The Rail and Road Pod Episode 20: Inside Highways UK 2023

2 November 2023
In this episode we join colleagues from across the roads industry at the NEC in Birmingham.
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Feras Alshaker and other speakers on a panel at Highways UK

Highways UK brings together the people responsible for managing, maintaining, and future-proofing the nation's road networks. Over the course of the two-day event our roads team discussed areas including our Annual Assessment of National Highways and the next Road Investment Strategy, RIS3. 

In this podcast we catch up with:

  • Feras Alshaker, ORR director of planning and performance
  • Nick Harris, chief executive officer for National Highways, who manage England's motorways and A-roads   
  • Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus, the independent watchdog for transport users
  • Sneha Patel, ORR deputy director for roads 

Learn more about our Highways work

Contact us on podcast@orr.gov.uk


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Saj Chowdhury, presenter

Hello, I'm Saj Chowdhury and welcome to the 20th episode of the Rail and Road Pod. And it's a special one because we're out on the road at Highways UK.

Feras Alshaker, director of planning and performance, ORR

It's really important, I think, for us and the roads team to be here from the ORR, because there's so many exhibitors from around the supply chain and around the industry. To be able to come here and immerse ourselves in what's going on in the road sector is just so important.

Saj Chowdhury 

Our Highways team headed to the NEC in Birmingham to catch up with colleagues from across the roads industry during this two day event. In this episode, we'll speak to Nick Harris, the chief executive of National Highways, and Anthony Smith, chief executive of Transport Focus. From ORR, we catch up with our director of planning and performance, Feras Alshaker, and our deputy director for Highways, Sneha Patel, who've been discussing areas including our Annual Assessment of National Highways -now they are the company who manage the strategic road network, aka the SRN, in England.

 First, a quick look back at some recent rail and road news. In October we issued Network Rail with an improvement notice for London's Euston station regarding crowd management. Earlier in the month, the Competition and Markets Authority published their decision following an investigation of Hitachi's €1.7 billion proposed purchase of Thales’ Ground Transportation business. Will Godfrey, our director of economics, finance and markets, wrote a blog about the CMA decision and what it means for the railway signalling market. You can find more details on our website, orr.gov.uk. 

Regarding our roads work, we published a new report showing England's besat and worst regions for motorway and A-road surface condition. It found the condition of road surfaces in National Highways' Eastern region is consistently lower than in the rest of England, while the South West region consistently performs the best. Now, let's catch up with our guests at Highways UK.

Feras Alshaker

Hi, I'm Feras Alshaker and I'm the ORR's director of planning and performance. And I'm here with our team at Highways UK at the NEC in Birmingham, where we're here meeting stakeholders, talking about the work that we do and engaging with the supply chain to further our work holding National Highways to account. It's really important, I think, for us and the roads team to be here from the ORR, because there's so many exhibitors from around the supply chain and around the industry. We've only been around doing roads for eight years, whereas we're much more well known in rail. So to be able to come here and immerse ourselves in what's going on in the road sector is just so important for us - to pick up information, but also be able to tell people about some of the great work we do. 

So today I've been speaking on a panel with Nick Harris, who's the chief executive of National Highways, Emma Ward, who's the director general of roads at the DfT, and with Anthony Smith, who's the chief executive of Transport Focus. And we covered all sorts of subjects from safety, environment, inflation - a really good session on a very interesting panel.

The key messages for us are around some of the challenges that inflation brings to our infrastructure managers that we regulate, and National Highways is not immune to that. It's the need to continually focus on safety and it's the need for National Highways to mature into an excellent asset manager so that it's protecting the SRN for future generations beyond the current and the next road period, and looking really at the longer term and the effects that climate change will have on the network.

Nick Harris, chief executive officer, National Highways 

Hi, I'm Nick Harris and I'm the chief executive officer at National Highways. I've given a keynote speech at the beginning of today's event and it was a great opportunity to talk about what was on the top of my mind and really reinforce our focus on safety, delivery, customer service, but also to talk about areas like environmental sustainability and the need to focus on finishing this current road period well. And then to talk about multimodal transport, amazing things that we're seeing in technology and our shift from being a road builder/operator to a customer service provider, improver of the network so that we can help support the connectivity of the country and growing the economy. 

