Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan gave Transport Network an interview at Traffex this week and said he was very impressed with the event and confident about his company’s capital funding position.
‘I’m very pleased to see the amount of equipment on display, including at our own stand,’ he said.
‘I’m very pleased to see that a number of companies have brought the people that actually operate the equipment so they can talk about it with a level of expertise that we don’t normally get to see. There’s a huge amount of innovation on display and so we are finally embracing the information age and the technology age. So in the round I think it’s all very good.’
Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan
As for whether attending Traffex will prove a useful exercise for Highways England, he said: ‘I think it will, and I think it does so in a number of ways. The first is that it marks our presence in the industry, and the fact that we are here with predominantly members of our supply chain is huge.’
‘I think the opportunity to interact on our stand and talk to people – and indeed for our people to see other things that are going on in the industry that might not make their way to them through the process. I think that’s important.
He added: ‘I also think it’s demonstrating how hard we are working to become a listening organisation, and the opportunity for people to come to the stand, engage, and be introduced to the appropriate experts within Highways England on their subject matter.’
Asked how important the technological side of innovation is to Highways England, he replied: ‘Oh, it’s huge. Smart motorways are really just the first generation.
‘We talk about autonomous vehicles and I’m interested in connected vehicles. I want to get to the stage where when you choose your route on your satnav it tells us and we can work out real-time live traffic and manage the traffic effectively. Taking [the information] from the user and providing it to the user. So making it two way – information sharing.
‘If you go back ten years, we used to talk about turning data into information. Now we’ve got to turn information into intelligence. What are we going to do with it has become the question, rather than how do we get it.
‘So it’s huge. I think there’s an ongoing debate about how much road we need to build. We have a backlog of 10 to 20 years of road building and I think the answer to our capacity issues is not either/or. It’s not technology or road building. We actually need to do both.
‘I think our road users have become more information hungry. They want to know how long the delay is. They want to know how far it is to the next junction. We’ve started to provide some of that in as much as our current signs will let us. So we are keeping up with the technology changes.’
He added: ‘We are using ANPR. We are making extensive use of floating data. We are using a mixture of ANPR, used in that anonymous way – i.e. for journey time data – and floating data from mobile phones.
‘We are also using fleet specific telemetry [from hauliers].’
A smart motorway section on the M62
On the recent controversy over all lane running schemes as part of smart motorways, he said: ‘I think argument over the need for smart motorways is long since won. That argument is over.
‘We are finding that the smart motorway safety is absolutely consistent with the broader motorway network. The engineering and the mathematics of the safety argument is incontrovertible. But we’ve got to get to a point where people accept that.’
A recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) identified a funding shortfall of £800m for Highways England’s capital enhancement programme. On this, Mr O’Sullivan said: ‘I thought that the NAO report was objective, balanced and well-written.
You don’t have many CEOs of organisations saying that about the NAO. But it was.
‘The second thing is, in terms of the capital programme, we are confident that we will deliver the RIS. We are two years in. We set out to do what it says on the tin.
Two years in, we are doing what it says on the tin. I expect over the next three years to continue to do that.
‘The NAO report starts with – I think the number is – £1.6bn of upward pressure and it acknowledges that we’ve brought it to about £800m in the last 24 months. So we’re going in the right direction.’