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12 September 2018

Infrastructure Developments - Private or Public Enterprise?

By and large, modern political thought doesn’t speak well of the Victorians; not entirely fairly, I feel. I’m not going to stick my head in the lion’s mouth and dare to suggest that the Empire was perhaps not all bad - after all, I don’t want the same screeching squadrons of right-on SJWs to descend on me as they did on Professor Nigel Biggar (Oxford University, theology) when he had the effrontery to suggest that there was good as well as bad…..or at least, that one could openly discuss the truth or otherwise of that idea.

What interests me is the development of infrastructure during the period. Canals and roads as means of transport were largely a product of the eighteenth century, but with the industrial revolution gathering pace and Britain becoming the ‘workshop of the world’ with the need to transport goods internally, to the Empire and eventually to the world, the level of technical innovation was remarkable. Brunel’s genius spanned everything - tunnels, bridges, railways, ships, and Bazalgette’s construction of the sewerage system under London banished the Great Stink once and for all. (Incidentally, it was Brunel who developed the theory that the amount a ship could carry increases as the cube of its dimensions, whereas the water resistance increaseds only as the square, thus demonstrating that larger ships should be more fuel-efficient.) Over the course of the Victorian era, Britain’s infrastructure became the world’s gold standard. So maybe they were doing something right.

Well, that’s a rose-tinted past; what we have today is over-congested, underfunded roads and railways, moving people and goods around the country is a serious challenge and Bazalgette’s sewer is crumbling through lack of maintenance. It takes longer to decide where to put a new airport runway than it takes other nations to build the entire project from scratch, we threaten to spend billions on a high-speed rail link of dubious value and yet nobody can find the money or time to mend the potholes in the roads. Brunel, who should be one of our most celebrated historical figures, is probably spinning in his grave.

Why talk about all this now? Well, there’s a major infrastructure challenge coming very quickly, and the UK doesn’t seem to be leading the charge. The latest figures concerning the availability of electric vehicle charging doesn’t flatter the UK. There are, of course, different parameters one can use in measuring access to charging. The obvious ones are the absolute number of units, the number per 100000 of population, the number of vehicles per unit and the breadth of distribution. The latest survey focuses on the number of vehicles per charging point; in this context, it is important to remember that this is purely public charging points, and that behaviours will vary. For example, my own car is a plug-in hybrid, which also regenerates, so actually - as I have a charger at home - I hardly ever use a public one (except as a way of finding a parking space, I will admit). I suspect that I am typical of quite a lot of hybrid vehicle owners, which obviously will have an impact on the statistics. 

Nevertheless, we can look at the numbers; in the UK, we have ten cars per charging point, which is actually in line with the EU’s recommendation. However, before getting too excited about that, bear in mind that the number of vehicles in the UK is around 133000; that is forecast ( by Chargemaster) to grow to around one million by 2022. That would imply a need for a similar growth in charging points; so far, the UK government, which incidentally has pledged “to put Britain at the forefront of the design and manufacturing of zero-emission vehicles”, is proposing a £106 million package for projects developing batteries, vehicles and refuelling technology. Hmm….I don’t think that will go too far…… Meantime, the average car per charger in the rest of the EU is around six, with the Netherlands heading the table with about three. Only Austria and Luxembourg, in the EU, have a higher number of cars per charger than the UK. And with all due respect to J-C Juncker, Luxembourg is statistically insignificant in this due to its small size, meaning that most inhabitants of the Grand Duchy can just slip across the border to top up with some of that free German power…… The UK frankly doesn’t look well-placed, despite the protestations to the contrary of our esteemed? Transport Secretary.

There is some good news, though. Williams Grand Prix Holdings (as in Frank Williams Formula One team) has announced a joint venture with Unipart to manufacture high-powered batteries, initially for Aston Martin but then, all being well, for other Uk car manufacturers like Jaguar Land Rover, Rolls-Royce and Bentley. They are aiming for a battery with twice the power - thus, crudely, half the charging time - of those used by Tesla. Shorter charging times obviously also affect the demand on charging points. 

So what do Brunel and Frank Williams have in common when it comes to developments for transport infrastructure? They aren’t the government - they are free enterprise. Although I should add to that statement that the joint venture (Hyperbat, which actually sounds like what gets in to the rafters of the hall in my house in early summer) was in fact first set up under the auspices of a government operation, Warwick University’s Advanced Propulsion Centre; but the development comes from the private sector.         

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