Colin Matthews as Highways Agency’s new chair - a positive statement on the future of roads

Why on earth would former Heathrow Airport boss Colin Matthews want to chair the Highways Agency? Simple answer: roads are the future and the Agency will be setting strategy for it. 

For all the extraordinary growth in rail travel across the UK over the last decade, and the fantastic plans for new high speed railways, we remain a nation that is still, without question, wedded to its motor cars as the preferred form of travel.

The ability to hop into the isolation of a car and drive door to door at the time of our choosing is certainly something that the majority of people still hold up as fundamental to their personal freedom.

Where Matthews will really come into play is working with the private sector to understand and react to a new era of “brain off” revenue generating motoring.

Living in London I realise that I am spoilt by the convenience and abundance of public transport options that mean both my short commutes and longer intercity hops are possible with predictably fast door to door journey times.

Yet in many places across the UK, the car is not just a desirable transport solution. In many places it the most practical or even perhaps the only available solution. A decent efficiently maintained highway network is therefore critical.

But convenience is only one part of the story. As cars evolve, become increasingly electric, more energy efficient, less polluting and technology enabled, they will inevitably become more not less relevant to our personal transport futures.

So increasingly it will be the ability to serve us, as customers, with a predictable, congestion free, high quality road network that will be the measure of success in the Highways Agency.

Colin Matthews is a man used to customers. At Heathrow for the last six years he has been used to running a transport business in which the infrastructure, vital though it is, is simply the enabler. His focus has been on providing transport for passengers, and in doing so connecting directly with passengers through their journeys and through the retail commercial opportunities that they demand.

The Highways Agency of the future needs a chairman focused on customers not infrastructure and those in the know suspect that the recruiting process was surprised by the quality of candidates this role attracted.

That is not to cast any aspersions over current chairman Alan Cook’s performance, merely it is a reflection of the fact that the Highways Agency is soon to become a very interesting organisation to be involved in. 

The Infrastructure Bill is currently going through Parliament and contains legislation to turn the Agency into a government-owned company. Behind that is government commitment to long term funding and investment of £24bn in the road network by 2020/21.

“Government has committed to the biggest ever programme of investment in our roads,” said Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin. “It is vital we have the right people and structures in place to make sure this huge amount of money is spent in the most efficient and effective way.”

And while more will, indeed, need to be spent on maintaining and enhancing the physical infrastructure, the future will inevitably involve a different kind of infrastructure.

I was a passenger in a brand new, reasonably high end car recently and the difference from my treasured 12 years old example was staggering. Not in terms of engines or gearboxes but in terms of on-board technology.

And when it comes to vehicle control technology, there are three major phases of development, as was explained to me recently, that are and will revolutionise the management of highways :  

  1. Feet off: the cruise control feature that has been with us for several decades is now being enhanced using forward and rearward radar to maintain safety separation between vehicles.
  2. Hands off: the ability of your car to not only park itself is already becoming mainstream and the technology needed to maintain lane position is rapidly evolving from early lane wander warning systems.
  3. Brain off: some way off being widespread yet but self-piloting vehicles are already being pioneered by the like of Google as well as major vehicle manufacturers.

It is the third phase that is, of course, potentially the most interesting and useful both to customers of the future but also, as we move inevitably towards an era of road user charging, useful to the Agency as it starts to be challenged to recover its costs through per km revenues.

So why is Matthews the man for the job? Well primarily because he understands that, when it comes to infrastructure, staying one step ahead rather than simply maintaining the status quo is critical if you are to effectively serve your customers. 

“I am delighted to be taking up the chair of the Highways Agency,” said Matthews. “Roads matter to drivers and the economy. My focus will be on making them work better.” 

Making them work better of course means boosting efficiency in maintenance, driving down the cost of running the network and improving the quality of the product.

But where Matthews will really come into play is working with the private sector to understand and react to a new era of “brain off” revenue generating motoring. 

Antony Oliver is the editor of Infrastructure Intelligence


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