The last month has seen a small avalanche of comment on the UK Government’s decision to go ahead with the High Speed 2 rail line from London to Birmingham, and onwards to Manchester and Leeds. Much of it has been negative, not least because of the understandable NIMBY response that accompanies any major physical infrastructure project. But there has also been a good slice of comment on the nature of the investment itself, and it is to that I intend to add further thought.
Investment in UK infrastructure is most certainly needed but railways are, in the light of Government aspirations to build a dynamic, knowledge-based, hi-tech oriented economy for the future, heading off in entirely the wrong direction.
Just after the announcement I heard a pundit (never did learn his name) on TV referencing the French and their High Speed Train experiences and the benefits that accrued. To which the answer is yes, but…..’. The TGV investments were years ago. What is more, if the French had been thinking about HS2 they would have had it built and running 10 years ago at least. Taking 20 years to build HS2, and not even starting that process for a few years yet, makes the investment just nonsense.
If they had actually set about this investment when it was first being talked about I would have been all for it. But this late in the day I end up feeling this is like someone saying “we need services for industry: let’s make carbon-fibre Penny-Farthings.”
What is the investment for?
To make the investment relevant what is needed is to go back to the basic question: what is the investment for? Now, if it is primarily aimed at creating jobs in its construction then that is a laudible objective, but is only a short-term answer. Most of those jobs will be gone once it is built. If, however, it is to provide a platform on which both businesses and individuals can build futures of benefit, worth and value (of both the tangible and intangible varieties) then there are serious alternatives available that are cheaper to install, faster to implement, and of greater value to those that use them.
What is even more important, the phrase 'those that use them’ should really encompass as many people in the country as possible, not just those close enough to make sensible use of a particular stretch of railway.
Two better investment options are clearly obvious, and both are likely to be relevant to cloud computing and Cloud Service Providers (CSPs). What is more, they are not mutually exclusive options, and even if both were implemented simultaneously they would save a large slice of the currently planned HS2 investment of some £30bn and could, I suspect, be implemented and delivering a return in a maximum of half the time allotted to HS2.
Make the trains we have work better
The first option is a significant upgrade to the current railway system, which already covers most of the country. The objective would not be to make those lines faster in terms of train speeds, but to greatly improve their capacity by a rebuild of the signalling and train management systems so trains can run much closer together.
Cloud-based big data analytics tools could not only cope with the volume of real time data and analytics needed to manage this process, but could provide the resource redundancy needed to ensure the highest possible service levels and reliability. There would certainly need to be sufficient capacity to provide real time monitoring and analytics of all services and rolling stock so that failure modes could be tracked as they are developing and pre-empted before they finally develop.
This would benefit far more people and businesses across the country than HS2, and there are already many companies able to provide the technologies and skills needed to make it happen, so there would be plenty of scope for competition—and second-sourcing of supply for many of the core systems and components.
Finally, this option could even help reduce crime figures by re-cabling the entire train network with fibre optics—and give Network Rail a helpful revenue boost through selling the redundant copper cable and over-specifying communications capacity requirements so that the extra could be made available to the open market.
The second option is to commit to blanketing the entire country with the highest capacity Internet services everywhere. And the cost of implementation could be kept in check by using Wi-Fi to 'blanket-bomb’ everywhere, including those hard-to-reach locations where the cost of cabling the service has traditionally proved prohibitive.
As with the Six Million Dollar Man, we do have the technology, from many possible suppliers, and with a wealth of options on how services can be delivered. This is the type of project which could be implemented and providing benefit across the country before the first, Birmingham-bound stage of HS2 had got much past Amersham.
Given the oft-stated wish of the Government to turn the UK into a knowledge-based economy built upon the skills of using and developing hi-tech solutions, country-wide high bandwidth internet coverage makes far more sense and much better value to all than a railway line between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Finally, a short history lesson: 10 to 15 years ago, BT was bemoaning the fact that it had laid vast amounts of fibre optics cable across the Atlantic and it was finding it difficult to sell the capacity to anyone. This unused Dark Fibre was, for a while, a significant issue: what was to be done with it?
But back then Google was a babe-in-arms of a business, while Facebook and Twitter were not yet twinkles in inventor’s eyes. The availability of the Dark Fibre here and around the world played an important part in making such successful developments possible.
The same is true now. Universal, country-wide, high capacity and high performance Wi-Fi would be the spawning ground for limitless new developments, businesses and whole marketplaces that no-one has yet conceived. That is so certain it would even make sense to deliver the Wi-Fi services free. The return would be well worth the extra expense.
And it would not only provide existing businesses with the tools needed to improve their current operations and make them far more agile to meet market changes, but also give new businesses the tools needed to spring out of the new ideas such an investment would bring.
Perhaps even more important, it would also give consumers the tools needed to buy, use and enjoy the products and services these businesses create. Those consumers would be all over the UK, not just on the London-Birmingham-Manchester-Leeds axis.
As a final element of enlightened self-interest for CSPs and cloud technology providers, the cloud would be the only sensible way this nationwide 'service’ could be delivered. Major hosting services would be the host for many of those new businesses, most of which will be delivering their new products and services as SaaS.