COMMUTERS finally have some welcome news. Just a week after inflation-busting fare increases came into effect, rail industry leaders have announced Britain’s biggest investment in infrastructure since the Victorian era.
Look around any train or station serving London in the morning peak and the case for improvements is overwhelming. Many are packed or overcrowded. Londoners and their Home County cousins are taking to the train (and Tube) in numbers not seen since the 1920s.
In response, major improvements to the fabric of the rail system were essential, building on those already delivered. From Ada and Phyliss, two of the tunnelling machines carving out Crossrail, to St Pancras station in all its restored Victorian glory, the railway is enjoying an investment surge not seen since the days of steam.
Including Thameslink and Crossrail, which are both already underway, about half of the £16bn investment the industry is asking for will go on funding projects to the benefit of Londoners and South East commuters. This makes sense, as it is where most rail journeys either begin or end. Other investment is focused on extending electrification of new and existing routes, plus some flagship projects outside of the M25. We have a London mayor enthusiastic about rail, government commitment, and a well-established funding process to credit for these high levels of financial support.
But alongside the good news, rail bosses also had some sobering messages. They are warning of “difficult choices” and “tough decisions” ahead. In 2011, an official report by Sir Roy McNulty for the government suggested that Britain’s railway costs were about one third higher than our European neighbours. While these figures are not universally accepted, there is a consensus in the industry about the need to improve value for money. There is a need to secure great efficiency in the delivery of day-to-day services, as well as projects designed to increase capacity. This is vital not only for the capital’s economic success, but also its shape and feel. The case for improving efficiency goes beyond the railway.
And as the plans published yesterday acknowledge, even with Thameslink, Crossrail and all the other improvements, growth in passenger numbers means that rail infrastructure will be subject to increasing strain. Official forecasts suggest London’s population will exceed 9m by 2020, 20 per cent more than in 2001, and the highest ever. As such, overcrowding on many lines is set to continue.
Combined with the increasing cost of commuting, many Londoners may well be forced to trade in living space for convenience. With no real prospect of the green belt being built on, London is set to be increasingly packed. More and more of the city could be dominated by Manhattan or Hong Kong-style skylines, with high rise towers no longer mainly confined to the Square Mile or Canary Wharf. London as a city may change beyond recognition, and in ways that its city fathers come to regret.
So the importance of maintaining and improving affordability of new lines and upgrades is not just about the commute or economic competitiveness. London’s railway also maintains the character and liveability of the city. Further investment will undoubtedly be required. The extension of the Tube to Nine Elms and Crossrail 2, running from the south west to the north east, are already being planned for. But to deliver these and other schemes, new sources of funding must be found. Greater use of innovative financing – such as the business levy for Crossrail – will certainly be needed.
If these changes can be delivered, London will be just about capable of accommodating a burgeoning population and employment at the same time as maintaining its unique and often quirky character.
A better railway will put London in a stronger position to help meet the UK’s longer term economic challenges. Other competitor cities are building infrastructure at an unimaginable pace. London’s railways, however they are funded, must run fast to keep up.
Alexander Jan is global head of Arup’s transactional advice team for transport.