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Interview: Investment driver

After winning a second term of office last month, London Mayor Boris Johnson has reappointed Isabel Dedring as his deputy for transport. Antony Oliver finds out her vision for the capital’s transport.

Next month London’s much loved and much criticised transport network faces its greatest test ever as the 2012 Olympic Games circus arrives in town to add 11M spectators and 300,000 athletes and officials to its often struggling network.

Led by Transport for London (TfL), the organisation in charge of the multi-modal transport network, the capital has in place a multitude of plans to ease the burden on the transport system.

These range from infrastructure upgrades, extra trains and buses, to clearing roadworks, mass communication about routes around town and of course sending out the simple “work from home” message to keep unnecessary traffic off the roads, trains and buses.

Odd delay

Yet for all the planning, London deputy mayor for transport Isabel Dedring accepts it is still possible that, once the Games get underway, we will still see the odd delay from signal failures, some overcrowding on the Tube as spectators jostle with commuters, and congestion caused by increasing demands on the road network.

“We have done everything that we can do at this stage but we cannot anticipate everything that might happen,” says Dedring, pointing out that queuing is not a new phenomenon at sporting events. “Of course there will be problems - it would be astonishing if there weren’t. People will have to queue at the busiest stations. But the priority is that people are also able to enjoy the Games.”

Dedring is also realistic about the fact that - important though the Olympics is for the capital - the challenge facing London’s transport system extends way beyond this summer’s Games.

Although her career began as a Harvard Law School graduate and lawyer in the United States - she has joint US and German citizenship - she is very much a Londoner, having been based in London for much of her career.

Dedring’s CV

2011 to present: Deputy mayor for transport
2008-2011: Mayor’s environment adviser
2003-2011: TfL, director, policy unit
1998-2003: McKinsey & Company engagement manager
1995-1998: Harvard Law School
1993-1995: Ernst & Young, Kazakhstan, director, market entry
1989-1993: Harvard University, degree in Russian and political science

Dedring joined TfL as a policy advisor in 2003. She was invited onto Johnson’s mayoral team in 2008, initially leading in environment before moving to transport in 2011.

As such she is well aware that, while London is blessed like perhaps no other UK city with a hugely capable public and private transport network, the next couple of decades will see it face increasing pressure to meet the needs of an anticipated 1.1M increase in population by 2031 while at the same time managing increasingly aged infrastructure. There is even some indication that real growth is outstripping the population growth projections in London.

It will be a tough challenge, not least given that the UK-wide era of public sector austerity has meant that, like all of the UK’s public bodies, TfL has had to radically adjust its spending plans over the last few years.

That said, it still commands an annual operational and capital spending budget of around £9bn across the Underground, Overground, Docklands Light Railway, bus, taxi, bicycle and highway networks - a figure which has benefitted of late from a tranche of investment specifically to ensure that the Olympics goes without a hitch.

“I would characterise the last five to 10 years as being very much focused on the large rail projects,” Dedring says, highlighting the major upgrades now underway on the Underground, the recent Overground rail revamp and, of course, the £14.8bn Crossrail as examples.

“But thinking about the next wave of activity, the two things that spring out are on the rail side, getting more out of the existing capacity, and boosting investment in the road network.”

Greater reliability

And while the programme to boost Tube capacity by 30% through greater reliability and operating efficiency will be a crucial weapon in the mayor’s strategy to boost jobs and the economy, the greater yet perhaps less discussed wins may come, she says, from the capital’s roads.

“The road network tends to be the seen as the less loved younger sibling,” says Dedring.

“The volume of investment that has gone into the road network is many orders of magnitude smaller than the capital investment put in to the railway - yet roads carry 80% of the trips in London.”

The problem, she explains, is that politically, investment in London’s roads has often been seen as simply investing in private motorists. However she points out that roughly twice as many bus trips are made in London compared to Tube trips, not to mention the growing swathes of cyclists now vying for a safe spot on the increasingly congested, tarmac.

