It’s now ten years since the then Mayor Boris Johnson encouraged Crossrail to ignore the usual rule of politics and “get in a hole and keep on digging”.
That’s usually sound advice when constructing a major new underground railway, but there comes a time for every major infrastructure project when its leadership has to step back, take stock and assess whether their timetable really is still deliverable.
That day of reckoning came last Friday for Crossrail, and the news was not good. The announcement that the opening of the central section between Paddington and Abbey Wood will now be delayed from December 2018 to ”autumn” 2019 comes as a bitter tonic for London businesses who were looking forward to higher footfall around shops and stations and better and quicker services for their staff.
As recounted in Crossrail – 40 years in the making, London business was instrumental in securing the go-ahead for Crossrail. With London First at the forefront, business led the campaign for Crossrail, and committed to fund a third of its cost through a new business rate supplement.
So our immediate reaction when receiving the call from Transport for London (TfL) was one of disappointment. But that disappointment was quickly tempered by the recognition that this is a hugely complex project. Having waited decades for Crossrail, we can wait a few months more to have a service ready and able to deliver a reliable service to passengers from day one.
After all, far better to bite the bullet now – however embarrassing – than press ahead with a scheme which simply would not work as intended come opening day. Just look at recent experience on the national rail network. Thameslink should have been an unequivocal good news story for rail passengers in the South East. Instead it has been a fiasco, thanks to a fingers-crossed, hope-for-the best attitude that saw the rail industry press ahead with a timetable change that those involved in it knew could never work. At least in London it’s clear where the buck stops, enabling us to avoid some of the bungling and blame currently prevalent in UK rail.
That said, this delay will have unpleasant consequences for TfL, who were planning to bank £61 million in fares in the coming year from passengers using the new Elizabeth Line. That’s now gone – though will be offset by lower operating costs as services won’t be running. We should also anticipate the overall budget for the project to rise further to cover the additional months of work, though I would still expect the project to come in within the original budget of £15.9 billion as set in the 2010 spending review. Any additional costs will need to be managed by TfL, which means a further squeeze on any spending not yet nailed down for the coming year.
And what does this mean for Crossrail 2? Well, the reputation of Department for Transport, TfL and the wider UK infrastructure sector inevitably takes a hit. It’s vital that all parties involved do their bit to rebuild trust by being transparent about what has gone wrong and what is now being done to ensure mistakes are not repeated in future.
After all, let’s remember that none of the fundamentals have changed. London and the South East will continue to have the most congested rail services in the country, the most crowded stations, and the worst housing under-supply. So let’s not fall into the trap of using a temporary setback to Crossrail as an excuse for permanent delay to Crossrail 2.
Every month and year of delay to these schemes comes at a cost – a cost borne by all of us as passengers, residents and taxpayers. At our annual London Infrastructure Summit on 12 September we’ll be publishing new research putting some hard numbers on these costs to try and ensure we don’t fall prey to the bad old habits of drift and delay.
So while today is hugely disappointing for all of us who were looking forward to riding new Crossrail services in December, let’s not now fall into an infrastructure funk. Let’s not falter in our conviction of the need for continued investment in our infrastructure, and let’s press decisively ahead with the next generation of schemes like Crossrail 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail.
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