Rail 539: Why we must cross-question the logic of Crossrail scheme

The more CHRISTIAN WOLMAR looks at Crossrail, the less attractive it becomes, with nearly as many people being inconvenienced by the project as benefiting from it.

I wish I could wholeheartedly believe in the Crossrail project. After all, it is the biggest rail project on the medium-term agenda – a North-South high speed link is unlikely to see the light of day until most of us are pushing up daisies, and it needs all the support that we rail supporters can offer it if it is to pass the Treasury’s myopic view of infrastructure schemes.

But it is like one of those beautiful corals that shrivel up once you try and touch them. Every time I set out to understand the rationale behind this huge project, the logic behind it gets more and more convoluted and the case weaker and weaker. I have been to conferences to hear endless speeches about its necessity, been briefed and lunched by its supporters, and heard Ken Livingstone wax lyrical about it. Nevertheless, I just can’t seem to get on board.

The scheme, currently the subject of a hybrid Bill – one which has implications for both the private and public sectors and therefore requires a special parliamentary procedure – seems simple enough: build a tunnel under London between Liverpool Street and Paddington, and run trains between the two which connect the networks from these stations, relieving pressure on them and providing much-needed capacity.

The trouble comes when you start to examine the detail. There have been a series of suggestions about what precise routes the trains should take, but each looks like an attempt to rationalise the difficulties of merging in with existing railways, keeping costs down and making the best of a bad job, rather than looking at the project in a holistic way. Why else have they ended up with a scheme that runs from Maidenhead to Shenfield and Abbey Wood when clearly a whole host of other destinations would make more sense? Or from Canary Wharf to Heathrow, a journey that no one wants to undertake? Just to highlight one example – of the 24 trains an hour in the peak, only ten would continue beyond Paddington in the west, with the other 14 being turned round at Ladbroke Grove.

I am not the only one with severe doubts. There is the alternative Superlink scheme sniping from the wings, and it has recently received support from the very eminent planner Sir Peter Hall (not to be confused with the theatre director!). He wrote recently: “The one evident fact, which increasingly stares any dispassionate observer in the face, is that the official Crossrail scheme makes absolutely no operational or economic sense at all.”

He goes on to argue that without a basic rethink, “not of the central tube… but of the number and length and location of the outer branches… Crossrail is doomed to hit the buffers”. When an illustrious planner like Peter Hall, questions the very basis of the scheme, alarm bells should be ringing. The Superlink team’s objections have a resonance. While accepting that London and the South East need new rail capacity, they argue that the existing Crossrail scheme does not provide the right services to the people who need them. Essentially, the tunnel through the middle of London – which is accepted as the basis for all Crossrail and Superlink options – will, according to Superlink, cost £6 billion to build and perhaps £2bn to operate, and yield benefits both through the fare box and elsewhere of around £3bn. Therefore, on its own it is not worth building and so the key is to ensure the trains run on to the right places.

As an aside, I am sceptical about this argument. Perhaps even the ‘central tube’ ought to be reconsidered. If the scheme’s core does not give a positive benefit-to-cost ratio, why is everyone so wedded to the idea that this particular tunnel is the right solution to London’s capacity problems? In a rational world, rather more energy might have been spent in the past ten years to look at better alternatives, which might include a new Tube line or improvements to the existing suburban railways.

However, in that ghastly expression, “we are where we are”, and so the issue is now about getting the right options for the branches. In the west, the very fact that so few westbound trains run on past Paddington suggests there is something badly amiss. The obvious destination point would be Reading rather than Maidenhead where the scheme would, ironically, require the demolition of the car park, potentially reducing the number of users.

Here we get into the sort of detailed arguments that are at the heart of the objections. The original reason for not going to Reading was that it would trigger a major resignalling. But now this is going to take place in 2011, before any possible target date for completing the scheme. Crossrail argues that its trains would be ‘stoppers’ and therefore no one would want to use them rather than the existing fast services.

While Crossrail would go to Heathrow, it would not serve Terminal 5 and, moreover, its trains would be slower than the existing Heathrow Express services (which would remain) since they would be stopping services.

In the east, too, there are serious doubts. The proposed Shenfield service appears less attractive than the present one, and the business case is based on the assumption that extra paths will be released for Liverpool Street-Stansted services, but that would only be possible by reducing the local stopping services on that two-track railway.

The other branch, through Docklands, is now projected to terminate at Abbey Wood rather than Ebbsfleet, the new station on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which greatly reduces one of the key advantages put forward to justify the scheme, which is “to enhance international connections”.

In fact, the more you look at Crossrail, the less appealing it becomes as, it seems, almost as many people would be inconvenienced as advantaged. Remember, too, that the freight lobby is not happy about the scheme because Crossrail trains would have priority on the slow lines and the right of the regulator to intervene would be removed.

So perhaps Crossrail’s supporters need to explain how by making services worse for Heathrow and Shenfield passengers, and not running to the places where it is needed, the project can still be justified. Or am I being unduly negative?

The Superlink scheme envisages a whole host of other branches such as linking with the West Coast Main Line and running to Stansted. Crossrail counters that these would be impossible to operate because of the complexity of co-ordinating so many trains coming into the main tunnel from different lines. In the words of Chris Stokes, one of Superlink’s backers: “The present scheme has too few benefits and is almost certainly unaffordable.”

The basis of Superlink’s objections is that the scheme should be a regional one, serving the South East as a whole, whereas the present notion is to concentrate on improving mobility in the Greater London area.

The behind-the-scenes argument of many of Crossrail’s supporters is that they accept the scheme may not be ideal, but that we should all shut up and get behind it, because otherwise the nasty Treasury will sink it once and for all. However, getting a scheme that does little but inconvenience a lot of travellers without providing sufficient extra capacity to warrant its cost could discredit rail projects in the capital for a generation. So the time to speak out is now.

My ultimate view, though, is that Crossrail will not happen. There is a big clue highlighted in Superlink’s assessment of the business case. The construction costs are around £7.7bn but ministers have consistently talked of a figure almost twice that because they have thrown in inflation, contingencies and financing costs. My hunch is that if they really wanted it built, they would not be talking up the costs of a project in that way.

Everyone reckons the next spending review, which will be published in the early summer of 2007, will be the make-or-break point for the scheme. With the budget for the railways still so high, who would bet on the Treasury suddenly embracing the need for transport infrastructure when the squeeze is already on health and education?

Thameslink lunacy

I am delighted that London TravelWatch, the new name for the London Transport Users’ Committee, is kicking up a fuss about the surreptitious dropping of the Thameslink name from the franchise. Not only is the new name of First Capital Connect one of the daftest on the network (in a heavily contested field led by c2c and ‘one’) but the old moniker is a well-known brand that also happens to be part of the name of several stations.

Urban transport, particularly in a city with millions of visitors like London, is all about making things such as the provision of information as simple and straightforward as possible, and a meaningless brand like First Capital Connect just serves to complicate matters.

What happens when First loses the contract in a few years’ time – will the name change again? And does it mean the project to renew the line will now be called First Capital Connect 2000? Certainly, both parts of Thameslink 2000 are out of date!

Of course, this is another departmental cock-up. Someone in the ministry should have ensured that the specification for the service – or at least the Thameslink part of it – retained the long-established brand name. Or would that have constrained the freedom of the private sector to mess passengers about?

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