Friday, October 05, 2007


As if the Olympics weren't enough to drive Londoners to an early grave (I quote Freedman's grandpa, who exclaimed on hearing that London won the bid - "thank goodness I'll be dead by then!" - though we note that at the current rate of progress, he may be around to eat his words)...

Crossrail today got the green light from El Gordo, so we can look forward to a mere 10 more years of transport misery at a cost of £16 billion (supposing it opens on time and on budget). Okay, let's apply standard British grands projets mathematics and add broadly 25% overruns on both counts, so that brings us to £20bn and an opening in 2020. Even I think Grandpa might not last that long - he'd be 104!

Of course, the whole scheme is a total waste of time and money, compared to the alternatives. Even George Galloway is not entirely in favour of it (perhaps I should therefore support it on principle?!). Let's review some of the reasons being bandied around for building it:

1. Existing lines and stations are really overcrowded. 2. Journey times can be reduced dramatically. 3. This will regenerate big chunks of London. 4. We can spread the range from which commuters get to London much wider and relieve pressure on London house prices. 5. Connection times from Heathrow to the City and Canary Wharf will be massively improved. 6. This will create jobs and attract investment, by making London and the south-east more competitive.

Let's break it down...

1. Existing lines and stations are really overcrowded.

This is true but what has been proven on the roads - and quoted at length by the same tree-huggers who seem to love this project, is that "if you build it, they will come". Add more trains, throw a shedload of subsidy at it, create a captive audience, ramp up prices, and the trains stay full. Not only that, but look at the route - see any new stations along it?

The underlying problem is that people don't live near where they work, and have to commute every day at the same time. Shorter journeys, taken less frequently and/or at more varied times, would provide the best remedy. This could be achieved in part by a pricing system that has more subtlety to it than "loadsamoney before 9.30am". The Oyster system is pretty clever - why not start rush hour prices at 7.30am, and encourage early risers? And the evenings are just as bad - why is there no premium for travel originating in Zone 1 between say 4.30pm and 6.30pm?

Companies would have to be part of the solution. At the moment, the vast majority of commuters pay for their own tickets of course, and may have little say over when they come in to work. Perhaps by adding the employer and place of work to the registration details of Oyster cards, TfL could develop a system of incentives (perhaps in the form of public transport travel credits!) for companies that push a certain percentage of staff away from peak travel. This has to be good for TfL, as the reduction in capital cost by simply using existing capacity better, rather than building more, surely far outweighs any cost of running such a scheme.

2. Journey times can be reduced dramatically.

Actually, this is a bit of a fallacy. The real time-consuming issue on most of the "comparable" journey times quoted by Crossrail fans is the slow crawl of suburban trains across congested tracks into mainline stations, the funnelling through the terminus down to the Tube, and then the brawl to get onto a train and another on arrival.

The wiser transport consultant will tell you that removing these bottlenecks would allow more longer distance trains to be run faster and more punctually, and speed up journeys without actually making the trains go any quicker. In other words, more direct routes need to be opened up that avoid the clogging up of termini and disgorging of crowds from overground services onto already packed underground ones.

If one could amalgamate every suburban service (say the ones that terminate inside the M25) into the Tube network, journey times would reduce on average by 10 minutes for users of those services. This may not be the 20-odd minutes offered by Crossrail, but it can come at a fraction of the time and cost, and brings the same level of comfort. In fact, as you will see below, it applies to a much wider swathe of London than Crossrail's route, so the benefits are shared among more people.

A prime example - to get from Shepperton in deepest south-west London to the City typically takes nearly an hour and a half in rush hour. Of this, 10 minutes is the walk from the terminus platform to the Waterloo & City (Drain) Line, and 10 minutes is the timetabled extra time the identical journey takes in the very heart of the peak period, because it spends longer loading up at stations and then has to crawl pretty much from before Clapham Junction all the way to town.

At the same time, a journey from Alexandra Palace in the leafy northern suburbs all the way through to Blackfriars involves a schlepp down the hill to the WAGN line station, then either a dogleg on the tube to meet the already heaving Thameslink (with a long walk at King's Cross), and a journey time of maybe 75 minutes if all goes well.

