futureproofing the nation's roads networks. We caught up with ORR Chief Executive John Larkinson as he joined a panel of keynote speakers, where smart motorways were one of the topics discussed.

We also hear from Anthony Smith, Chief Executive, Transport Focus, and Nick Harris, Chief Executive, National Highways. 

Sneha Patel, Deputy Director of the Highways Team and Harry Garnham, Head of Roads Performance also join the podcast to explain some of our current areas of focus including a new safety report.  


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Introduction, Kenny Walker

This is the Rail and Road podcast. I'm your host, Kenny Walker, and after the last few episodes focusing on rail, we turn our attention to roads. And we are quite literally on the road for this pod - we're out and about at the Highways UK event at the NEC in Birmingham. For two days, this event brought together people responsible for planning, developing, managing, maintaining and futureproofing the nation's roads networks. In this episode, you'll hear from Sneha Patel, Deputy Director of the Highways Team at ORR, Harry Garnham, Head of Roads Performance, also from ORR, and a panel discussion involving John Larkinson, Chief Executive of ORR, Anthony Smith, Chief Executive, Transport Focus, and Nick Harris, Chief Executive, National Highways. So there's a lot to cover today. First up, Sneha, on the importance of this event to ORR. 

Sneha Patel: It's great to be here, another year at Highways UK. It's been a really good opportunity for us to talk to a whole range of stakeholders around our role and what we do to hold National Highways to account. So we've talked about our annual assessment that we published in July of this year, highlighting some of the areas of concern or areas of focus that we've been looking at and how we're working with National Highways to progress those areas. We've also had the opportunity to talk about our current areas of focus, so things like asset management, ten-minute response time or efficiency. And we've also had the opportunity to talk about forthcoming work, in particular, our new safety report that responds to the Transport Select Committee recommendations in relation to the rollout and safety of smart motorways.

Kenny Walker: A highlight of day one was a panel discussion featuring speakers from ORR, National Highways, Department for Transport and Transport Focus. As you might expect, smart motorways was a key topic. First we hear from ORR's Chief Executive, John Larkinson.

John Larkinson: It's obviously been a controversial area, it's been a very emotive area. There's been a pause on new smart motorways, new all lane running projects. The positive news on all that is that the government set a whole series of requirements on National Highways in terms of a smart motorway action plan, into more emergency refuge areas, better signage, etc. And largely speaking, that has been delivered, which is really, really positive in terms of what's next, what more there is to do. A couple of areas where I think there's still quite a bit more to do in terms of confidence and user confidence on smart motorways: the first is around the technology. We've got a big piece of work on at the moment in conversation with the all the parties here looking at the technology used on smart motorways - stopped vehicle detection, the communications controls. How reliable is that technology? Is it doing what it says it's supposed to do? And we'll be reporting on that. We've got a safety report coming out in December and we'll be reporting our initial findings on some of that there. So I think that's a crucial bit of work because of all the extra resources that's gone into that recently.

And the second area where I think we all need do more, and we're currently assessing what National Highways have been doing on this, is around communication with users, how effective is that communication with users, how good is the communications about what smart motorways are and how you use them? And there's been quite a bit of debate about that and we think just doing a little bit of work, analysing how well that's going and what the options are, doing it differently in the future and discussing this, no doubt, with Anthony, I think they're probably the two areas which I'll focus on.

Kenny Walker: Transport Focus is the independent watchdog for transport users. Here's their Chief Executive, Anthony Smith.

Anthony Smith: We've done a lot of work with drivers around smart motorways. It's very interesting because by and large, people don't think about this day to day. It's a road, they use it, they get on with it, it's fine. They can't differentiate between motorways, dynamic hard shoulders and all this sort of stuff, they just use the road. Until you say to people, there's no hard shoulder. Have you noticed? What's going to happen do you think, when you break down? 

And people go, oh, that doesn't feel very safe? And I think the problem for Emma giving her advice to the new Secretary of State is going to be, no matter how much you tell people about the fact that smart motorways are a system, you get the gantries, you get the control centres, you get the information, they are safer, or, I suspect, almost undoubtedly, they control the flow of traffic much more evenly, so they're good for the environment and they avoid needing to take an extra lane of Britain's green and pleasant land to build more roads.

And I think a bit of honesty about the political debate would be really helpful, because the problem is, no matter how much you get the stats and you try and convince people, at the end of the day, it does not feel safe. Therefore, politically, you've just got to make the case and get on with it.

Kenny Walker: And here's Nick Harris, Chief Executive of National Highways.

Nick Harris: My colleagues have covered, I think, very well the issues around smart motorways. I agree, you can't have too much feedback, it matters. What I would just add is that it's important we don't conflate the discussion about smart motorways with technology, which matters to the wider network and isn't just about smart motorways. We've talked about - the statistics show that they're safe, they're safer than conventional motorways in most ways. But that's statistics, it's quite clear we haven't taken people with us and that's where our job lies, in changing the perceptions of many people.

Kenny Walker: I've now got ORR Chief Executive, John Larkinson fresh from his panel discussion.

John Larkinson: There's a really, really good atmosphere here. We don't get a chance to meet so many people in one place very often. So already I've had a lot of feedback and I'll be thinking more on that during the course of the day. We had a really, really good panel discussion about some of the key priorities for roads. We tackled some tricky topics. We did efficiencies, we did net zero, we did smart motorways, we did the future of roads. But it was a really, really good chat, a really good conversation between all the people up there, from myself, Transport Focus, Department for Transport, National Highways. 

We've got a team here today from the ORR and tomorrow, so I'll be here for part of the day. I've already spoken to a few people, and redirected them to our stand here, so the team could talk to them, because they want to talk about specific topics, about detailed topics or technical topics. So a good chance for the whole of ORR are to hear from people in Highways and what they've got to say.

Kenny Walker: And for the final word, Harry from ORR.

Harry Garnham: My name is Harry Garnham. I'm Head of Roads Performance at ORR and I look after the monitoring of National Highways' delivery of the Roads Investment Strategy. We published our annual assessment last July and I'm here today and I've been talking to a lot of stakeholders about those conclusions and also what they mean for the future. It's been really great for us as a team to get out into the wider sector and talk to a lot of people, not just our National Highways colleagues, but also people across the supply chain and other key stakeholders. 

What's been particularly useful to me is hearing some of their firsthand views of actually some of the challenges that everyone is facing and building up a bit more of a wider appreciation of that. The team's had a really great experience here at Highways UK and we definitely plan on coming back next year.

Kenny Walker: Thanks Harry, sounds like it's been really worthwhile. And that brings us to a close of another episode of the Rail and Road Pod. Thanks to all today's guests and to all of you for listening. If you want any further details on ORR's roe in roads, visit orr.gov.uk, and also look out for the upcoming safety report being published in December. We'll also be back back in December with another episode of The Rail and Road Pod when we'll be looking back through the archives as we discuss the Railway Work, Life and Death project. But that's all for now, until next time, thanks for listening and goodbye.