Not quite what we planned for - but still an asset

If the past is not always a good guide to what will be happening in the future, the present is not an awful lot better. We live in unstable times, and the current state of the world is not one of comfortable equilibrium, or certainty on which to build our plans.

Not that it ever really was so in modern times, apart from a few relatively brief and tranquil epochs. One thing that looking backwards can reveal, of course, is how we were once anticipating things might pan out – and the closeness of that to actuality.

From such a ‘forecast future’, frozen in time, we can make a reality check to learn how right – and how wrong – we can be. And what we missed. And maybe why.

It might seem pointless to remind ourselves that we didn’t see the 2008 financial crash coming, the energy crisis, or the war in Ukraine – let alone climate change, the internet or Covid-19.

But this does give an order of magnitude perspective on what might blow all our current paradigms out of the water again. And it helpfully illustrates how we adjusted to all the new situations we faced.

Those responsible for transport investment are burdened with particularly critical and sticky decision-making about the future. A current reminder comes with the opening, at last, of the Elizabeth Line in London, the realisation of years of on/off discussion about the CrossRail plan, the outcome of which we examine in this issue.

The visionary idea was to reshape rail services for the capital to reflect the expected needs of commuters, shoppers, leisure travellers and others, bridge the gap between traditional suburban lines and the Underground, add new capacity, and open up both new origin and destination areas by making them more accessible and connected.

In the event, the pattern of demand has much changed since the plan was agreed by all concerned – including, critically, the funders – nearly two decades ago. And even since the construction work began in earnest 12 years ago, when the effective point was passed of not going back, or even much modifying what was to be provided.

The substantial sunk costs – and years of disruption too – mean cancellation is hardly an option, financially or politically, for schemes of this kind.

Now we are at the sharp end of the project, and about to see what the user reaction will be. It is pretty certain the nature of travel behaviour, and the economic and social impacts, will be significantly different to those that were set out in the plan.

It was not that the forecasts were wrong – they might well have been right at the time – but that the world, inevitably, moves on in ways that arguably no-one could truly foresee.

So, as well as back-calibrating what it was that we all missed, and how a more ‘agile’ approach might have made it easier to adjust on the way, the challenge now is to make the most of the asset that now exists rather than still striving to achieve the original outcome.

Here again, transport is not very flexible in that regard. Neither the tunnels, track nor trains can be practically re-deployed.

Planning and building them is challenging and rewarding for thousands of people. But now things move to making the most of them, and to come up with innovative ways of presenting new options to potential users and leveraging the opportunity that the asset presents in the current environment.

Perhaps surprisingly, then, there is not much of a tradition in transport of pulling together talented teams to squeeze the best performance from what now exists when such major public projects go live.

For an analogy, we might take the mobile phone; designed to enable us to make phone calls on the move, the use of the devices is now not primarily for people talking to one another at all. But no one bemoans the awful mistake of the original inventors – they opened the door to undreamt of innovation in communications!

The Writer and Philosopher George Santayana, popularly known for his aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, also usefully suggested “We must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.” Wise words indeed.

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