We like to think it is not often we get caught out at London Reconnections. Often there’s a hint, either spotter or official, if not an openly advanced warning, about significant announcements. Other times we have smelt them out anyway – reading through interminable committee minutes combined with the occasional sixth sense sometimes has its rewards. We must admit, however, that Thursday’s announcement by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin about looking into Crossrail going to Tring in Hertfordshire caught us completely off-guard.

It seems we were almost certainly not the only ones. Press officers need holiday too and it quickly became clear that the media-handling floors of both Crossrail and TfL were missing the people upon whose beats this would normally fall. Indeed if further evidence were needed that this announcement was not carefully planned then one only has to go to the Crossrail and TfL websites and find no mention of it to realise that two organisations, normally so adept at handling public relations, have been left somewhat bereft. Finally there was a speedy post-announcement email from Chief Executive Andrew Wolstenholme to all Crossrail staff letting them know not to worry about something that was very much the concern of the project’s sponsors (DfT in this case) not themselves – not the organisation’s normal style of internal communication.

Dressing for the part

The DfT probably didn’t specifically plan the announcement to coincide with a few individuals holiday dates of course but everyone knows you don’t make significant announcements in August – a period of time that used to be referred to in journalistic circles as the silly season.

When coming across an announcement like this, one has to go hunting through the cupboards for the cynicism hat, put it firmly on one’s head and ask what the purpose of this announcement was. Unfortunately in this case one is left with many plausible theories but nothing that stands out as being a rational reason for this. Removing the cynicism hat and getting out the rose tinted glasses though reveals a number of positives. The thoughts of the current occupants of LR Towers – itself currently depleted by holidays – are however below.

Just like that

One of the things many things to watch for in a press announcement is the favourite of the magician – misdirection. The more something is emphasised, the more likely it is that the real point is something else. That very much seems to be the case here, and our strong suspicion is that Mr McLoughin’s announcement was very cleverly stage managed to completely hide what the announcement was really about – High Speed 2 (HS2). More specifically, the diversion of West Coast Main Line (WCML) local services in order to facilitate reconstruction of Euston. This is not to say HS2 didn’t get a mention – it did get quite a few – but the emphasis was that this was doing something for Hertfordshire commuters… oh, and an additional benefit was that it would also help HS2.

Tring and Bing

In order to Accentuate The Positive, the idea of diverting the stopping services from the WCML is linked to Crossrail. This is done because Crossrail seems to have near universal support. It is portrayed positively in TV documentaries, is shown as a model project on time and on budget and – very much in contrast to HS2 – has its own controversial planning issues safely forgotten in the past. To complete this picture the announcement was made at Farringdon (Crossrail) and not at Euston (HS2).

This tactic clearly worked and the BBC obligingly headlined their article Crossrail extension to Hertfordshire being considered. On BBC London, our regular transport correspondent, Tom Edwards, who would normally pass his critical eye over the announcement, was conspicuous by his absence – perhaps transport correspondents need holiday too…

Possible Advantages

Looking at the announcement more positively, this is ultimately the launch of a study to see how rail services to Hertfordshire can be improved. And to be fair, whilst TfL and Network Rail have talked about the potential benefits of such a diversion they have never talked about taking the opportunity to investigate how those benefits could be maximised. What is perhaps a little puzzling though is quite why Mr McLoughin felt that the setting up of such an investigation was not only worthy of an announcement, but a completely unscheduled announcement. At London Reconnections we have a couple of theories, but they are perhaps better suited to being debated on South London rail tours or our next Thursday pub meet, rather than committing to print here.

We must emphasise of course that the idea of extending Crossrail along the south part of WCML is not new. It was in fact looked at in the early days of Crossrail planning, but was rejected as not providing value for money. That was of course before the idea of redeveloping Old Oak Common was born.

In 2011 Network Rail mentioned extending Crossrail along the West Coast Main Line as desirable in their London and South East Route Utilisation Strategy citing it as option K1. They went as far as to state that “The case for this option is strengthened by HS2 proceeding” with the obvious implication that there may be a good enough case for the proposal without relying on HS2.

It seems that Patrick McLoughin is hopeful that such a case could be made for Crossrail to Tring to stand on its own because that would effectively decouple the project from HS2. One wonders if the issue could even be the classic one – “who pays” – but it is hard to see any future London mayor, current or future, contributing a penny if they know that the DfT needs this to go ahead to support HS2.

Putting prestige and money aside then, why place so much emphasis on making this part of Crossrail, not HS2?

Old Oak – No Joke

It is well known that certain people are very concerned about timescales for Old Oak Common redevelopment should HS2 go ahead. The problem is that the current workflow produces critical conflicts however you try to sequence the order of the works. One person who is particularly concerned is David Higgins, chairman of HS2, who is anxious for an early start on diverting the slow WCML services to Crossrail.

