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EXCLUSIVE: Highways England CEO Jim O'Sullivan talks innovation, funding and Brexit as he opens Traffex 2017

A packed Traffex Theatre at the NEC in Birmingham, UK, welcomed Highways England CEO Jim O’Sullivan, to give the event’s opening address (April 4).

Fresh form the Traffex 2017 ribbon-cutting ceremony, O’Sullivan used the stand to highlight some of the key challenges facing road transportation in the UK.

Highways England was set up two years ago with an innovative funding structure known as the RIS (Road Investment Strategy). This is money allocated in five year blocks, the first stretching from 2015-2020. The next, 2020-2025 (RIS2) is now being planned, O’Sullivan revealed.

“This is the big thing – we have started serious work on the next control period 2020-2025,” he said. “We are ‘socialising’ a number of about $4bn of capital. We are asking can we afford it? Can the network withstand it? Can we do that much work on our road network? At the same time we’re asking the supply chain if they can deliver it.”

Within this proposed funding O’Sullivan is keen to mirror RIS1 by ‘ringfencing’ money for certain projects. “I’m a great advocate of having a pot of money only for social and environmental causes,” he said.

But, fundamentally, he left the audience in no doubt as to the essential role roads play in supporting the economy. “We are starting, in a Brexit context, to think about our big exporters,” he said. “People like Land Rover, Nissan, Toyota ad JCB. How do we smooth their transport journeys, from their points of production to the channel ports and other export areas of England? We are looking to improve the connectivity.”

Another key component of the Highways England strategy is technological innovation. “People talk about autonomous vehicles, but we’re more interested in connected vehicles,” said O’Sullivan. “We’d like your satnav to feed back information about the route you are going to take. You can use that to inform other people. Because if everybody has decided to take the same route that will have an impact on journey times.”

O’Sullivan was also dreaming big when it came to roadside infrastructure. “We want to move to a world where instead of every gantry being bespoke, you can just call them out of a catalogue,” he said. “Civil engineering could be like Lego bricks and digital engineering could be plug and play.

“We’ve undergone a huge change and have a lot to be proud of. But I would not stand here and claim we are the finished article. I wouldn’t even claim we were half way there. For me the 2020-2025 is the next big step. The next two years are focused on continuing to do what we did in RIS 1 which is focused on deep customer service and then to make sure RIS 2 better meets the needs of our nation, better meets the needs of our stakeholders, not just road users and better meets the needs of our supply chain.”

Traffex continues until Thursday. For an exclusive interview with Jim O’Sullivan don’t miss the April/May edition of Traffic Technology International magazine.

April 4, 2017

Written by Tom Stone

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