Rail 798: little schemes better than big ones

The London mayoral hustings are in full flow with the two main contenders, Labour’s Sadiq Khan and Zac Goldsmith for the Tories, locked in battle and trading insults. However, in truth, their manifestos have rather more in common than they would like the electorate to realise. Both support the continuation of the Freedom Pass (no candidate could risk losing the grey vote despite the fact it is ridiculous people can use it before 9 30 am), express enthusiasm about cycling, want the quick introduction of the Night Tube, seek to reduce the number of strikes on the Underground, improve air quality, oppose Heathrow expansion and much else.

Crossrail2, the latest London megascheme is also endorsed by both Zac and Sadiq (why is it that in London mayoral contests the candidates always end up being called by their first names) despite the fact that no one knows quite who is going to foot the £30bn or so bill. This reflects the obsession the politicians’ obsession with big projects, demonstrated so well by the widespread support for HS2 despite its poor business case.

However, London has a lot of other worthwhile schemes that do not attract the headlines or interest from mayoral candidates, but which individually would make a significant difference to the capital’s transport system and which overall would be quite transformational. While I was trying for the Labour candidacy for next month’s election, touring widely round the city, it was uncanny how many little transport schemes I came across where local people would say that  just a small amount of money would make a huge difference.

A couple of these were in Hounslow and I recently dropped in on Mark Frost, the borough’s transport boss, to discuss how better connections could make a huge difference to the area’s economy. Hounslow straddles the A4, the Great West Road which, when it became a duel carriageway between the wars, acquired a large number of factories such as, most famously, Gillette and Lucozade which had a wonderful light display of an endlessly pouring bottle on its side. Many of those factories have now gone but a large number of office blocks have sprung up in their stead and Sky has its HQ which currently employs 6,000 people, a figure set to double. The area around Brentford, which the council likes to call the Golden Mile, is poorly served by rail as all the Piccadilly Line stations are just a bit too far to get people out of their cars, as is the main line rail station. Several companies have responded to the poor links by creating their own bus services to take people to nearby stations, a very costly and wasteful process since, obviously, only employees can make use of them and their proliferation simply adds to the congestion.

Therefore, there is enormous pressure on the roads. Indeed, they are pretty much full up at rush hour and are becoming a limiting factor on local job creation. Local businesses seeking to boost their car parking spaces are routinely turned down by the borough’s planning department because of fears of gridlock. The railway from Waterloo to Brentford, too, is full at times in the morning, even though it is running against the rush hour. Frost told me that local businesses complain that their staff are sometimes unable to get on the trains at Clapham Junction.

One quick win, therefore, would be to use the existing freight line between a waste transfer station on Transport Avenue, near the A4 and Southall, which is on the Great Western Main Line. The idea would be to create a shuttle service on the line, rather like the existing one in East London between Romford and Upminster, to serve the area. The cost would be £41m but the benefits enormous as Frost puts it: ‘This will buy space for thousands of jobs’. Sounds simple, but nothing in the railways ever is.

The cost for a 5 kilometre line is relatively high because the line needs double tracking if it is to continue taking the waste from the transfer station to Portishead in Bristol.  That is a bit of a barrier but not insuperable given the importance of the area for jobs. Hounslow has taken the initiative and commissioned a feasibility study, known as GRIP 2 in the seemingly endless Network Rail project process, and it found that there was a very positive business case, a benefit to cost ratio of 3 – much higher than many of the big projects such as HS2 which struggles to get over 2. It is the sort of orbital scheme that London needs to get cars off the road.

Now, however, Hounslow is struggling. The next stage, GRIP 3, a look at the various options would probably cost around £1m, more than a cash strapped council – all local authorities are short of funds – can afford. This should really be undertaken by the mayor but as Frost puts it, ‘because the scheme is not big, it tends to get overlooked despite the fact it is very good value for money’. A bit of money might be available for the private sector but it would be limited as firms tend only to push ideas they have thought up themselves.

Just to make life more difficult, there is, too, an issue about devolution. The government has announced that Transport for London will take over various suburban lines as franchises come up for renewal though precisely which are included in the plan is unclear. Hounslow has had a lot of support from First Great Western in developing the scheme, in the expectation that it would take on the line as part of the franchise. Now, however, there is uncertainty as maybe the line would be run by Transport for London, and it is unclear whether any money would be available.

The problem is that no one has ownership of these medium sized schemes that are so important.  Creating more rail capacity in London is often about incremental growth through modest schemes such as this one, rather than the multibillion mega project. Hounslow has a particularly active approach to local transport schemes but other boroughs with similar projects have not bothered to try to progress them in the face of these complexities. As Mark Frost put it, ‘how many small projects are there like this in London?’ The new mayor could do worse than start trying to find out and then drawing up partnerships of local authorities, the private sector, Local Enterprise Partnerships, business groups and local authorities to pursue them, maybe even diverting some of the money intended for Crossrail2 to kick off the process. Big is not necessarily beautiful.


New Street, old problems


A couple of months ago I had half an hour to kill on a Saturday in Birmingham town centre, and thought  I would have a look at the revamped New Street station. It was a Saturday and despite the fact that I was only 5 minutes walk away, I never got there. I found an entrance – I was east of the station – which seemed to indicate the way to the trains, but it was like landing in the middle of a war zone, with people streaming past me in all directions and with very little indication of where to find the platforms. After a few minutes aimless wandering around, I gave up though I did find out that the trains were several levels below the throng. OK, it was a Saturday before Xmas but nevertheless, the station seemed to have been forgotten in the eagerness to renew the shopping centre above it.

It was not until late March that I had occasion to arrive at New Street and take a train back to London a few hours later, and I must say I was left with pretty much the same impression. Getting off the train was just as much hassle before as the passageways up were still very narrow. Arriving in the concourse, the signs were poor and I had, frankly, no idea where I was. I eventually struggled to a map, but it was unclear and poorly placed. The exit I used did not properly explain where it led, but I guessed right.

Coming back, it was worse. I had run to the station and had about 4 minutes to spare, but was totally confused by the signs to various lounges (which, in fact, are nothing of the sort). I could not find the overall display but then spotted a Virgin employee to ask where the London train was leaving from. Even he was a bit confused as to whether it was 2 or 3 (in fact it was 20 minutes late and left from 1) I confess I was in a bit more of a fluster than my usual ice calm self but that is precisely a good way to test the effectiveness of a station. I’m afraid Birmingham, after £750m, seems to have failed as a station even though the shopping centre looks magnificent.

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