The Crossrail fares rip-off

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This afternoon they are announcing on the radio that Ken Livingstone has announced that fares for public transport in London will rise to finance the construction of the Crossrail scheme. Apparently this wasn’t part of the original plan, but has come to be necessary - a week after the government decided to support the scheme - because they hadn’t taken into account the interest which would have to be paid on the loans. This is starting to look familiar with this government - one minute a scheme costs one amount, the next, another and naturally much larger amount (as with the Olympics, or with this hospital in Coventry). The fact is that travel costs have been rising, above inflation, year after year in London for several years. Now, we will all have to pay extra for a scheme which will benefit only those living due east and due west of town!

The scheme, as currently planned, will run from Maidenhead in Berkshire to Shenfield in Essex, with branches to Heathrow airport in the west and Abbey Wood in the south-east. In other words, it’s a link between the suburban railways of east and west London. Another scheme, whose supporters call it Superlink, involves extending Crossrail to Reading in the west and Stansted and Ipswich in the east - in other words, turning it into a regional railway scheme rather than just an outer-suburban one (you can read an article from the Guardian’s website by the director of Superlink here). You might look at his website and wonder if you can take seriously a scheme coming from men of this pedigree when they cannot be bothered to get a decent website designed, but I find his arguments against Crossrail as presently envisaged convincing:

Crossrail will only attract about a 3% increase in rail passengers, so the money will have to come from higher fares to existing users across the network, most of whom will see no benefit at all from it. The incremental subsidy required will be almost as much as the total current subsidy for the rest of the underground, including the modernisation programmes. Will domestic rates be increased, or will something else be cut to fund Ken’s new railway? Probably both. As for practicality, the route map (pdf) may be impressive but the proposed train timetable is not. Only half the trains will run to Canary Wharf, and only one in six to Heathrow. No Crossrail trains will run through to the new terminal five - passengers will need to change again to get to Heathrow’s largest terminal. Many passengers who travel on the existing routes into Paddington and Liverpool Street will see their services get slower and less frequent. Crossrail has yet to reach agreement about sharing the railway with existing freight trains. Do we really want to spend £15bn to force thousands more trucks on to the roads?

I first heard of Crossrail not long after the Thameslink scheme was opened, allowing trains to run from north to south across London. However, Thameslink’s construction needs were a fraction of Crossrail’s; it required the repair and re-tracking of one tunnel between Holborn Viaduct and Farringdon, and the construction of a fleet of trains (the class 319) capable of using both overhead AC and on-track DC current. Crossrail requires a tunnel to be built across the whole length of central (and even inner) London, which spreads east to west much more than it spreads north to south, and to be linked in with existing stations, such as the busy Tottenham Court Road Underground station. Given that “Thameslink 2000” (linking the old Great Northern lines with Thameslink at King’s Cross) has proven a bit of a wash-out despite also requiring much less money than Crossrail, it’s no wonder Crossrail has taken this long to even reach approval stage. At the moment, anyone going east to west has a choice of the Central Line or the Circle or Hammersmith and City line.

As I recall, there was not that long ago another east-to-west railway scheme in London, which involved running trains from east Anglia to Hampshire along the North London line. I’m not sure what led to that scheme being dropped in the end, but since they chose to run it to Basingstoke rather than Reading, we don’t know how successful it would have been had they done this (and they could have run it through Reading to Basingstoke, of course). The North London line, while it doesn’t go right through the centre of town, does go through Camden Town which is a short bus ride from Tottenham Court Road, and does pass over or link into every north-to-south commuter line. Any east-to-west link should involve better use, or widening, of that line - something which could have been considered when the Channel Tunnel rail link was being proposed.

What Crossrail is supposed to solve is, of course, an age-old problem which affects the western and eastern regions much worse than it affects south, or even north, London. Lines from south of London typically had two terminals, one in the City (like London Bridge, Cannon Street and Blackfriars) and one in the West End (like Victoria and Charing Cross). In the north, there was the City branch to the now closed Broad Street Station from Watford, but King’s Cross was linked by relatively short Underground journeys to the West End anyway (even shorter when the Victoria Line opened). However, Paddington, which serves the western region, was built way out to the west and so it takes a long Underground journey to reach the City. However, I don’t think that boring a £16m tunnel from east to west is the only way of solving this problem. A link from the west to the City, for example, could be achieved by running trains from the west along the existing Olympia-Clapham line to Blackfriars or to Moorgate via the Acton-Cricklewood freight line and then down the existing Thameslink route. Costs would not be that great as the trains used on the Great Western main line are diesel, except for the Heathrow Express. As for the link from the east, the journey to Liverpool Street is nothing like as long as from Paddington to the City; it’s only five stops, for example, from there to Tottenham Court Road; Stratford also has the North London line and the Jubilee line. As this article in the Telegraph says, it “has long reached saturation point for rail travel”.

To me, though, whether Crossrail solves these problems for commuters from west or east London is less important than the impact it will have on fares, as someone (from south London) who regularly goes up to town. I fail to see why I should pay more for a journey from New Malden to London, let alone from New Malden to Croydon, to cut a few minutes off the journey from Brentwood to the West End, or from Canary Wharf to Heathrow (and no - it won’t be ready for the Olympics). Crossrail is a pointless, wasteful scheme and it ought to be an issue in next year’s mayoral election. After all, one of the big selling points of the congestion charge was its use to fund public transport, and if we are to pay more for it to fund a grandiose scheme whose finances will get out of control, what was the point of it? I will vote for any credible candidate who promises to dump this scheme, if it is possible by then.

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