One is a bridge which we can’t use. The other is a tunnel which isn’t open. Hammersmith Bridge and Crossrail: easy metaphors for a city in trouble. The capital needs to get its confidence back after Covid. Sorting out these embarrassments would help.
What’s happening? Not enough, if you start in Hammersmith or Barnes. You wouldn’t think it hard to link two pleasant bits of west London over a narrow river with a structure able to carry a bit of traffic and some bikes. But the bridge seems jinxed. The IRA have tried to blow it up three times. Hammersmith and Fulham council, who were lumped with it in the Eighties, probably wish they had finished the job.
After cracks were found in its supports, the council closed it to cars in 2019 and then to everyone last summer. It feared that the weight of a chino-wearing Brompton cyclist pedalling over the Thames in search of a riverside pint would send it crashing on top of the ducks. Even the boat race had to be evacuated to the Fens.
Actually, it is surely riskier to bike around the Hammersmith one-way system than it would be to venture onto the bridge if you could. A report last year from a leading engineering consultancy thought the decision to close it to foot traffic might be “overly cautious”. The council disputes that but have now released findings from its own set of engineers who seem to agree. The feared crack in north-east pier does not seem to be getting worse, and “the ability of the pedestal to resist loading … is effectively maintained”.
So it probably isn’t about to fall down. The council says a decision to reopen it to pedestrians and bikes could come within three months, but there are no promises. Meanwhile there’s a boring political blame game going on about a fix to allow cars and buses across.
The Labour council says the Government won’t let it talk about paying for the work. The Government attacks the council for letting things drift and shutting the bridge when maybe it didn’t have to.
London’s Mayor, up for re-election, blames government cuts, of course — he always does. His hopeless Tory opponent promises magical solutions which won’t happen.
Transport for London, which doesn’t run the bridge but should take over all significant London crossings from the boroughs, is starting a ferry service. Ingenious ideas for temporary structures and tolls come and go. A taskforce chaired by a minister meets and wrings its hands.
Meanwhile the bridge stays shut. Crossrail, by contrast, will open, although humiliatingly late and over-budget. The scandal of what went wrong in 2018 has still not been exposed. The men in charge got away, bonuses intact. Neither the current Mayor nor his predecessor, now Prime Minister, stand to gain from difficult questions about a disaster they didn’t spot. For years anyone asking when what will become the Elizabeth line would open has been reassured that it is on the brink of full testing and that a date will follow. You are still told that. This time it might actually be true. Four trial trains an hour are now running through the palatial new stations in tunnels under central London. That rate needs to go up to eight trains and then 12 and 24.
At least, unlike at Hammersmith, not everyone is hiding from the challenge. Andy Byford, the boss of TfL, has just decided to put aside all his other duties running London’s transport system to drive the pace on Crossrail — as well as focusing on sorting out TfL’s finances which have been wrecked by Covid. He’s checking in daily with the project’s boss, and won’t accept delay for an answer.
That’s either brave or worrying. If Crossrail was really back on track, then he wouldn’t have had to take the dramatic step of putting aside his day job. His reputation as the can-do wonderkid of urban transport is on the line. He’s aiming to hit the triple crown: get the first stage under London open, cap the project’s ballooning costs, and speed up the opening of the rest of it, too, so that trains get to Heathrow and Reading soon.
When will the passengers get to use the line? The official promise remains vague: by the first part of next year. They might just do better — but don’t know yet. If you want to travel on the first train, then keep December 24 free in your diary. The light at the end of the tunnel is coming. London needs it.