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Will Crossrail make the end of the line?
Planning – 25 July 2003

The long-delayed Crossrail project may have been given the green light, but many issues still need to be clarified and it does not mean it will be built, writes Mark Smulian

Crossrail is the transport project that has seemed to be delayed almost as long as the second coming. Transport secretary Alistair Darling's green light for its trains last week does not even mean that it will definitely be built. But the level of government support that he indicated is the furthest forward that this troubled project has ever travelled.

First proposed in 1989, Crossrail has drifted onto the political agenda as a result of campaigns by business and transport groups, only to drift off again when successive transport secretaries were daunted by its cost and complexity.

The project is now being promoted by Cross London Rail Links (CLRL), a joint venture between the Strategic Rail Authority and Transport for London. The idea of the line is to give London an equivalent of the RER system in Paris, with heavy rail services running right under the centre of the capital. With the exception of the suburban Thameslink service, this is not possible at present.

In its latest guise, Crossrail would be a twin-bore deep tunnel under central London, running from Paddington in the west via Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Farringdon and Liverpool Street to Whitechapel in the east.

At its western end services would continue to either Kingston or Heathrow Airport, with a variety of possible extensions over existing lines to Reading, Aylesbury and Watford.

To the east, the line would split, one branch following the surface line to Shenfield, Essex and the other running via Docklands and Woolwich to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link station at Ebbsfleet, Kent. In its first incarnation, Crossrail was promoted as "linking Reading to Shenfield" – a journey taken by almost nobody. This time round it is being pushed more plausibly as linking major growth areas, suburban commuting centres and Heathrow with central London.

Crossrail would transform the capital's transport system, carrying some 200,000 passengers at peak times. The line's supporters include London's business community, its local authorities, transport campaigners and mayor Ken Livingstone. Supporters' arguments are two-fold: Crossrail would take enormous numbers of commuters, thereby relieving the underground system, and it would help the regeneration of the Thames Gateway. It would have to do both in some style to justify the 10 billion price tag, and it was obvious that this still worried Darling when he gave his support to it.

Darling said that CLRL's analysis indicates that the project should produce benefits significantly greater than 10 billion, taking account of the anticipated growth in employment and population in London. "CLRL's transport and economic case for the project rests on this positive assessment of likely benefits over costs. There are also potentially significant regeneration benefits, particularly to the east of London, and to the longer-term development of the Thames Gateway."

If CLRL has yet tried to quantify these benefits, it isn't telling anyone in detail, although the Department for Transport (DfT) said that the business case showed a benefit-to-cost ration of 1.99:1 "for those impacts that can be expressed in monetary terms".

Darling said he will appoint an expert group to pore over the business case to ensure that it stacks up. But with even CLRL itself saying that it is unlikely that public funds could be found to build the line, Darling will try to raise a large slice of the money from business.

He insisted that if Crossrail proceeds "there would need to be a substantial contribution to its costs from London's business community". At the time of his announcement, it was widely reported that businesses had already agreed to chip in 2 billion. But the business organisation London First denies that it has anything as specific as this in mind in the way of "business support".

"There's no blank cheque, we are going to talk to the government about it," a spokeswoman said.

Ministers will also be looking for contributions from developers that benefit directly from the line, in particular where commercial complexes are built near its stations. The question of fares has been left open as needing to be at an "appropriate level given the benefits that will accrue not only to users of Crossrail, but also from the reduced congestion elsewhere on London's transport networks". Assuming the expert group is satisfied, Darling has offered government support for a hybrid parliamentary bill to promote the project.

Money from business will be crucial, but how could it be raised? Tony Travers of the London School of Economics' Greater London Group says: "The government is talking about it vaguely and it appeared to point to securing finance from the private sector. It would not be a matter of rattling the charity box but of a consistent tax."

This could be a levy on business rates in London or a tax on the increase in rateable values of land when Crossrail is built. The latter would probably require a boundary to be drawn with banding on either side to encompass different degrees of benefit depending on proximity to the line.

This approach would not necessarily raise money from businesses that benefit because their staff have their commuting journeys cut. Unlike the Jubilee Line extension to Canary Wharf, where the owner of Canary Wharf was almost the sole beneficiary and so had to contribute, the task of raising money from selected businesses for Crossrail would be fearsomely complex. This perhaps points to a general business rate rise. "It is unclear how the government imagines it will be done," says Travers.

A DfT spokesman says: "There are lots of figures flying around about how much business will contribute but they are not coming from us. It can be financed from fares, business contributions, and from taxpayers, with a small amount coming from developments over stations. The options are there but we must talk to the Treasury first."

It is rare for the involvement of the Treasury to make any project go quicker. Travers points out that Crossrail has to get its funding, planning permission and governance in place simultaneously and that difficulties generated by this have bedevilled the line for the past 15 years.

