Maintaining the UK’s ageing infrastructure

Inevitably, it’s the glossy new construction projects such as Crossrail, HS2 or nuclear power stations that hog the limelight, when it comes to interest in UK infrastructure. The country’s ageing roads and Victorian rail network struggle to quicken the pulse in the shadow of such exciting new developments. Increasingly underfunded by local and central government alike, these infrastructure assets that have been at the heart of transport systems for many decades are all too often faced with nonchalance – a “make do and mend” attitude.

The RAC Foundation reported recently that more than 3,200 road bridges are sub-standard, funding for local roads maintenance is projected to reduce by 50 per cent between 2010 and 2010, while the maintenance backlog for local roads currently stands at 12 years. Transport for London has also been told that it must fund all its operational activities, which include maintenance, from its own passenger revenue receipts and will only receive government support for capital investment.

As our age of austerity celebrates its first decade, all types of infrastructure start to reveal signs of neglect, yet the UK’s new projects pipeline shows more than £100 billion of capital schemes at various stages of development. How can this be?

With the added pressure of population growth, more and more people rely on our established transport and utilities networks, buildings and other public assets

Managing the UK’s ageing yet vital assets can present a greater challenge than budgeting for new, shiny and more expensive greenfield projects. With the added pressure of population growth, more and more people rely on our established transport and utilities networks, buildings and other public assets. The upkeep of these shared resources becomes evermore important.

At Amey Consulting our ability to extend the effective life of our critical assets and to predict how, where and why we invest in maintenance has never been more intuitive as we apply intelligence to the array of data available.

Big-data methods allow infrastructure managers to monitor the performance and condition of all types of assets, and to tailor maintenance to meet individual needs. Such methods involve cutting-edge scientific and engineering techniques, and have been proven to save asset operators millions of pounds as well as improving the performance of their infrastructure. But the adoption of such techniques is far from universal.

Unlike construction, which enjoys considerable government and industry support devoted to improved methods and technologies, management and maintenance is not something we spend a lot of time trying to understand better. Perhaps if we thought harder about it, we would grant it the prestige and the funding it deserves.

There is certainly a financial reward to greater understanding as maintenance is big business. Major UK service companies such as Amey make large investments every year in tools and procedures for predictive maintenance, since their success depends on the reliability of their products and the existence of orderly routines to follow when things break down.

The Docklands Light Railway recently invested in a state-of-the-art enterprise asset management system to control the mass of data now required to inform managers, often in real time, of the condition and performance of every significant asset on the network, allowing maintenance to be evaluated, prioritised and efficiently delivered.

As the sheer number of assets required to support our increasingly complex society grows, so we need to give greater priority and funding to maintenance and intelligent management of our infrastructure. We also need to recognise that the intellectual and technical challenge of managing assets, while maintaining an adequate level of service on our highways, railways and waste systems, is at least as demanding as that required to build greenfield infrastructure.

Increasingly, the key to effective infrastructure and an efficient society will lie in combining and optimising how we develop new infrastructure with the efficient and sustainable management of our existing assets.