Of course London does boast a globally revered congestion charging scheme which has successfully controlled traffic in the capital - and raised revenue from it since 2003.

However, Dedring highlights that over this period, the capital has, without necessarily “strategic intention”, also seen a major reduction in available road space of up to 30% in central London from a wide range of schemes including bus lanes, urban realm improvements and pedestrian safety measures.

She also fears that the success of congestion charging in the capital has led to a hiatus in proper investment and strategic management of this important transport asset, as policy makers have sometimes pinned hopes on the eventual arrival of city-wide or national road user charging as a policy tool and a means to drive investment.

The result, she says, is that the capital has insufficient plans to identify bottlenecks and to invest in improving them in a coordinated or strategic way.

“While [congestion charging] is seen globally as a great scheme I worry that we have held out hope that [road charging] will come along as the panacea to the transport problems and then fail to do the many other things that could make a difference in improving the road network for all users,” she explains. “But I don’t see [road charging] happening any time soon. The difficulty is that it is seen very much as a tax on motorists rather than a policy tool.”

Strategic road review

The mayor has announced a strategic review of the London road network which will, she says, attempt to identify and unlock the potential of the capital’s roads, to offer greater capacity, safety and efficiency and reduce congestion.

Whether that means following Birmingham and Sheffield down the full-blown privately financed road network management route is unlikely but Dedring points out that “there may be relevance beyond” the privately funded options currently being explored for the new Silvertown Link road and river crossing.

Innovative funding mechanisms will be at the heart of all of the capital’s future transport aspirations and Dedring is clear that TfL will be exploring a number of new routes, perhaps based on ideas like the Mayoral Development Corporation set up for the Olympic Park, to help win private cash on top of traditional sources such as Section 106 developer contribution.

“Until a couple of years ago we weren’t fantastic at getting [Section 106] funding partly because there was significantly more government grant funding available than there is now,” she says. “But we’re now getting better at it, partly of necessity. New sources of commercial revenue is also something we are looking at again that, in my view, we are not yet thinking broadly or aspirationally enough about.”

In particular, Dedring emphasises the need to focus more attention on smaller projects such as the proposed Northern Line extension to Battersea, the Elephant and Castle revamp and the Woolwich Station fit out.

Historically they have proved in some ways harder to get going compared to Crossrail sized schemes despite, she says, often being capable of delivering strong returns on investment.

“We have never had sufficiently clear mechanisms for financing the medium scale projects,” she says. “They are difficult to get going because they don’t create the focus that perhaps the Crossrails or Olympic projects do, so they can rumble on for years. But we are working on plans at City Hall and TfL to say can we pick 10 medium-scale projects and put much stronger focus on those to get them off the ground.”

There will always be a need to bring in new investment to upgrade the capital’s ageing Underground rail network, which celebrates its 150th birthday next year. However, Dedring is adamant that improvements are possible without just buying new kit.

“If you look at the delays hours on the underground [for example], they breaks down very roughly as one third from asset failures, one third from customer related problems and one third from staff absence or error,” she explains.

“The point is that it is not just about aging equipment failure. We need to work harder across the board to drive down problems causing delay.”

London Overground

She points to the new London Overground network, which opened last year to replace a previously underperforming national rail franchise and create a new orbital railway, as an example of what can be done to make the best of existing assets.

Passenger numbers have quadrupled since 2008, customer satisfaction has rocketed and fare evasion has been virtually eliminated following investment to transform the entire look, feel and performance of the service.

The mayor wants to roll this model out across other heavy rail commuter networks around London starting with the Kent and Anglia franchises which come up for renewal next year.

“The premise is that we would be able to do more on those franchises with Department for Transport’s existing funding but also that we would put in additional funding to deliver the standard that we believe people deserve,” says Dedring. “I think the door is open a crack with government on this and we are working hard to make our case.”

  • Dedring was speaking to NCE as part of the Base London event last week.

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