London’s Crossrail project has been having some bad press recently. We now know the final outturn will be close to £1bn more than originally planned and the start date on the central section is delayed by nearly a year while they sort out signalling problems. This is a shame because this incredibly complex new railway has been a model of good practice from the start and in truth what we must now learn to call the Elizabeth line is truly transformatory.
It will enable tens of thousands to live affordably outside London both out west as far as Reading and in Essex and Kent while getting to work in an amazingly short time.
As we grapple with the cost of housing in the city, we can see that the answer for many of those millions who work in the capital during the day is to commute from as far away as Bournemouth, Brighton and Bristol and from Ipswich, Peterborough, Grantham and even Newark.
As a former transport minister, I know that the only time you remember your journey is when it goes wrong, but it’s worth remembering that this is because our railway is more heavily used than almost any other. Despite all the perfectly legitimate criticism levelled at it, the truth is it does the job better than most systems the world over. The answer to the challenge of the future mega city will be connectivity – getting the people without jobs to the jobs without people – which is why I’m a huge fan of HS2 and a big supporter of the ‘northern powerhouse’ vision.
But while railways serve a vital purpose, not all railway projects are necessarily great value. The government won’t say this publicly, but privately Crossrail 2 is actually a big headache. Most normal people won’t have focused on it yet so as a fully paid-up transport nerd I can tell you that firstly it’s too expensive (about twice the price of its predecessor) and secondly it no longer reflects what the city really needs.
Not a surprise
This should be no surprise given the line of route was settled in 1970 when most Property Week readers were still in nappies, Battersea Power Station was still producing power, the East End was a no-go area for developers and the population of London was a million and a half less. Just one obvious example is that the current plan is to take the line down the King’s Road in Chelsea. If you’ve ever been there you’ll know that nobody who lives there needs extra public transport. Property prices are eye-wateringly expensive precisely because very few residents use or want it.
The government won’t say this publicly but Crossrail 2 is actually a big headache
And more to the point, there is no location on that road where a station could be the catalyst for a minimum of 5,000 new homes or a similar number of new jobs. Instead, to get from Victoria to Clapham Junction the line should meet the new extension of the Northern line at the power station and create a real hub for the thousands of people for whom this area will soon be home.
I could go on but you catch my drift and yes, I should get out more, but just occasionally it’s worth going back to first principles and asking ourselves whether we are really getting value for money from these mega projects.
Personally I’d concentrate on extending the Bakerloo line from Elephant and Castle to New Cross and in the process opening up a huge swathe of London around the Old Kent Road, which still feels like the cheapest site on the Monopoly board but is actually really close to the City and West End. London definitely needs more rail connectivity but there’s an old adage that time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Before we get too gung-ho about Crossrail 2, I suggest it’s time we paused and looked again.