Back to the drawing board: The MPs who nixed Crossrail have been pilloried but they were right

Dennis Tunnicliffe, the forthright managing director of London Underground, has a dream. He wants Crossrail, the east-west rail link under London running from Liverpool Street to Paddington, built in the early years of the next decade to show that London is a world-class city with a railway to match.

His dream suffered a possibly mortal blow on Tuesday night when the committee of four MPs who had been considering the private Crossrail Bill promoted by London Transport and British Rail voted by three to one to throw it out. The fact that the committee was chaired by the loudmouth maverick right-wing Tory MP for Northampton North, Tony Marlow, has led many commentators to suggest that it was an unthought decision reached for dubious political reaons.

It wasn't. On the contrary, observers who sat through its 32 days of hearing evidence of experts and politicians say that the MPs carried out a thorough, wide-ranging examination of the Bill which went deeply into the implications for London of the line being built. One said: 'This was Parliament at its best. They looked at everything from finance, to the London job market, the effect on existing train services and the environmental benefits.'

The committee refused to give its reasons for the decision but Ken Purchase, Labour MP for Wolverhampton North East, said afterwards: 'One point about which we were all concerned was the lack of a connection with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.' The lack of such a connection removed much of the fundamental rationale for the pounds 3bn Crossrail scheme. Crossrail would run from Shenfield to Reading, enabling commuter lines out from Liverpool Street and Paddington to be connected.

But hardly anyone actually wants to go from deepest Berkshire to central Essex. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which could be completed by the year 2002, will take thousands of domestic commuters from Kent into the line's terminus at St Pancras, whereas they will nearly all want to be in the City or the West End. The link between the two lines reinforced the economic case for both.

There were two other points at the centre of the discussions in the committee - financing and demand. Crossrail was originally conceived as a public sector project but the Government obsession with the private sector means that it now wants to transfer some of the risk to the private sector. This same obduracy has already caused 18 months' delay to the Jubilee Line extension, all to gain pounds 160 million of private sector investment, less than the rise in costs while negotiations went on. The problem is that involving the private sector will mean the taxpayer getting a worse deal than if the project were entirely publicly funded.

At best, the private sector would contribute a third of the cost, but the returns would have to be very high. Big infrastructure schemes are risky and always cost more than expected. Just ask Eurotunnel. Therefore, the private sector will have to be rewarded for its daring with a healthy income stream from the line, much higher than the return expected by the Treasury. Furthermore, as 75 per cent of users will be existing travellers, pounds 100 million annually will be lost from the revenue of BR or its successors. If Crossrail is to be privately run, that will be money lost to public coffers and therefore increases the cost of involving the private sector.

Most fundamentally, the promoters were unable to convince that there is a real demand for the line. It was first conceived in its present form in 1988, at the height of 'boom boom Britain euphoria. Yet, usage is now 20 per cent down on the peak and for rapid employment growth in London, the economy would need to grow at much faster than the target of 2.4 per cent, which has not been reached in the past decade anyway. Jim Steer, a transport consultant with Steer Davies and Gleave, says: 'Crossrail would have had most effect relieving congestion on the Central Line. But the promoters accepted that, due to rising unemployment in the City, upgrading of the line and construction of the Jubilee Line extension, even without Crossrail, it will not reach its 1988 levels of congestion until 2011.

As recognition of the blight caused by increased car use becomes more widespread, there is a temptation to give unqualified support to any rail project. This is especially the case given the Government's parsimonious attitude towards public transport and, in particular, to the type of mega-infrastructure projects which have become emblematic in France.

Enthusiastic rail lobbyists whisper privately to journalists things like 'we know this is not the ideal project, but we've got to support it as it is good for the railways and it will help keep cars off the road'.

Not so. It was precisely this type of flimsy argument which the committee exposed. Jim Steer said: 'Above all, the committee's decision showed that the lack of a strategic transport plan for London means that hardly any scheme makes sense on its own. For example, as a way of getting people out of their cars and onto the railway, Crossrail is very expensive and pretty ineffective. There are much cheaper ways of doing that.'

He argues that far from being a 'wasted opportunity for London' as business leaders proclaimed it on Tuesday night, the Crossrail decision is 'a huge opportunity to sit back and draw up a plan for what transport infrastructure London needs. And it goes beyond that. The committee considered all kinds of issues such as the regeneration of the East Thames corridor, air pollution, employment in London and so on. The issues are bigger than transport and have to be looked at properly, despite this Government's hatred of planning.'

Mr Tunicliffe has another dream, for a 'decently modern Metro', which needs investment of pounds 900 million per year for a decade, almost double the amount currently being invested. While new railway lines are wonderful, Mr Tunicliffe should perhaps concentrate on this more prosaic dream while, hopefully, the Government goes back to the drawing board to sort out a strategy for transport in London which may or may not include spending pounds 2 billion of taxpayers' money on Crossrail.

(Graphics omitted)

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