Rail 428: Crossrail benefits may bypass those who need them most

The revived London Crossrail scheme would be a powerful symbol of the capital’s modernity as well as a big boost to the economy and national self-esteem. But, asks CHRISTIAN WOLMAR could the huge investment be more productively spent elsewhere?

Crossrail is firmly back on the agenda. The scheme for an east-west link under London was recently relaunched as Crossrail Line 1, with Crossrail Line 2 becoming the long-mooted Hackney-Chelsea route originally conceived as a Tube line.

The idea of main line-size rail tunnels under London was first put forward in the London Plan Working Party Report of 1949, but was ditched by a small committee of MPs in 1995 who prevented it from passing through Parliament because they felt it was uneconomic. In fact, they simply did the government of the time a favour since ministers had no intention of funding the scheme.

Privatisation and the lack of a London government to push the scheme forward meant the idea was sidelined until the Strategic Rail Authority began to reconsider it a couple of years ago. The SRA produced a ‘London East-West Study’ in November 2000 that recommended reviving the scheme and now this has been backed with £154m for preliminary work. A company jointly owned by Transport for London and the Strategic Rail Authority has been created specially to carry out this work and to draw up a hybrid Bill – a parliamentary measure to get planning consent which is an alternative to the cumbersome Transport and Works Act procedure – for introduction next year. Ministers have viewed this favourably by agreeing to the Bill but, of course, so far have not committed the £3.5-4.5bn that would be needed for the construction of Line 1.

However, £154m is not to be trifled at and ministers are certainly expressing an interest in the idea, even if they are so far only putting a toe in the water. Under the optimistic schedule set out in Crossrail’s publicity brochure, Line 1 would be completed in ten years time and Line 2 – though in reality that is as likely as finding the Holy Grail lying in your attic – a couple of years later.

I would like to welcome Crossrail’s resurrection unequivocally, cheering on from the sidelines for a big rail project that seems to have everything going for it. There is a view that, like many of our European counterparts, we should cheer such grands projets whatever their cost because ultimately they benefit both the national economy and the national psyche. But I am a difficult fellow to please and whenever such mega-schemes are mooted, I always feel an immediate wave of contrariness wafting over me.

So what are the plus points? Just sticking to Line 1 for the moment, it would clearly be an exciting rail scheme that would, hopefully, be the example for others, as has happened in Paris with its five RER lines. It would relieve enormous capacity problems at the key London terminals it would link – Paddington and Liverpool Street – as well as to the overcrowded Central Line and provide the sort of railway which would be a symbol of London’s modernity.

Most important, there are the potential regeneration effects. The SRA study points to areas such as Park Royal in West London, Stratford (though how many train lines does that God-awful place need to be ‘regenerated’?) and the Thames Gateway. Line 2 would help Hackney, one of London’s poorest boroughs. Indeed, Line 2 has, in many ways, more going for it in terms of regeneration than Line 1, but the Crossrail team says that it could not be built first because the scheme is at a much earlier stage whereas the route of Line 1 has been safeguarded.

But now for some objections. The main Line 1 scheme used to be presented as Reading to Essex, but it has now become London Docklands to Heathrow. Docklands has already had its fair share of transport schemes, having pushed itself up the agenda ahead of the much more socially regenerative Chelsea- Hackney line in order to appease the original developer of the giant Canary Wharf scheme, Olympia & York. Heathrow, too, has not done too badly for its rail links recently, though nothing compared with continental airports.

This goes to the heart of my concerns. What are we spending these massive sums for? The railways are not an end in themselves, but a means of transport and part of the wider infrastructure. Providing modern, fast, reliable services for people to reach central London from outlying districts may be enormously beneficial for places near the stations, but is it a sensible use of scarce resources as opposed to, say, building a genuine new Tube line, upgrading part of the old Southern Region suburban network to metro standards and frequencies, or extending the Victoria line out into south London? Look what benefit the Jubilee Line extension has brought to south London through the new stations at Bermondsey and Southwark which, incidentally, had to be fought for by the local boroughs. By concentrating on Heathrow and Docklands, will Crossrail 1 not just be helping the already thriving, rather than concentrating on areas in greater need of regeneration? And would the trains simply whizz through deprived areas, the only contact being the occasional stone lobbed at the passing trains?

