The time for carping is over. Let’s for once just celebrate and enjoy some good news. Yes, I know, I was a Crossrail sceptic once though only because I reckoned the original scheme in the mid 1990s was ill-thought out and there was some truth in that.
Let’s though, for the moment, forget the overspend which at around 25 per cent is not out of kilter with most such projects and is a damn sight better than say, the Boston big dig, Berlin airport or Stuttgart station. Let’s too, forget the rather astonishing story behind the delay when, in June 2018, just six months before the project was supposed to be finished, I was being told by senior management that the scheme had an 80 per cent of being completed by the deadline of December 9 2018, a date that had, ridiculously, been set almost a decade earlier.
In fact, there was as much chance of meeting that deadline as there is of finding gold in hippopotamus poo. As various of the people involved explained to me when I was working on the revised version of my book The Crossrail Story, the dye had been cast a long time before. There were numerous occasions when the announcement of a delay would have been acceptable, most notably when a transformer blew up at Pudding Mill Lane in November 2017. Instead, whenever there were mishaps like that, there was an attitude of ‘keep buggering on’ rather than stopping and rethinking.
Nick Raynsford, the former minister who became vice chair of Crossrail in 2019 after the original target was abandoned, talked of finding a culture in which, when faced with difficulties, the senior management and the board had an attitude best expressed as ‘We don’t want to know about problems, we just want solutions. Go away and tell me you have sorted it.’
There was, indeed, the wrong type of culture as Mark Wild, who took over as chief executive following the announcement of the delay, explained to me: ‘as the delays mounted, the schedule kept on being reset, rather than people recognising that it simply could not be met and the opening had to be delayed’.
But all this can be forgotten. Almost instantly. In a few weeks time, as numbers flock to use the new line, few will remember the overspend and the delays, and indeed care even less about them. Passengers will just enjoy a world class piece of infrastructure that will serve London till all of us die and far beyond.
There is a very important lesson here. This is what good public infrastructure should be like. It was built by public money for the public, and will serve them royally. Of course there have been extra contributions from business through a special levy but an attempt to set up a complicated Private Finance Initiative funding mechanism was quickly dropped as it was unworkable. In one way or another, the money has come from the taxpayer with Londoners paying a bit extra.
Not only is it a purely publicly funded project, but it has also been built to a very high standard. Several media outlets have fallen into the trap of suggesting that Crossrail is a Tube line. Boris Johnson’s stupid insistence on calling it the Elizabeth Line has only led to confusion. This is made worse by connections with Tube lines being shown as ‘Elizabeth Line’ where others are just shown as ‘Piccadilly’ or ‘Northern’. So as some Twitter jokers put it, Crossrail has become the Elizabeth Line Line!
In fact, Crossrail is a luxury train service and is only like the existing Tube in the same way as both Ferraris and Vauxhall Astras are cars. The trains themselves have acceleration that would not be out of place on a Formula 1 circuit, the stations with their 240 metre long platforms, high ceilings and soft lighting are all underground cathedrals – even Sadiq Khan used that comparison – and the safety systems are the most sophisticated on any railway in the country.
That all sends out a wider message. This is what we should expect of public services. We don’t want overcrowded trains, smelly buses, crumbling hospitals or draughty schools. Of course it has not come cheap, but as the initial response to the pandemic showed, when resources are needed, they can be found. Governments can create money and therefore wealth. Yes, that leads to an expansion in debt but ultimately it is government owing money back to itself. And that can be written off. One of the problems faced by British Railways is that it had to live not only with an inherited debt on which until the 1968 Transport Act it paid interest, but it was also burdened by an expensive depreciation mechanism that further sent it into the red.
The approach to such megaprojects needs to be changed. While the headline figure of £19bn will remain as the cost, in fact, ultimately this is much less. At least 20 percent and probably a lot more of that goes straight back to the Exchequer in VAT payments, National Insurance and Income Tax contributions. There are, too, big enhancements in local property prices which a more sophisticated model of assessing projects could take into account.
Of course, we need more schemes like this but it was galling to hear Johnson at the Royal ceremony launching Crossrail lauding the scheme and saying that we ought to ‘think about Crossrail 2, the old Chelsea-Hackney line’. He added: ‘That is going to be transformative again. All the problems of commuters coming into Waterloo getting up to north London, you can fix that with another Crossrail. I think we should be getting on with that.
The long-proposed Crossrail 2 would run south-west to north-east through London, from Clapham Junction to Seven Sisters but was mothballed in November 2020 because the government put the squeeze on Transport for London which had to be bailed out because to the pandemic.
Johnson is of course right. We ought to be looking at a constant stream of such projects but apart from HS2 – a big exception admittedly – there is nothing in the pipeline. All the skills that have been built up in constructing Crossrail under London will have been lost. However, it is breathtaking hypocrisy for the Prime Minister to make such a speech at the opening when it is precisely his government that has led to the mothballing of Crossrail 2
Part of the reason is the focus on ‘levelling up’ which again is down to his government. Apparently, nothing can be done in London or the South East but rather everything must be focussed on the Midlands and the North. This is short sighted and economically illiterate. London is at the heart of the UK economy, like it or not, and depriving the capital of investment and resources is counterproductive. Unfortunately, as we have all learnt over the past three years, anything that Johnson says has as much relation to the truth as the promises of snake oil salesmen.
But as I said at the beginning Let’s enjoy this seminal and transformational moment for London and, indeed, Britain as a whole. Go and take a trip on the new line – I guarantee not one of you will be disappointed.
The railway is getting safer but…
The annual report of the Rail Accident Investigation Branch as ever makes for sober reading. I can’t get over the feeling that in many respects the railway has been lucky over the years. While Carmont was a bit of a wake up call in terms of issues caused by climate change and of the checking procedures of work undertaken on behalf of Network Rail, it is the incident near Salisbury that causes the most concern. As Andrew Hall, the Chief Inspector, points out in his introduction, this is the first time since the organisation was created in 2005 that it has had to investigate a collision between two trains ‘moving at a considerable speed’.
That is a pretty amazing testimony to the safety record of the industry. But it can also lead to complacency. According to figures just released by the Office of Road and Road,
Office of Rail and Road ‘Britain ranks first for “whole society” safety risk, which combines the overall average number of fatalities and serious injuries across five risk categories for passenger, employee, level crossing user, trespasser, and other risks’. However, it is notable that for passenger safety risk, the ORR found Britain ranked eighth overall although it performed favourably compared to other European countries with similarly large railway networks. Carmont clearly had an effect on these figures but clearly there remains some cause for concern. I still tremble, seven years later, at the near miss at Wooton Bassett between a steam engine hauled charter which passed a signal at danger just 44 seconds after a 125 travelling at more than 100 mph went through the junction. Had that resulted in a disaster, drastic changes would have been demanded of the railway. Safety is a matter of doing the right things every time, every day, 365 days per year. That should never be forgotten.