From time to time, every Mayor of London has to go cap in hand to national government for money. At no time is this more important than when a newly elected government is preparing its first budget, because that budget normally sets the scene for several years ahead. This is particularly important for capital investment, because capital projects can take several years to complete and the money has to be in place before work can start.
The newly elected Boris Johnson government will be setting its first budget in March. What should Sadiq Khan be asking for? And what approach will he take? Police, housing and transport are City Hall’s big areas of budgetary responsibility. The police don’t require much capital spending and the housing budget is already set for some time ahead. But what of transport? And what, in particular, of the capital’s railways, both Underground and Overground, that fall under Transport for London’s remit? Because they are the big consumers of transport capital spending.
Money, to be well spent, has to buy you something. And in a large, compact city like London, what money well spent on transport is meant to buy is capacity: the ability to take large numbers of people safely and reliably to and fro. That’s what keeps the economy humming. The projects to prioritise are those where each pound spent achieves the highest increase in capacity.
A wise old managing director of London Underground once told me, “The railway will be absolutely fine – as long as you keep spending money on it.” Railways – and London Underground is no exception – need constant maintenance. But they also need periodic upgrades: new rolling-stock is an obvious example of that, but, even more significantly, introducing the latest signalling technology is crucial to getting the best out of the existing infrastructure. And in a growing city, like London, there also need to be new lines and new services to cater for a rising population and to open up opportunities for new housing.
All that is pretty uncontroversial. Ken Livingstone, Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan would all agree with it. Indeed, the argument for capital investment in London’s transport has only very recently been made in a comprehensive and up-to-date report issued by City Hall. But when it comes to talking to hard-nosed government ministers (and their even more sceptical civil servants), what matters is having a prioritised, long term plan that has the credibility to persuade them to unlock a steady stream of capital finance. On that front, London is lagging.
Under Livingstone and Johnson, TfL had a rolling ten-year business plan precisely to show how it intended to prioritise and timetable its investment. (Admittedly the second five-year periods were somewhat vaguer than the first.) Ministers liked that. Under Mayor Khan, the TfL business plan is very much a five-year lookahead – and what we see in the coming five years is a small number of funded projects all started by his predecessor: the re-signalling of the District, Circle, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines; the Northern line extension to Battersea; the improvements to Bank station; the new, developer-funded ticket hall at Elephant & Castle; and the replacement of the rolling-stock on the Piccadilly line. (The re-signalling of the Piccadilly line has been postponed.) And, crucially, Crossrail has to be finished. All this is to be found in the latest Transport for London Business Plan 2020/21 to 2024/25.
There is no pipeline of investments beyond works already in hand. Yet Londoners hear talk about new projects: Crossrail 2 has had new life breathed into it by some approving remarks made by Boris Johnson during his successful bid to be elected leader of the Conservative Party. The extension of the Bakerloo line to Lewisham (but not beyond) has its partisans. But who is to set out what the priority should be amongst these projects? Will the government only agree to contribute to them if the loss of revenue consequent on the current Mayor’s current fares policy is made up? And how will Londoners be consulted on what will be really big decisions for their future and their wallets?
Well, don’t ask me. Ask the Mayor. But, while you’re waiting for an answer, here is my top list of rail projects (in no particular order) that need to be in the mix, so that you can consider for yourself what priority you would give them – and whether you would be willing to put your hand in your pocket to help pay for them through higher fares.
Unaccountably, TfL no longer publishes the number of passengers carried by each Underground line, but when the figures were last issued (in 2011), the Piccadilly was the fourth most-heavily used and it is the busiest line still running on antiquated signalling. (The Central, Northern and Jubilee lines all carry more passengers but they all have automated signalling.) New Piccadilly line trains are promised in the business plan, but without new signalling there will be only a modest improvement in capacity. The associated track and power works make this upgrade a multi-billion pound project, but the increase in capacity could be a whopping 60 per cent.
The Bakerloo line, by contrast, carries about half as many passengers as the Piccadilly line, but it is palpably in need of new trains and signalling. This is the dog to which the proposed Bakerloo line extension to Lewisham is in fact the tail, because it would be absurd (indeed practically impossible) to extend the line with the existing trains and signalling. A new fleet and automated signalling for the whole line would be required, meaning that the “extension”, far from being a discrete little add-on, will in fact involve a major upgrade of the whole existing line as well. This will be another multi-billion pound project. While the number of passengers who would benefit would be smaller than on the Piccadilly, the extended Bakerloo would open up some sites on the way to Lewisham to new housing.
By the time you have done these upgrades, you will probably want to come back to the Central line, the busiest on the network, because, although it has automated signalling, it is a couple of decades old and the trains are also showing their age. Another multi-billion pound upgrade beckons.
Beyond the improvements being carried out at Bank, work is crying out to be done at two other major stations: Camden Town and Holborn. Holborn speaks for itself: its internal layout means that it cannot cope with passenger demand in the peak periods and it is routinely closed to entry at the busiest times. This is embarrassing in a major Central London location, and reconfiguring the station will in any case be crucial if and when the Central line upgrade goes ahead.
But the real near term prize is Camden Town. Plans already exist for a station rebuild that would allow the Northern line to be split into two separate lines north of Euston and King’s Cross (it has already been split into two lines south of Kennington). For complicated reasons this would achieve a major increase in capacity on the line, taking full advantage of the newly automated signalling. These station upgrades should come in at well under a billion each. For the capacity increase it would allow, the Camden Town upgrade would be a snip.
Both the Jubilee line and the Northern line are short of trains. Without them, they cannot take full advantage of the recent, state-of-the art signalling they have had installed. At key stations it is already a struggle in peak periods to get on the first – or even the second – train on the Jubilee line. Normally a Tube train should cost between £10 million and £12 million, but that is for a large production run. Although both Jubilee and Northern lines use essentially the same rolling-stock, the additional sets would still be a “small” order for the manufacturer, so expect to pay a lot more for the 25 or so trains that would make all the difference.
The biggie. Here we are not talking “multi-billion”, but “multi-tens-of billions”, with the price-tag now north of £40 billion, reportedly. But it would be a hugely transformative railway, linking south-west and north London, taking pressure off mainline services at Waterloo and, it is claimed, facilitating the construction of around 200,000 new homes.
The above, of course, is just my list. Others will wish to add to it, particularly those concerned about the continuing patchy state of disabled access to the London Underground network. And there are useful projects to be carried out on the Docklands Light Railway and on London Overground as well. But it doesn’t stop there. The Mayor has more transport issues to care about than the Underground and, while London is making progress with the provision of electric charging infrastructure for cars and vans, many believe that the demand for electric vehicles has now built to a pitch that will make a much wider network of charging-points an urgent necessity. That won’t come cheap either. But of course nothing will happen if the Mayor and TfL don’t make a credible and convincing case to government. And with a mayoral election inconveniently looming, who can be sure that that will happen?
What’s your priority list? It’s your transport.
Daniel Moylan is a former deputy chairman of Transport for London. Copyright © Daniel Moylan 2020.
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