And the great thing is there are folk from the DfT here, the Office of Rail and Road, and to be able to talk about what we're jointly doing, getting ready for the future and meeting the ever-growing expectation of everyone using our roads, is a team activity, not something that we at National Highways do on our own. We have to work with our supply chain, but the work we do with government, DfT, Office of Rail and Road, subnational transport bodies and many others really matters because it is only together that we're going to be successful.

Anthony Smith, chief executive, Transport Focus 

Hi, my name is Anthony Smith, I'm the chief executive of Transport Focus. I'm very pleased to be here at Highways UK 2023 and very pleased to be talking to the Office of Rail and Road. I think in the age of Teams it's even more important that people get together, talk, exchange information, exchange gossip, exchange ideas, see new products. I've seen new things just walking through here today I've never heard of before. That's why this is really, really important. Societies function around people meeting. 

Transport Focus does a lot of research into what drivers think about their current experiences today on the roads and also what their priorities for future investment are. When you boil all that research down and there's tonnes of it - do go and look at our website to see it all - it's about reliability of the road network. Drivers want the journey to take the amount of time they're predicting it's going to take. They don't want to be interrupted by roadworks, if there's an accident, they want it cleared up, they want the information sorted out, so it's smooth journeys. People just want to have smooth, reliable journeys. So I think every decision that the transport industry takes should be looking at that in terms of how can we make people's journeys more reliable and safer at the same time. But the other important thing is the quality of the road surface. It's interesting how often that comes up. 

That doesn't mean the current surface has potholes on the strategic road network, it just means it's a bit rough at the edges. And people hate concrete, they do not like concrete surfaces. It booms and it doesn't feel safe, even though of course, it isn't any different to any other road network. But I think people's needs are remarkably consistent and investment and everyday maintenance should be geared towards meeting those needs.

Saj Chowdhury

ORR recently published the benchmarking National Highways Road Surface Condition report, which found conditions lower in the Eastern region. So how do Transport Focus and ORR work together on issues like this?

Anthony Smith

I think Transport Focus and the Office of Rail and Road have a really good relationship. We've got very different roles. They're respective individual roles, but they're very complementary. You are the regulator, we are the transport user voice. And I think melding those two together is really powerful. We work closely together, we plan together, we share information, we've got the same aims ultimately, and I think it's a very productive relationship.

Saj Chowdhury

Thanks again to our special guests, Nick Harris and Anthony Smith. A key ORR publication is our Annual Assessment of National Highways. The latest edition was published this summer, so over to Feras Alshaker to talk more about this at the ORR stand.

Feras Alshaker

We're here on our great stand talking to people about our Annual Assessment of National Highways. And this year that said that National Highways has done a really good job actually delivering for road users, particularly around delay, network availability. We had some key messages. One around efficiency, which National Highways is going to find very challenging to deliver its targets, given some of the headwinds it faces. Around environment, where we challenge National Highways in the year to improve some of the plans it's got around, particularly biodiversity and carbon reduction, which actually, to be fair, it has risen to and we're now more confident in its delivery. Around asset management, where we said we needed to see continuing evidence of improvement in its asset management capability. And then finally around some of the enhancements delivery, where we note the very difficult environment, legal and societal environment, that National Highways is operating in, which has led to some delays in some of its bigger projects.

Saj Chowdhury

Thanks Feras. Finally, we hear from Sneha Patel, ORR's deputy director for the Highways team, for a quick look at what's on our horizon, including the next Road Investment Strategy, otherwise known as RIS3.

Sneha Patel, deputy director, Highways, ORR

Really great to be here at Highways UK. Really good to see so many people, both existing stakeholders and new stakeholders. It's been really great to talk to everyone about the key messages from this year's annual assessment, the work that we're doing in relation to RIS3 and also our upcoming safety report that we published in December of this year.

So what are the next steps for the Highways team? Over the coming months we'll be preparing for our publication of our Annual Safety Report which will look at safety performance on the strategic road network. We'll also be undertaking work in relation to RIS3 for commencing our efficiency review at the start of next year.

Saj Chowdhury

Thanks to everyone who came along to see us at Highways UK. Visit orr.gov.uk to find out more. And of course you can follow us on our social channels, including X, formerly Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. Thank you for listening.