One of the key arguments in Crossrail's favour is that it will assist the regeneration of the Thames Gateway. However, it is only planned to run along its south bank to Ebbsfleet. The Shenfield branch runs too far north to have much impact on the developments planned in Barking, Havering and Thurrock.

This alignment reflects the fact that the line to Shenfield was planned in 1989, when the Thames Gateway had scarcely been thought of. The northern bank of the Thames has only the congested suburban rail line to Southend and Tilbury – a self-contained system with few connections to the national network.

The CLRL spokesman said: "The reason for going to Shenfield and not the north bank of the Thames is that the project is not just about regeneration, it is also about getting commuters into central London and reducing congestion.

There are developments planned at Ilford and Romford and the area around Brentwood is growing. It's where the greatest benefits are – we can't go everywhere."

This argument fails to convince Tony Sheach, a director of consultants Peter Brett Associates. "Crossrail has a 'Y' shape in the east that misses out the Thames Gateway corridor on the north of the river," he says. "More than 10,000 homes and jobs will be missed out north of the Thames. There is no spare capacity on the lines there and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link does not stop in enough places."

Sheach thinks this may mean that investment will not go to the north bank of the Thames unless the London Development Agency, which has extensive land holdings north of the river, invests significantly to get regeneration started. "The private sector will not wait around for this to happen. The investment will go to places like Ebbsfleet, the Eastern Quarry near Dartford or even northern France," he warns. "The public bodies have enough land to be influential and make the leap of faith by getting infrastructure in first."

Sheach sees east London as the motor of the capital's growth over the next 25 years, just as west London was for the past 25 years. "There seems to be no realisation about how difficult it is to deliver these projects and no commitment as to where the funding will come from or the timetable.

Prevarication on Crossrail is fettering London's ability to grow," he says.

The planning process for Crossrail will be complex. The last time any serious attempt was made to promote it by private bill was in the mid 1990s, before it was halted on cost grounds by the then transport secretary Sir George Young.

At that time the objectors ranged from the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, which disliked the idea of disruptive railway construction and increased train noise from a service that would not even stop in the borough, through to the US embassy, which had sensitivities about tunnelling beneath its building.

This time, Tower Hamlets might be mollified by the two proposed stations on its patch. But other objectors are bound to ensure a protracted legislative period, extending the uncertainty that may be deterring investment.

Darling has invited CLRL to advise him on updating the safeguarding for the route, to carry out a public consultation in the autumn to explain in more detail its proposed scheme, and to canvass views on its route proposals.

With the Shenfield branch also serving Stratford, Crossrail could provide a vital link to the proposed Olympic Games site just north of the station.

Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely to be complete by then. When the Olympic bid was announced culture secretary Tessa Jowell warned that it was improbable that Crossrail could serve the site by 2012 even if work begins this year. No-one is factoring the games into their calculations.

There is an alterative to CLRL's plan on the table. A private sector consortium called London Regional Metro (LRM) is offering to build the tunnel section of Crossrail under central London without public funds and to then charge train operators to use, it rather in the manner that Eurotunnel charges operators using the Channel Tunnel.

This consortium includes consulting engineer Arup. Director Mark Bostock says: "We proposed it in 2001 and what we have is a progression from that.

Our plan is to build the central core tunnel. We have no intention of running trains, and it is for the railway operators to decide how they want to use it."

LRM's plan would build the tunnel to continental loading gauge, allowing in principle for double-decker trains. The land values created would also help to pay for the project, as in CLRL's plan. "Our basic premise is that no public money is involved. Once the capacity is created we would charge a fee to the SRA for trains running through it," says Bostock.

He says he is "a bit bemused" at the cool reception afforded LRM by the government. However, one reason may be that while the central tunnel plan is similar, it does not include the new line in CLRL's proposals to link in the south-east London and north Kent services.

Darling said: "I have also been considering proposals for an alternative scheme for Crossrail put to me by the London Regional Metro consortium.

"While their proposals have some attractions, it would not be appropriate to proceed with LRM without an open competition. We will seek to ensure that if Crossrail proceeds, the terms of any competition for its development would allow scope for LRM and other interested parties to bring forward their ideas."

If Crossrail does overcome the many planning, technical and financial hurdles and eventually get built, another proposal is waiting in the wings.

CLRL's Crossrail Line 2, once known as the Hackney-Chelsea Underground line, is a proposal that has been around since the mid 1960s. It would provide a north-south heavy rail link through central London but looks like a project for the remote future.

Seventy years ago, London Underground used public money to extend the Piccadilly line through open country on the leap of faith that suburban development would follow it. Things are not done like that anymore.

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