Rail 552: Alexander faces arsenal of arguments over Woolwich

Ironically, the Transport Secretary’s quibbling about a paltry £200m for a new station at Woolwich could be a clue that the government is at last taking Crossrail seriously, argues CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

WHAT is going on at Crossrail? There has been a very curious stand-off over the past few weeks on the issue of a station that, in the overall cost of the £10-15bn project, seems like small beer and yet has produced an obdurate stance from the transport secretary, Douglas Alexander. The row raises issues about the whole purpose of Crossrail, as well as begging questions about the whole process by which such a scheme obtains approval and what, precisely, it is for.

The station in question is Woolwich in south east London. Crossrail trains were originally scheduled to go through south East London out to Ebbsfleet where there would have been an interchange with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. However, to save money, the south eastern terminus will now be Abbey Wood, which is a couple of miles from Thamesmead and pretty much in the middle of nowhere with no bus connections and little local passenger traffic. Even the roads to the station are inadequate for it ever to be an effective transport hub. Most passengers alighting there are expected to continue their journeys into Kent on existing commuter services.

The nearest station on Crossrail to Abbey Wood would be Custom House which is on the other side of the Thames. Indeed, the southern leg of the Crossrail route, truncated at Abbey Wood is a rather desolate stump of a line that seems to have little purpose other than conveying the (relatively affluent) people of Kent to and from their homes as quickly as possible. On the other branch, which runs out to Shenfield, there are plenty of stops and one, Maryland, was even recently added. Of course, they are existing stations on the surface but nevertheless the contrast with the southern branch is striking.

Given this, it is hardly surprising that a strong campaign has emerged to put a station on the six mile gap between Custom House and Abbey Wood, and the obvious location is Woolwich which is already something of a transport hub with good bus connections, the railway and, soon, the Docklands Light Railway. Moreover, it is in the centre of a deprived area which has never fully recovered from the closure of the Royal Arsenal 40 years ago (the football club decamped rather earlier than that, in 1913, so can’t be blamed for the decline!) and therefore the case for the station seems, as Dick Cheney might say, a no-brainer.

The Woolwich station was included in the original scheme, endorsed by the Montague review which reviewed the finances of the new railway two years ago. The Bill is currently with the Select Committee which has the task of examining all aspects of the proposal, rather in the way that a planning inspector would with a private sector project. Its members, who are supposed to be independent of the government and examine the project impartially, have come down unequivocally in favour of the Woolwich station. In their interim findings, the MPs said: ‘we have carefully examined all the evidence put before us and we are clearly convinced of the essential need for a Crossrail station in Woolwich, an area which includes some of the poorest wards in the United Kingdom.’ They added that it would provide ‘exceptional value for money’ and, indeed, its benefit to cost ratio is higher than that of the scheme as whole and therefore urged ‘the promoter’, i.e. the government, to include the station in the final version of the scheme. There were not only local regenerative benefits, but the station was part of the wider improvements to the Thames Gateway, a key area for housing growth in the next decade with a projected 65,000 new homes.

So what did Douglas Alexander do? In a surprising statement on October 11, he conceded that the station was a good idea but rejected it on the grounds of cost, even though he admitted that the original cost of £350m has now been cut to £200m (and a third of that is the ridiculous Treasury optimism bias) because a shallower station nearer the surface is now reckoned to be technically feasible.

There is a bit of painful history here. South East London is a neglected area in terms of public transport. For historical reasons, It does not have any Underground lines, apart from a small incursion by the Jubilee line, because the ground conditions were too difficult for the Victorians to build watertight tunnels and the overground network developed more quickly as land was cheaper than north of the Thames. Moreover, as the campaigners for the Woolwich station, which include David Quarmby, the former chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, point out, every time new lines are being built through South East London, local needs seem to get forgotten. In the early 1990s, when the Jubilee Line Extension was being planned, the concept was to get people as fast as possible to Canary Wharf and there were to be no station at North Greenwich, or indeed at Bermondsey and Southwark, until the then boss of London Underground, Denis (now Lord) Tunnicliffe, backed by a fierce campaign from local MPs, managed to persuade the government that they were an essential part of the scheme. Then, more recently, the same thing happened again with the omission of a station at Cutty Sark on the Docklands Light Railway to Lewisham. It was only after another highly vocal campaign, which even manage to attract some funding for the scheme, that the station, which is now extremely busy with tourists visiting one of the area’s most popular attractions, was built.

This is where it gets very interesting because even though the government is the promoter, the Select Committee is a quasi-judicial body over which the government has no control. So Alexander’s refusal to respect its conclusions created a crisis that led to the suspension of the Select Committee’s consideration of the Bill. Why Alexander has gone out of his way apparently to provoke a confrontation with the Bill and the supporters of the station is unclear.

Reading the runes on Crossrail has been notoriously difficult over the past few years, not least because there are contradictory forces within government. Alistair Darling was always lukewarm about it as has been the Treasury, while Downing Street, which sees it as a vital to regeneration of the Thames Gateway, has been supportive. There have been several shifts of mood even since the introduction of the hybrid bill in Parliament in February 2005. At times it has seen that the Treasury has simply set its face against it, but did not quite have the courage to kill the scheme before the introduction of the Bill. Perhaps the ever parsimonious Treasury was hoping that, as in 1994, the MPs would do the job for them and reject the Bill. Politics is a duplicitous business.

At other times, there has been considerable optimism behind the scenes, with Crossrail supporters getting very positive about a successful outcome. Certainly, there seems to have been a recent shift in favour of the Bill recently. The continued growth of rail travel, the ever booming London economy, the pressure from business and, crucially, the far greater interest in environmental issues, as witnessed by last week’s publication of the Stern review commissioned by the Treasury, suggest that Crossrail is definitely back on course.

Indeed, it is possible to view this latest spat over the Woolwich station as a sign that the government is serious about Crossrail – or else why should ministers be bothered about a station costing a couple of hundred million. As Nick Raynsford, the MP for Greenwich and Woolwich who has been campaigning for the station, put it, ‘there are lots of ways of saving £200m or so in the project without cutting out a vital station which has a very positive benefit to cost ratio’. It could be argued that having stations at both Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road, less than a mile apart, is an expensive luxury as both are on the Central Line.

But maybe there is good news in this row. The very fact that Alexander and, more important, the Treasury is so exercised over such a small amount of money suggests that the government is serious about building Crossrail. Having, a few months ago been convinced that the Bill process was just an expensive way of keeping the Crossrail supporters quiet, I now reckon that the scheme is almost certain to get the go-ahead. But if it does not include strongly regenerative features such as the Woolwich station, one has to ask what is Crossrail for?

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