Where is the future transport vision?
Hyperloop would take 28 minutes between Stockholm and Helsinki but the debate on high-speed railways has completely displaced the discussion around next-generation transport.
The next generation of transport solution - for example, electric roads, high-speed trains and new modes of transport such as hyperloop.What is missing are clear guidelines from the state to create commercially viable solutions to implement in practice.
The Swedish parliament's new traffic committee and the newly created Ministry of infrastructure need to address three important factors for a modernised transport policy:
- new solutions in existing infrastructure
- introduction of brand new technology
- development of new financing models.
If these factors are successfully addressed, Sweden will regain its role at the forefront of transport development and move closer towards achieving its climate goals.
So why does Sweden, which has often been at the forefront of developing transport and vehicles, now take such a passive attitude in comparison with several of our neighbouring countries? Is it because a short-term focus on functioning passenger transport happens at the expense of future investments?
With a large infrastructure debt, the transport policy debate in Sweden has dealt exclusively with the necessity of upgrading existing rail infrastructure. The high-speed rail debate has completely displaced discussions on the next generation of transport modes. We have not even been ready to upgrade our railroad to technology that already is over 40 years old, although it is a positive sign that the newly-appointed infrastructure minister says decisions on high-speed trains will be taken this term.
Sweden was an electric roads pioneer but after some pilot projects the work did not come closer to commercialisation. The country signed an innovation partnership with Germany at the beginning of 2017 and is currently looking into electric roads for heavy vehicles. However, there is still no clear idea of how the state and the private business sector should join forces to establish regulations and commercial solutions to realise the technology.
There are several downsides to taking a back seat to transport technology development. In addition to missing out on the economic benefits of developing and exporting new technology, Sweden risks losing technical know-how when qualified labour is looking for countries at the forefront of development.
At the same time, a broad majority in parliament has set high targets for reduced emissions in the transport sector by 2030. While reduced emissions can be achieved through streamlining of fuels for today's transport fleet, reduction duty and more environmentally friendly electricity production, long-term solutions require investment in future technology.
Recent years have seen rapid progress in new, climate-friendly transport technologies. An example of this is hyperloop. In 2013, technology entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk presented a concept for a ground-based transport system where vehicles travel in a vacuum pipe at very high speeds. Basically, the known technologies (vacuum, magnetism) are put together into a new whole.
Fully developed, a Swedish hyperloop system could transport passengers between Stockholm and Helsinki in 28 minutes, with a maximum speed of 1220 km/h. Finland's response has been positive and committed but in Sweden it is considered science fiction. This is despite the race between several international conglomerates to realise this mode of transport, including the Hyperloop One, which is now owned by Richard Branson.
Test centres for hyperloop have so far been built in, among other destinations, Nevada and in southern France. In addition, plans to launch construction of the first commercial route in 2019 in Abu Dhabi were recently announced.
The absence of viable funding solutions is one of the reasons why major investment is yet to happen. If, purely financially, Sweden is to cope with the maintenance gap and at the same time build new and faster connections between our big cities and neighboring countries, new forms of cooperation and financing between the public and private sectors must take place.
In May 2018, the government announced a national cross-sectional plan for the transport infrastructure for the period 2018–2029. Of the plan's total SEK 622.5 billion, only eight billion has been allocated to research and development. This is a lot of money but not enough to create completely new solutions – such as electrifying parts of the heavily trafficked road network or to create a hyperloop connection via the Baltic Sea to Helsinki.
There is a need for a more visionary work besides strengthening our existing infrastructure. The question is whether the new traffic committee and the Ministry of infrastructure are ready to take on the challenge.