Open data for transport infrastructure planning?

The most popular link that readers of this blog have clicked through to is of the map of England’s old railway network prior to the Beeching Axe. It differentiates between the now disused routes and the current routes, though it is a little dated – for example the Cambridge-Huntingdon guided bus does not feature.

There is something incredibly frustrating when you see a potential solutions to problems that for whatever reason never seem to get off the ground, or seem to take ages before coming to fruition – especially when it comes to transport infrastructure. Think of how long it took to get the UK high speed section of Eurostar services completed. In my view it was certainly worth doing – travelling on the Eurostar was a strangely exhilarating journey when I did it for the first time…until we got to the UK sections. (This was when it ran from Waterloo). The idea that you can now get from London to Paris quicker than you can get to Manchester speaks volumes. I used to live close to St Pancras and I found the concept of living closer to Paris than Manchester as far as travel time was concerned to be quite ridiculous. As I’ve mentioned in my blogpost In praise of public transport, who cannot be inspired by arriving at a station at the end of a train journey with this spectacular view?

The High Speed 2 rail link is one that has caused a great deal of controversy, from those living close to the proposed route, those complaining about the sheer expense (that could be invested in different transport projects) to those who have scrutinised the sustainability claims. A summary can be found of both the good and the bad in the Transport Select Committee’s report into HS2 from early November 2011. Some of the information and data that are included in the HS2 website provide a template that might work for proposals to reopen other disused transport corridors. So what is it that I am asking for or looking to kick off?

Making the old railway map useable

Digitising the map of old railway lines and turning it into a ‘useable’ format that is compatible with Geographical Information Systems (GIS) such as GoogleMaps. Now, this may have already been done by someone – if it has, it would be splendid to have a link to it. At the moment, what we have is the electronic equivalent of an incomplete paper map (the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have not been included) that allows lots of gazing but little else. What I would like to see is a map produced that superimposes the old rail network onto an existing modern digital map of the UK – in the manner that the HS2 website has done.

Doing this would make clear to everyone the barriers currently in place of reopening the disused rail lines. (For example buildings having been built across old rail lines, or as in the case of the old Cambridge-Oxford line, some expensive telescopes). This then allows campaign groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport (I still prefer “Transport 2000” as a name) sink their teeth into the problems that are in the way of reopening those corridors.

There is then the data from postcodes and public bodies as to which councillors, MPs and MEPs have constituencies containing disused rail lines and old stations. Chances are a number of them will be aware of what went there before. This is essential if campaigners are to harness the influence of elected representatives. The people at MySociety have already done much of the groundwork on their website Write to them.

This gives us the opportunity for linking up local transport authorities and local/regional chambers of commerce who may be able to bring in match-funding and/or the formation of consortia similar to that of the East-West-Rail one.

The opportunity digital and social media gives us is that it allows groups such as the Railway Ramblers (who wander up and down these disused rail routes) to become the eyes and ears of what’s out there. (For example uploading photographs to a map showing what the state of the area actually is).

There is also the use of data from the Highways Agency and local transport authorities regarding congestion, transport flow and types of vehicles on the roads. This is not to say that reopening a rail line is a magic wand to local transport problems. For example with Cambridge’s guided bus, the first couple of months were promising but it’s too early to say what effect/impact the guided bus (and the cycleway alongside it) have had on congestion. But at least getting the data and information in the same place and in a useable format may get people thinking.

What does this mean for transport policy wonks, civil servants and ministers? We could ask Julian Huppert to get his office to commission an A0/A1 print out of the old railway map (Put together by Richard Fairhurst) for him to hand over personally to Theresa Villiers (Minister of State for Railways) for her to hang on the wall of her private office (concentrates the minds of her officials). But it’s more than just a picture of a map on a wall. Civil servants need the hard evidence in order to make the case to ministers. Campaigners need the hard evidence to make the case to ministers too – especially if it means leveraging funding or financial support from the Treasury. Having a consistent set of data and information will at least allow officials at the Department for Transport to prioritise schemes given that funds are limited. In some cases, there may be cases for applying for European funding too.

Now, this blog post is full of holes. I know that. It probably has a whole host of terms that I have used that are not the correct technical terms. I am aware. There may be stuff that is out there I am not aware of. If so, please add it to the comments fields! Let’s get the data and information out there. Let’s get the enthusiasts, campaigners and the specialists to engage with each other & our elected representatives and bring more people into the debate about how to solve some of our transport problems. Maybe that way it will kickstart some decisive action in both town hall and Whitehall – and maybe even inspire people in both who actually have both the vision and the drive to deliver something that is both beneficial to meeting our transport needs as well as inspiring to those in and around the hubs that need them. After all, wouldn’t it be great if this sort of work lead to the creation of a few more places as awe-inspiring as St Pancras?


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