Rail 577: Crossrail: still lots of questions to answer

There should be non-elections more often. Thanks to the hype about an early election, the government bounced itself into an announcement that the Crossrail scheme would get the go-ahead. But even before the emails had plopped into the hacks’ inboxes, it was obvious that the announcement raised more questions than it answered. More answers were supposed to be forthcoming with the Comprehensive Spending Review statement, but again, so much detail has been left out that it is impossible to be sure of the basis of the scheme.

So what do we know now that we didn’t before? Well, we know that the government will now support the £16bn project to the tune of some £5bn (numbers are all pretty vague at the moment so they are rounded to the nearest billion or so!). We know too that the government is expecting £1.5bn from businesses who benefit directly from the line, notably Canary Wharf.

There is, too, to be a special arrangement by which London businesses with a rateable value of over £50,000 will pay a special levy towards the construction, raising up to a third of the cost of the project. The rest of the funding will come from TfL and farepayers, about which more below. The government statement says that ‘The unique deal announced today will mean that Crossrail is both funded by the Government and the businesses that are set to directly benefit from the link’. But the questions this raises could fill this column.

Let’s start with the route which, by any standards, is bizarre. The rationale for the trains going to Maidenhead, rather than Reading, was originally that this would require resignalling the whole area, but now that is happening anyway. There is also the argument that the trains will be on the slow line and therefore no one would want to travel on them all the way to Reading, but surely at this stage it would be possible to change this. Crossrail will be a prestigious service, running all the way from Canary Wharf, with its huge employment boom, and running to Maidenhead, a sleepy town on the Thames, with few commuters rather than another boom town, seems bizarre in the extreme.

There are, too, questions about the other end of the line. Abbey Wood, the south east terminus, is literally in the middle of nowhere, with no bus links and the obvious destination was Ebbsfleet which, while also not exactly in the centre of a huge conurbation, will have the Kent domestic services on the high speed line and Eurostar trains, but that has been cut to save money which means Kent travellers will be expected to change trains there.

Michael Schabas, who has long promoted the alternative Superlink scheme, which uses the same tunnel but would provide a regional service, rather than merely one that aims to relieve the Underground, questions the need to run a service to Shenfield: ‘Scrapping that would save a couple of billion, some of which could be used to provide more useful services to Stansted and other destinations in East Anglia’. He is still pressing for a much wider scheme: ‘‘We remain concerned that so much money is being spent on a rail scheme that does so little for so few. Extending Crossrail to Basingstoke, Milton Keynes, Reading, Stansted, Cambridge, Ipswich and Southend would add about £3 billion to the cost but would be more than self-financing – generating much greater passenger revenues.’

Some flexibility remains on these questions since it is relatively easy to adjust the surface routes but the one part of the route that is immutable, is, of course the tunnel. Now people have suddenly noticed that it does not go near King’s Cross/ St Pancras which will become the hub of the universe once the Eurostar terminal and the new Thameslink (ooops, sorry, should that be First Capital Connect) station open later this year and the Kent domestic high speed trains start running in 2009. However, the risks of introducing major amendments to the Crossrail Bill, whose Parliamentary passage should be completed in the summer, as well as redesigning the route make such a change impossible, even though clearly the line between the Crossrail Farringdon station and King’s Cross/St Pancras will become even more crowded than today.

If there are questions over the route, then there are even more about the funding. Apart from the numbers mentioned above, the City of London has promised £250m, and hopes to raise a further £100m from its chums. Then there is the hope that developers will contribute considerable amounts of Section 106 money, which essentially are payments for social schemes in return for planning permission but, in fact, not only would this money normally be paid over anyway, but the total will be a few tens of millions, hardly enough to make a difference to the overall funding situation.