There is, too, the opportunity cost. Already the Strategic Plan concentrates on London and the South East, and this scheme will ensure that most of the new investment will continue to be channelled there. For that kind of money – spent sensibly rather than by Railtrack – we could get an upgraded high-speed line out to the West Country that would greatly reduce journey times to Cornwall, one of the nation’s forgotten corners with its poor road links and lack of an airport.

Let me put it another way. Railways serve two markets really well – commuters whose alternative is overcrowded urban roads and travellers between major cities whose alternative is tedious journeys on congested motorways. My gut feeling is that the commuter market has peaked. The internet, flexitime, casualisation of work, videophones and other societal changes should result in more people working at home or at offices not located in city centres or, at least, fewer people travelling in during peak times. I recognise that this has been predicted for some years and has not materialised, but, in ‘Mystic Wolmar’ mode, I predict that this trend will at last start showing through in the statistics during this decade. It is interesting to note that commuter numbers have never quite reached the peak of 1988/89, despite almost a decade of economic growth. With investment resources always in short supply, if I were head of planning at the SRA, I would go for the inter-city links rather than yet more lines for London.

Therefore, since Crossrail 1’s main emphasis is on increasing capacity and reducing journey times on routes that are already served by public transport, its economic benefits may be less than expected. Maybe the scheme will overcome all these potential objections and the case for it is wholly robust. But its supporters will have to demonstrate that convincingly before the Treasury mandarins reach for our wallets to pay for it.

Complaints figures don’t reflect TOCs’ performance

Generally, I am very lucky with trains and rarely suffer delays. But in the past couple of months, I have had delays of more than an hour on three different former InterCity lines and the contrast in treatment is both shocking and, indeed, I suggest, breaches the contracts of the operators.

As I mentioned in a previous column (RAIL 424) in December, on the way to York on a Sunday night, GNER’s services were in chaos because of wind bringing down the overhead line. The following Saturday, a ‘fatality’ blocked the line between Swindon and Didcot. Now, coming back from Birmingham on Saturday January 19, a broken-down train near Milton Keynes gave us a splendid view of the sun setting over the Northamptonshire countryside for an hour and a half.

Of the three companies involved, only GNER made any concerted effort to keep us informed, with regular reports from the conductor. On First Great Western, there was only a cursory announcement to tell us we were going the other way – via Westbury – to Paddington. On Virgin, the guard made a couple of announcements but gave us pretty minimal information.

But worst of all, only GNER provided forms for refunds and announced that free drinks were available. On the other two, this was a well-guarded secret, though I did try to liven up proceedings by announcing the availability of free refreshments to as many passengers as possible. But neither FGW nor Virgin made any announcement about refunds or complaints.

That is bordering on fraud. GNER, whose helpful staff not only handed out forms but made sure everyone knew about their onward journey, will now be rewarded by shooting up the league table of complaints as most passengers will have filled them in. On the other two, hardly anyone went to the passenger information desk afterwards to pick one up (I was in a hurry and therefore never got one from FGW).

FGW tells me there is not storage space for sufficient leaflets on the trains, “something we are looking into”, but I remember that excuse being given previously. It was also used by the Virgin ticket collector. That does not explain why there is no announcement about compensation. Again, FGW says that this is up to the train managers “who do not have a specific instruction to alert passengers”. Well, why not? “We are looking into that, too.”

Oddly, GNER’s compensation is not as generous. I only got £8 from them, a third of the one-way fare, while FGW has promised to reimburse the whole of that leg and I await Virgin’s response.

Surely, it is time for the SRA to sort this out and bring in a consistent standard of refund. Moreover, there should be an obligation on operators to announce that refunds are available and failure to do so should result in a hefty fine of, say, £10,000. That would represent the equivalent of a £20 refund to 500 passengers, the kind of money that these companies are saving by keeping mum.

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