Innovation ignored at our peril

The 150th anniversary of the Tube, celebrated with steam engines being operated on the system for the first time in decades, demonstrated yet again the power of innovation, a theme about which I have become somewhat obsessed. The Underground system was testimony to the remarkable innovative spirit of the Victorians as the idea of digging up streets, installing a railway system and then covering them over again was truly mould breaking.

The very basis of the Victorians’ inventiveness was that they were not afraid to try and fail.. Atmospheric railways, powered by vacuums created by static steam engines never took off despite Brunel’s support because of technical difficulties of maintaining the vacuum, not least in the face of rats who took a liking to the grease used to keep the leather flaps moist. Elevated railways were at one time considered an alternative to the subterranean lines that changed the face of London. There was, too, the idea of circular escalators, about which I have a particular interest since the only attempt to create them was at my local Tube station at Holloway Road and they are now just a pile of miscellaneous bits at the London Transport Museum.

So the Victorian era was characterised by both successes and failures, but I worry that if someone came along with the equivalent of an Underground railway system today, they would not be able to see their project through. Take, for example, the aerial cableway which Boris Johnson has had installed across the river and which goes by the awful sponsored name of Emirates Air Line. Since the Olympics, this particular system has attracted few passengers since there is little demand for travel between the two sites it links in deepest East London, but that does not mean the concept is a bad idea.

Indeed, quite the opposite. It is surprising that these aerial cableways have been largely confined to ski resorts when one can imagine that for certain levels of flow – up to possibly 5,000 passengers per hour – they could provide extremely useful links in urban areas. Moreover, they are attractive and offer amazing views, ensuring there would be a tourist component, too.

This applies, too, to one of the other innovations I came across in 2012, the pods at Heathrow Terminal 5 which I wrote about last May. These, too, would seem to have much wider potential application for use in the urban realm.

As I write, this, too, The Guardian has an article which shows that battery operated trains are quite feasible, with a range of up to 600 miles. Inevitably, there are problems with the weight and life of the batteries, but this is certainly an area worth exploring, notably for trams in historic town centres.

The barriers to innovation, however, are legion. Developing new technologies is expensive and therefore. Moreover, governments are slow to become aware of which technologies to back and what they can do to support them. They are hamstrung, too, by the need for consultation and planning that often slows down the introduction of new ideas. Or indeed old ones. The remarkable amount of time which it is taking to build HS2 – 20 years plus – is a case in point and railways are pretty old technology.

One of the reasons for my scepticism about HS2 is on the basis that it does not take into account future development of technology. Just look at how technology has changed since 1993 when mobile phones had barely taken root, Google, Facebook and Twitter were but twinkles in their founders’ eye and digital TV was just starting. Will there really be enough people wanting to pile into what are likely to be expensive trains in 20 years time to justify the huge expenditure on this project?

And here’s where I stick my neck out. The next big technology, one with such huge implications that it is impossible to being to predict them, is driverless cars. Google, which is investing billions in the project, announced back in August that its fleet of more than a dozen driverless cars had completed 300,000 miles – ten times round the world – without an accident. The cars have driven through San Francisco and through various parts of California and Nevada – where a law has been passed allowing them – and while there are no plans to produce them commercially yet, their time will inevitably come.

Perhaps they will start by being driven only on motorways but even that would have enormous consequences. It would combine many of the advantages of train travel with the flexibility of car use. Think trucks, too. The economics of transport would change as radically as they did when the railways were first developed. The time frame may be a decade or two, but the consequences will be much more far reaching than, say, the much talked about electric cars. The driverless car – or rather motor vehicle – is the innovation that we ought all to be taking into account in our future thinking.

  • Will there really be enough people wanting to pile trains in 20 years time to justify the huge expenditure on HS2?

    Well technology was supposed to see us all work from home and barely enter the office. It hasn’t. Only this week BBC News covered that following the Yahoo story. And despite the fact that I work in IT and thus am at the forefront of all this technology, I haven’t seen that much change in the way people work in the last 14 years.

    Yes we do video conferences and yes we do phone calls. But people still travel to face to face meetings. People still pitch for business by going to a personal meeting, not over Skype. We have better relationships with people when we can spend time in the same room. We get to know them better. We can become friends. This helps our working relationships – we learn how to deal them people better. In my last job the business opened up a Manchester team. I’d go up, spend the day with them, have a pint after work then came back to London. Yeah, sure, it cost money but afterwards we worked better for it. And if you work as a team that’s money well spent.

    That’s why I’m utterly convinced that as long as business needs people, people will need to meet people face to face. Salespeople will need to visit prospective clients. People will need to build up relationships. Support people will need to do face to face training. People from one office will need to go to another.

    Yes, there will be plenty of people on business on those trains in 20 years time. Just as there are now, and just as there were 20 years ago.

  • beleben

    I’d imagine that ‘road trains’ of cars and HGVs on motorways, with hands-off driving, are quite likely in the not too distant future. Hands-off in the city must be a bit further away.

    As for cable cars, they are great in theory, but then so are aerial monorails. In practice, they are mainly for mountain resorts and theme parks.

    There’s plenty of life in 1435mm steel wheel on rail. But HS2 is an inflexible and maladroit concept whose time has passed.

  • Dan

    Yep – still waiting for those personl jet packs and teleporting like we were promised in the 60s

  • christianwolmar

    I know, they were going to be such fun. I particularly liked the ones you just wore on your shoes….

  • Stephen Lawrence

    Hmm, perhaps the “East London Aerial Cableway” could be dismantled and used elsewhere – in Cambridge perhaps, joining the railway syation to the city centre, hospital, science park, west universiity site, etc? And I particularly like the light track of the Ultra overhead pod-system. As to driverless cars, I particularly agree, has huge potential. Also in combination with rail, and hgh-speed rail – talking of which, is it possible to determine what the most beneficial speed for a high speed railway is?

  • It’s interesting many people seem to think automated high speed motorway driving should be easier to accomplish than much slower movement in city traffic. Whilst intelligent cruise control can help to maintain normal safe vehicle spacing and lane following, the problem with relinquishing human supervision at speed is when the road changes unexpectedly. That could be weather related, down to cargo spillage, or just because navigation map data is out of date. The last ditch intervention of an emergency stop can be very effective mitigation at 20 or 30 MPH, but an unexpected hazard encountered at 70 or 80 can lead to significant loss of control with unknown consequences for all road users nearby, At least with a human driver responsible for control, the liability is clearer, and a human may actually take the kind of evasive actions a robot would never consider, driving OFF the road up a grassy bank to avoid a collision for instance.