Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Grim news on transport in London

A couple of months ago I attempted to draw up a quick balance sheet of Boris Johnson's record on transport issues over his first few months in office.

At the time there was (a bit of) good news and (rather a lot of) bad news.

Since then, all the news out of City Hall has been dismal in the extreme:

(1) The Cross-River Tram scheme has been scrapped. This is a serious blow to hopes that Britain could resume its earlier progress towards catching up with our continental neighbours in the matter of sensible use of light rail in cities. The undoubted success of the tram schemes in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and Croydon has made it clear that there is nothing peculiar about the UK and that here, just as in France, Germany, Holland, Spain and elsewhere, trams are easily the best transport solution for high-density routes in cities.

In addition, the only opposition to the Cross-River scheme was coming from one or two loony maverick petrolhead Tories. Everybody actually involved, in particular all the boroughs along the route of all political hues, was very much in favour of it. All sorts of consultations had already been held by TfL, even down to the precise line of route (I declare an interest: I live near the route and took part in that consultation). There was none of the groundswell of local feeling against it that characterised the West London tram that Ken Livingstone wanted to introduce along the Uxbridge Road and which was scrapped earlier.

Boris Johnson says he is not against Cross-River in principle, and that the plan might come back on to the agenda if funding can be secured. But that is no good. Even if the go-ahead had been given now, it was going to take ten years to build it, which I find incomprehensible (the Victorians managed to build tram routes in months, not years). In effect he has junked the plan and all the work that has already gone into it. Funding could certainly have been organised if the political will had been there at City Hall and national level.

The consequence of this is that we have bequeathed to future generations more congestion on the roads and on the Tube, and a less livable London. We have also extinguished the hopes of deprived areas like Peckham that they will ever get properly connected to an efficient transport network, or benefit from the wider regeneration that that would bring.

(2) A lot of the initial coverage of Johnson's long-term idea of a new airport in the Thames Estuary assumed that this would be INSTEAD OF Heathrow. As he himself has often said, Heathrow is in the wrong place. But he made clear during Mayor's Question Time the other day that there was absolutely no question of shutting Heathrow. Any new airport would be AS WELL AS existing capacity at Heathrow. It is merely supposed to be an alternative to an extra runway at Heathrow. So the final effect of it would be a huge net increase in total airport capacity, which is exactly what we do not need at this point and which the citizenry, I suspect, simply will not put up with.

The only cheering note in all this came from Vince Cable, who as MP for Twickenham represents a lot of constituents angry about aircraft noise. He said last week that whatever Geoff Hoon finally announces (mysteriously and intriguingly, the announcement has just been postponed until the end of January), he is confident that the third runway is never actually going to get built, for a variety of practical, financial and political reasons. I am inclined to trust Vince Cable to know what he is talking about.

(3) The western extension of the congestion charge will be abolished. This makes no sense from an environmental, transport or urban-planning point of view, and seems to be a straightforward caving-in to the Jeremy Clarkson petrolhead tendency. It suggests that Kulveer Ranger has won the argument about "modal agnosticism" and that we are now supposed to go back to regarding the private car as equally entitled to take up scarce urban road space (a finite public resource), despite the fact that its use of this resource is enormously inefficient compared with other road users (bus passengers, cyclists, pedestrians).

(4) Once the DLR extensions that are already well under way (to Stratford International and Woolwich) are finished, no further extension to the DLR will be planned. So the longer-term ideas of pushing it eastwards to Dagenham Dock, and westwards from Bank to Fleet Street, Charing X and Victoria (part of which would have exploited some existing disused infrastructure), are dumped.

(5) Thoughts of extending the tram network in Croydon seem to have fallen off the table.

What are we left with? Well, there is Crossrail, and contrary to some recent whispers it does now look as if this is going ahead. That is very good, but some are worried that part of the financial justification for it is based on the assumption of a third runway at Heathrow. Although nobody has, as far as I know, suggested anything so crude as a straight quid pro quo, one might wonder whether the BAA share of the funding, for instance, would melt away if they see that they are not going to get their wretched Heathrow extension. Are we going to be told that we can only have Crossrail if we also get the third runway?

Crossrail is a very long-term scheme, the benefits of which will not appear before ten years from now, at the earliest. Much more urgent, indeed a lot more important than anything else, is getting on with upgrading the existing Tube services. Some work is pottering along, but there are big delays because of the funding crisis. One tube station near me has now been boarded up for nearly three years, with no sign whatsoever of any work starting behind the hoardings. TfL has a jolly website called "We are transforming your Tube" which attempts to put everything in the best possible light, but if we look at the details we see that the Bakerloo Line, for example, is not going to be finished until 2020, even if all goes to plan from now on. And the trains on that line are already 36 years old.

Here, the mess we are in is NOT BoJo's fault, and not Ken Livingstone's either. The blame lies with Gordon Brown, and his crazed sidekick, former investment banker Shriti (now Baroness) Vadera, who concocted the Public Private Partnership scheme on which squillions of taxpayers' money has been wasted in a now completely discredited attempt to part-privatise the modernisation work. As Chris Randall writes in Rail Professional magazine:

Despite fierce opposition from London's then Mayor, Ken Livingstone, and his transport commissioner Bob Kiley, who, with great prescience, described the public private partnership as 'fatally flawed', it was steamrollered through by Gordon Brown. Four years later, one of the contractors, Metronet, folded owing £2bn, causing prime minister Brown political embarrassment. And now the remaining contractor, Tube Lines, is demanding at least an extra £1.4bn of public money to plug a widening funding gap.
And yet New Labour seems never to have uttered a word of contrition about this. They continue to behave as if the PPP is a wonderful idea. And Baroness Vadera is rewarded with a ministerial job (not at Transport, thank goodness).

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