The magazine New Civil Engineer (NCE) reports this week on a recent conference in Barcelona which highlighted the wide difference between the cost of infrastructure in the UK and on the continent. So it seems that the inflated 2006 estimate for the metric conversion of the UK’s road traffic signs may be part of a deeper problem.
The editorial in NCE on 6 October begins:
“Our costs baffle our European neighbours – and they baffle me”
The editor, Anthony Oliver, continues:
“NCE held its European High Speed Rail Summit in Barcelona last week – an event that highlighted the clear absurdities of the UK approach to the delivery of major public infrastructure compared to the rest of Europe.
Delegates heard back to back case studies on two examples of European high speed ambition which, frankly, left our European neighbours in the room with an air of bafflement, hilarity and outrage.
The first project was the new French Sud Europe Atlantique (SEA) TGV route between Tours and Bordeaux, the 50 year ‘design, build, finance and operate’ concession for which was recently let to a Vinci-backed consortium. As part of France’s ongoing high speed rail network, this 300 km line plus 40 km of connections is expected to be complete in 2016 at a cost of 7.6 billion euros (£8 billion (sic)).
Contrast this with the UK’s controversial High Speed Two (HS2), plans which were case-studied directly after.
Our two phase project plans an initial 180 km leg to Birmingham from London to be completed by 2026 at a cost of £18 billion. The second ‘Y-shaped’ section links Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, adding another 380 km by 2033 for £14 billion.
Hence the reaction in the Barcelona conference room. If you are looking for an example of high cost UK infrastructure and slow delivery pace, look no further.”
And if you are looking for another, but smaller example, then how about the estimate published in 2006 by the UK Department for Transport (DfT) for the conversion of the UK’s speed and distance road traffic signs to metric? This estimate came in at about £1400 per sign, compared with the actual cost achieved in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) just five years earlier of about 140 euros per sign (£120 at today’s rate of exchange). Furthermore, this estimate was prepared over thirty years after the UK conversion was originally planned to start, so the slow pace of delivery appears not to be limited to UK high speed rail.
At the time the estimate was published, some argued that the conversion of signs in the RoI could not be compared to that on the more urbanised roads in the UK. But the editor of NCE has a few words relevant to this too:
“Of course one cannot directly compare the largely greenfield French SEA route with the highly tunnelled HS2. And there is clearly major cost in creating major new city centre terminals. But four times the cost and 10 years behind. Surely there is some mistake, asked the delegates.
They are absolutely right.”
So where does this leave the DfT’s 2006 cost estimate for road sign conversion? Clearly it is grossly inflated, even allowing for high UK costs, but we have known that all along. Will the current Treasury-sponsored investigation by Infrastructure UK (IUK) into the problem of the high cost of UK construction and related activity prompt the DfT to re-examine its figures? Metric Views suggests that you don’t hold your breath.