July 15, 2003

"In principle"

Brian Micklethwait | Crossrail | New Trains

I know I'm not supposed to, but I love new railway lines, no matter how much money is wasted on them. Ain't nothing like a train.

So my inner five-year-old is all excited about this new train set they're going to buy us:

After years of delay and dithering, the Government came off the fence yesterday and gave its backing to Crossrail, the ambitious £10bn plan to create an east-west rail link through London.

Although the long-awaited announcement by Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, was welcomed by Crossrail itself, by rail users' groups, MPs and the London Assembly, it was hinged with caveats. Some critical issues have been left unresolved, including the level of public-private finance.

There was also widespread disappointment that the scheme was, according to the Department of Transport, "very, very unlikely" to be completed by the 2012 Olympic Games, for which London is bidding, despite a report commissioned by the Treasury that said it was essential for public transport for the Olympics.

The backing relates to what Crossrail refer to as its "benchmark" scheme – essentially the core of the project – which envisages a direct rail link between Richmond and Heathrow in the west and Ebbsfleet in Kent and Shenfield in Essex in the east. The section between Paddington and Whitechapel would be in a new tunnel under central London.

Announcing that the Government would support the Crossrail plan "in principle", Mr Darling said: "The Government continues to support the principle of building a new east-west Crossrail link. We see merit in the arguments for such an increase in capacity to support London's continued growth and success."

A stumbling block remains the precise extent of Treasury support, and Mr Darling made clear that the private sector would have to contribute "very substantially" if the scheme was to go ahead.

"Widespread disappointment"? "Benchmark scheme"? And worst of all "in principle"? My inner five-year-old's lower lip is now wobbling seriously. This damn thing isn't going to happen, ever. It's a New Labour con. They announce some damn great public spending scheme, get all the credit for being so generous with our money, but don't actually do it and therefore don't actually have to find the money. I hate them. I hate them.

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I posted this in ignorance of the links below. I should have put "as Patrick has already reported", or something similar.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on July 15, 2003

Actually, I find something rather dispiriting about new trains and new lines.

You see, I'm a believer in system - and the system can work or be made to work almost regardless of whatever technology is available.

The problem is that in the UK at the moment the system doesn't work. We don't know (or at least don't seem to know) how to make trains run on time, to manage demand, to keep the trains clean and free of graffiti. Those things don't require money (or at least not great gobs of it). They require management, discipline, structure and culture. Things that take time.

I hate this idea that technology will leap frog us past our manifold management failings and into transport nirvana.

This, by the way, is a belief that applies to all sorts of other areas too.

Fundamentally, you need that underlying culture to be right. If it isn't right all that will happen is that the new fix will become victim to all the old failings. Sure, Crossrail will look lovely straight out of the box - just as the Jubilee Line Extension does now - but slowly but surely will come the delays, the overcrowding and the filth and graffiti.

The tragedy is that we managed to destroy the culture of the old private railways. In their deeply unfashionable way they got things done, small improvement by small improvement, a million tiny little decisions combining to make an earth-shattering whole.

What might they have done with our technology? It would have been marvellous.

Posted by Patrick Crozier on July 16, 2003

I have a long post about how train lines should be built and financed (a response to Brian's post) coming Real Soon Now, but I have mixed feelings about what Patrick is saying here. It is certainly true that the systems have declined dramatically in this country and things would be a lot better if they had not, but it is also true that the technology of the London Underground is antiquated. I generally avoid using the Underground if at all possible, because the trains are extremely hot (particularly in the present weather) and people are crowded into a tiny space. As I am a little claustrophobic, I find this quite unpleasant. I do not react this way to mainline trains, because the spaces inside them are bigger and they are much cooler. However well the underground is run, none of these problems are going to be fixed, and quite honestly I cannot see any way to turn the present underground lines into a transport system I would actually want to ride on.

What London needs is an alternative underground system built to mainline dimensions, like the RER in Paris. These will not inherently have the problems listed above. If Crossrail, Thameslink 2000, the East London Line extension, and Chelsea Hackney (aka Crossrail 2) were all built, then we would have all this. The trouble is that the way that government works in this country, this will take until 2050, by which time we may be commuting by personal air conditioned rocket helicopters for all I know. Therefore, the entire way in which railways are financed in this country needs to be changed - yes Patrick, property developers and real estate speculators have to do it. (If they could then run the railways after they have built them, even better). If the right regulatory regime was in place to allow this, I don't think getting the lines built would even be particularly hard. However, we are so far from that regime at the moment that one can only be extremely pessimistic.

Posted by Michael Jennings on July 16, 2003

I remember the last time the "go-ahead" for CrossRail was announced, back in the early 90s. That followed Cecil Parkinson's go-ahead a few years earlier. Nothing cam of either of them -- for exactly the problems suggested here. It's too damn expensive for HMG to build (even without the inevitable cost overruns) and too damn risky for anyone else to invest in.

I think it's a great scheme with a heck of a lot of benefit, even if I did have a hand in killing it off in '94. Until they work out some efficient way of paying for it it is destined to remain a fanciful line on a map.

Posted by Iain Murray on July 17, 2003

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November 23, 2004

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November 21, 2004

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November 20, 2004

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November 17, 2004

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November 15, 2004

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November 11, 2004

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November 08, 2004

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November 06, 2004

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November 04, 2004

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October 30, 2004

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October 26, 2004

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October 24, 2004

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October 20, 2004

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October 19, 2004

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October 14, 2004

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October 13, 2004

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October 11, 2004

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October 05, 2004

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October 04, 2004

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October 03, 2004

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October 02, 2004

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October 01, 2004

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September 30, 2004

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September 29, 2004

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September 27, 2004

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September 26, 2004

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September 25, 2004

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September 22, 2004

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September 21, 2004

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September 18, 2004

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September 16, 2004

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September 14, 2004

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September 08, 2004

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September 07, 2004

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September 06, 2004

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September 03, 2004

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August 31, 2004

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August 30, 2004

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August 24, 2004

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August 22, 2004

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August 20, 2004

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August 19, 2004

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August 15, 2004

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August 14, 2004

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