This is uncertain money. Look what happened to the £400m that Canary Wharf supposedly put in towards the Jubilee Line Extension. That was supposed to be paid over 20 years, so in fact was worth much less than the headline figure in terms of the economists ‘Net Present Value’ (the amount a future income stream is worth now). The company did cough up £100m up front but most of the rest was never paid because of poor performance on the line. Given that Canary Wharf property is a licence to print money, as the developers were given all sorts of concessions and now the buildings are worth some four times what they cost to build (e.g. one of the big towers cost £250m to build but in terms of rent is now worth £1bn), the company can afford to make quite substantial payments, but there are precious few other developers and property owners who will do so. One City source told me, ‘we are not charities. If we put in money, we expect something in return such as an equity stake’ which, of course, is not on offer.

These sums will make up only a small amount of the £16bn cost and probably less than hoped for. One crucial aspect of the announcement is that Crossrail is now definitely a TfL scheme rather than part of the national rail network, with the joint venture company, Cross London Rail Links becoming a wholly owned subsidiary. The risk of raising the rest of the money therefore rests with TfL. The key remaining contribution is an estimated £3.5bn from Transport for London which essentially will come from the farebox.

It is very difficult to see how the sums add up here. Crossrail will be part of the Oyster scheme or any successor, making it very difficult to identify revenue generated by its services separately from the Underground. TfL is committed to not imposing premium fares apart from for Heathrow journeys, a decision confirmed by the mayor on October 16, and Crossrail will generate little additional travel itself since its main function is to relieve pressure on other rail lines. There is the potential of a very big black hole here.

On the face of it Londoners have much to celebrate. There is a railway boom in the capital with the construction of the East London Line, the upgrading of the North London line and its takeover by TfL, the apparent go-ahead for Thameslink, the Docklands Light Railway extension to Woolwich. However, a big question mark hangs over this bright future. Can TfL’s finances sustain all this, given that the collapse of Metronet may, according to the decision of Chris Bolt the arbiter for the Public Private Partnership, put as much as £1bn of the Metronet overspending on TfL’s books? Presumably, the only way will be through fares rises but by just how much will fares for all Londoners have to rise to cover the costs of Crossrail? It seems inevitable that passengers on tube lines unaffected by Crossrail and bus users will have to contribute towards its cost.

While it is clear that the Crossrail Bill will now pass through Parliament and that Crossrail will happen in some form or other, there are many searching questions that remain, most of which arise out of the lack of real commitment from the government (and particularly the Treasury) to improving the country’s infrastructure. It seems that unlike in other countries where approval for schemes is given and then problems overcome, here the government tries to solve every contingency before projects begin, which makes it risk averse, and, in any case, is futile, as the collapse of Railtrack and Metronet has shown.

Hold your nose on Virgin

Virgin seems to be jolly unlucky with smells. Remember all the hullabaloo about its retention tanks in the early days of Pendolino. It was, as their PR has admitted to me, the ‘biggest negative issue we faced’ and the problem seemed to go on an awful long time.

Indeed, I had thought it had still not been resolved. Either I have a particular sensitive nose – unlikely – or I am jolly unlucky as every time I walk onto a Pendolino, I find myself wishing I had put on more Eau de Cologne or at least carrying a steaming hot cappuccino to take the smell away. It always seems worst near the vestibules and so naturally I thought that Virgin had never got round to changing the carpets after the overflow problems had been resolved.

Not so. Apparently it is a separate problem. The leaking pipes to the retention tanks have, apparently, all been replaced and ‘it is no longer an issue’. No the problem is a new one. I’m told the glue sticking the carpets down has dried up and ‘emits a pungent smell’ which could be mistaken for the old problem. Alstom are going to be refitting the carpets but because of not wanting to take train sets out of service (Virgin is already one short because of the Grayrigg accident), this will take some time.

All of which does suggest there has been an extraordinarily series of coincidences. It is rather odd that the glue problem is at its most prominent in the vestibules outside the loos. It is also very peculiar that when one asks on-board staff about the problem, they deny its existence saying they can’t smell anything. But most strangely, how come poor Richard B and his trains have been hit with a double smelly whammy?

I would be grateful to hear of readers’ experiences to assess whether it is simply that I am just a Southern softie unable to withstand the merest smell or whether there is a genuine problem.

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