January 2020 newsletter

I am starting the year as I mean to go on, with a new newsletter for January with the hope of doing these every month. You can subscribe to it through the website.

The start of a new decade is a good time to assess the impact of technology on transport. What major changes will result from the introduction of new technology by the end of the decade?

If the technophiles are to be believed, the world will be transformed. We will all be in driverless cars, trains will be powered by hydrogen and various drones and air taxis will be filling the sky in our towns and cities.

I am unconvinced by the hype around any of the new tech solutions to transport and the more I examine them, the less convincing they seem. It’s just that more and more people seem to have drunk the Kool Aid and are prepared to write a lot of nonsense about them.

Many of you will be familiar with my doubts about driverless cars, set out in my short polemic,  Driverless Cars: On a road to nowhere which though published nearly two years ago, remains pretty much up to date. And that’s the point. Another two years down the line, and progress towards a genuinely driverless car, able to operate in all weathers and conditions, still seems remarkably slow given the billions of dollars that have been spent on the project.

But the other promised tech solutions seem equally unrealistic. Take Hyperloop. Even the most cursory examination of the concept would seem to suggest that this is unlikely to deliver transport systems that can cater for huge numbers of people at a price that is affordable. The construction costs look very expensive, the journey experience awful, the risks of disaster high. It is all untried and simple maths demonstrates that with pods carrying a maximum of 30 people and needing to be at least a minute or more apart, a throughput of 1,800 per hour seems to be the maximum possible. And even that is probably optimistic. Yet, various cities and nation states have been conned into taking the concept seriously.

Then there is all the nonsense about drones delivering your Amazon orders or air taxis operating in urban areas. Come on, as Jeremy Paxman was wont to say. This is all stuff and nonsense. How does a drone knock on your door – and in any case, it will need an operator so there is no big saving. As for air taxis, dream on.  Possibly silliest of all is those little robots that are supposed to do the last mile delivery. But they do not like kerbs or steps, and again they cannot knock on doors.

The most curious is MaaS – Mobility as a Service. This seems to consist of creating an app that will enable you to pay for your car hire, your dockless bike, buses and taxis through one app, enabling you to choose on the spurt of the moment what is the best way to get somewhere. But as I have said in speeches, essentially your contactless card is the way of linking in all transport payments and there is no  need for the private sector to get its nose in by providing an app or by directing people to particular services. Yet, golly, they don’t half get excited by MaaS at transport conferences, despite the fact that the few existing trials have resulted in low take ups.

That does not mean I am a Luddite. It is merely to stress, as i will need to do throughout this year I suspect, that technological solutions are not necessarily the answer to longstanding transport problems. It is not arrogant to say that those of us who have written about this subject for years know most of the answers or, at least, we know which schemes are most likely to work and deliver sustainable outcomes. And little of that requires massive investment of new technology – but more and better bus information apps would be a great idea, thank you very much.

I have been commissioned to write two books this year, and am well into the first, Cathedrals of Steam, the story of London’s major stations and the way they impacted on London. The second one is a measured assessment of British Rail, moving away from the image of bad sandwiches, stroppy guards and the wrong type of snow..

My website continues to grow, with more than 1,450 articles and by the end of this year I should hit the 1,500 mark even though I get fewer journalistic commissions these days though do more broadcasting. Do send me your thoughts via the website, and if you want any signed copy of my books, I have most in stock.

Happy New Year – though that is a difficult ask with so much uncertainty and risk out there and a government run by a vain charlatan – and that’s just the UK!