Let's go one step further - if they wanted to go and visit each other, it would take maybe 2 1/2 hours...

But what if I told you there was a very big hole just outside Waterloo station, which is used as the service entrance to the Drain, and could be opened into a fully-fledged exit ramp up to the mainline tracks? And what if the Drain ran directly underneath Blackfriars station? And at the other end, the trackbed exists for a line that was pulled up, that ran from Finsbury Park (where our Ali Pali resident will have made his first change of trains) through Highgate and right up the hill to where the palace sits? And what if, at the other end, it turned out that a proposal to extend the original Great Northern Electrics tunnels from Moorgate station to Bank to join the Waterloo & City Line have existed for 100 years? That's a distance of about 1/4 mile.

In other words, for some fairly minimal tinkering, and putting into place a short stretch of tunnel that has long been considered by operators and engineers, these journeys can all be made vastly simpler. This same process can be recreated all over London, as well as some neat alternative uses of peripheral routes so that people can avoid having to go through the centre of town when travelling between suburbs.

3. This will regenerate big chunks of London.

Not really. The route is now largely along existing lines, and the whole point is to make it a non-stop service, so other than disrupting poor people by digging under their houses, it's hard to see this affecting them. Besides, this will come too late for the other great regeneration project of our time (/sarc), the Olympics, and avoids stopping too close to the glorious solution to our housing problem known as the Thames Gateway (aka Thames flood plains).

4. We can spread the range from which commuters get to London much wider and relieve pressure on London house prices.

Again, not an overly compelling argument, as the satellite towns it is going to are already suffering house price inflation. If this is really going to happen, the line needs to stretch out and encompass half the mainline services into Paddington and Liverpool Street, so that towns like Ipswich and Swindon can become realistic commuter territory. But it isn't going to.

5. Connection times from Heathrow to the City and Canary Wharf will be massively improved.

Firstly, the serious businessman from Europe flies into London City Airport, which is tripling its capacity over the next few years, and is actually walkable to Canary Wharf if you have a light briefcase.

Secondly, Stansted is becoming the airport of choice for transatlantic business-only routes, and respectable mainstreamers like American Airlines are now opening up routes there. It has a 40 minute transfer time to Liverpool Street, and the rail line already exists (although there's no service yet - there's a business idea!) to allow the same to Stratford, from which Canary Wharf is 5 minutes away.

In other words, the general geography of Heathrow is more of a problem than the links to it can mitigate against - never mind the well-reported misery of flying through there.

Besides, what if (here we go again) I told you there was a small railway line that ran from Paddington, where the Heathrow Express terminates, through the City and as far as Whitechapel? It also branches out to Euston, runs under Oxford Street, and has a series of its own stations. It's called MailRail, and it was mothballed by the Post Office a few years ago.

Whilst it's too small to run Tube trains through - the two-way tunnel is still only about 9 feet wide - it could be adapted (by adding a second layer to the tunnel a la NY Subway) to run Docklands Light Railway type trains, which could whizz out to Heathrow or at least provide a direct link from one side of town to the other, relieving congestion on the other lines.

6. This will create jobs and attract investment, by making London and the south-east more competitive.

I think most economists will concur that London has achieved a certain critical mass. Unless we simply stagnate, investment and jobs will always be drawn to London, at least relative to other parts of the UK and Europe. Building white elephants creates a certain number of temporary jobs, but also deters investment, especially when you start slapping compulsory tax hikes on companies who happen to be along the route.

So where is this all going? It is time to unveil the Freedmanslife vision of London's Underground!

I think this can be created for roughly the same price as that single Crossrail line, and in the same timeframe. The methodology has been alluded to above - get rid of bottlenecks at termini, use lighter modes of transport that are more physically flexible (they turn tighter corners, climb steeper gradients, can be fully automatic, can run as trams for part of the way like the Metro in Manchester) and make better use of line capacity, revisit old abandoned stations, lines and projects, and take a much more wholesale approach.

It's several hundred miles longer than Crossrail, and despite the fact that I have yet to have the energy to mark in all the stations, you will quickly be able to work out how many more journeys you could hop on a light train for instead of taking the car. Hopefully if you click on it, you should get an expandable version that is legible. Otherwise try clicking here.

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