A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to get a sneak preview of Crossrail, travelling from Paddington to Liverpool Street through the new tunnel. What I saw left me in no doubt Londoners will be blown away. The project is an engineering marvel. Burrowing two huge tunnels from east to west through the centre of a crowded city like London, avoiding other Tube lines, utilities, basements, Roman remains and plague pits along the way is a hell of an achievement.
Cathedral-like stations and cavernous platforms — twice as long as a normal Tube station — reveal the scale of the project. There will be no stooping on the trains for tall people like me at 6ft — carriages are the size of normal trains, air conditioned and kitted out with unique moquette-patterned seats.
It will relieve overcrowding on the hot and sweaty Central and Jubilee lines, knocking time and effort off journeys from east to west. The West End, Canary Wharf and beyond will have direct connections to Heathrow, cutting up to 25 minutes off journeys. Areas out east, including the vast developments taking place at the Royal Docks, will now be a matter of minutes from Tottenham Court Road, transforming our mental geography of the city.
The project has been under construction since 2008 and there will continue to be recriminations over why it went over budget and was three-and-a-half years late. It’s critical we learn from what worked and what didn’t, but we shouldn’t allow these problems to be used as an excuse to avoid building big transport projects in the future. Some also question whether the post-Covid world means the Elizabeth line is redundant, due to increased home working reducing the numbers of commuters. To that, I say it is too early to tell what the long-term trends will be, but making it easier to get into central London is only likely to persuade more people to return to the office or visit the shops, theatres and bright lights of the West End.
I wasn’t even born in 1974 when the first concrete plans for Crossrail emerged. They didn’t go anywhere, nor did a revived scheme in 1989. Only in 2008 did it get off the ground, and it is testimony to mayors and Cabinet ministers, both Labour and Conservative, that it survived changes in the party running both London and the country to reach where we are today.
With 70 per cent of the cost funded by the city’s residents and businesses, it also shows what devolution can achieve. And with two million more people in London than there were 20 years ago, capacity improvements like the Elizabeth line are crucial. But, in the near 50 years it has taken to build the line, Paris has managed six equivalents. And this teaches us that we can’t afford to stand still — further investment in London’s network is crucial. The original plan was that the expertise gained from building the Elizabeth line would seamlessly move on to Crossrail 2, the grand project for a south-west to north-east tunnel serving Victoria, Tottenham Court Road and King’s Cross.
In fact, a tunnelling and underground construction academy was set up in Ilford to support the development of these crucial skills. But, instead, we’re left with no certainty if Crossrail 2 will ever happen, risking all that has been learnt melting away. Avoiding repeating the mistakes made with the Elizabeth line on the next big transport scheme in London becomes all the harder the longer the gap between projects.
This adds impetus to the need to turbocharge the plans for the Bakerloo line and Dockland Light Railway extensions, as well as resurrecting the shelved Crossrail 2 plans. Given the 14 years taken to get Crossrail 1 from inception to completion, we need to do the hard work getting Crossrail 2 off the drawing board right now.
Starving the capital of investment is self-defeating as a stuttering London economy isn’t just bad for the city, but for the whole country.
If the Government is unwilling to invest in these schemes, it must devolve serious extra powers to the capital to allow it to raise the funds itself, so that London’s political leaders can do what is necessary to sustain our competitiveness as a global city.
Nick Bowes is chief executive of the Centre for London