The problem is that HS2 Ltd. have no powers to do any work until the High Speed 2 bill becomes law. So if Crossrail were to include WCML services, and this was pursued with urgency without any reference to HS2, this would be extremely helpful.

It could be that the Secretary of State for Transport was slightly alarmed recently to read the Mayor of London’s London Infrastructure Plan 2050: Transport Supporting Paper and discover that the proposal listed as “Crossrail 1 to WCML Watford Jn / Tring” still had a prospective date of 2026. 2026 is far too late to be of use for the “fast track” HS2 schedule that the government seems so keen on.

The Paddington – Old Oak Bottleneck

One of the biggest potential issues of extending Crossrail to the West Coast Main Line is how you extend the existing terminating services from Paddington to the WCML. This involves a new connection at Old Oak. The enormous concern is that from the Crossrail portal to the point where the trains diverge to Tring the trains will be running on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) relief lines. This is going to be a severe bottleneck which will limit capacity on the GWML, although just how much is obviously dependent on the number of Crossrail trains one ends up running up the WCML. Providing an extra running line is expected to be doable but difficult. Providing two and segregating the services would be ideal if possible and really requires further investigation, beyond what has already been done, as soon as possible.

One organisation that may have a great deal of interest in the idea of extra tracks east of Old Oak Common could be the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea which has had its aspirations for a Crossrail station at the Kensal former gasworks site. Their quest to have a station added to the original project ended in failure, but any suggestion of extra tracks may well see them brushing off their plans and seeing if some trains could stop there without creating the previous objection – that the disadvantage to other users far outweighed any benefit to users of the station.

The plan for Crossrail is ravelling

The obvious benefit of switching services to Crossrail is that it makes better use of the railway infrastructure and give passengers a better service. Indeed the only real bit of content in the announcement was

Initial analysis suggests 40 per cent of passengers travelling into London from these locations finish their journeys within 1km of a Crossrail station, compared to just 10 per cent within 1km of Euston. The link would have the added benefit of reducing congestion at the station, specifically for passengers using the southbound Northern and Victoria lines.

Looking at it differently we have always said, and most readers seem to agree, that there were three very unsatisfactory features of the original Crossrail scheme:

  • It terminated in the west at Maidenhead when logically it ought to go to Reading
  • It terminated in the south east at Abbey Wood which although busy was not really a logical terminating point and the obvious further opportunities to go to Dartford or even Ebbsfleet (alternatively Gravesend) were missed.
  • It seemed just almost unbelievable that trains from the east would terminate at Paddington rather than fulfil a role to bring further passengers in from the west

Indeed so prominent were these themes that they all made it into our light-hearted post-Christmas ditties in 2012. It seems quite incredible, and shows how fast things are changing, that little more than 18 months later with today’s announcement and the formerly announced proposals for Ebbsfleet Garden City there is realistic potential for all three deficiencies to be eliminated.

The extendadors look towards Milton Keynes

Inevitably suggestions have emerged arguing that there is no need to stop at Tring and Milton Keynes is a more logical final destination. Inevitably a comparison between Maidenhead and Reading is made. But those reaching for both map and crayon would do well to still their hands, at least for now. Distance-wise Tring is really the equivalent of Reading. Extending to Milton Keynes could be better compared with extending to Oxford.

This is not to say that a further extension to Milton Keynes is automatically a silly an idea. Indeed that was the original idea as stated in the aforementioned Route Utilisation Study. That study kept mentioning the expected rapid further development of Milton Keynes and it is the case that the good burghers of that city realise that, though it was built on the car, further developments require public transport. It is not therefore unrealistic to expect that some time in the future the morning flow into Milton Keynes will justify extending any existing Crossrail service from Tring to Milton Keynes – just not now.

Crossrail to Milton Keynes

Possible Crossrail extensions diagram from the London and South East Route Utilisation Study. Extending as far as Milton Keynes was clearly a serious possibility.

As with Reading it would still be expected that longer distance travellers from Milton Keynes would choose to travel by fast train to Euston. Alternatively, if a case could be made for stopping long distance trains at Harrow & Wealdstone (or Watford as at present) then a change to Crossrail could be made there. One advantage of encouraging changing to Crossrail before reaching Euston is that it would further take the pressure off Euston.

What if Crossrail becomes full within months of Opening?

We have said on a number of occasions that Sir Peter Hendy predicts that Crossrail will be full within months of opening. Although some may feel this is a bit of an exaggeration, no-one is prepared to go on record and contradict him. Clearly additional passengers from the WCML does not bode well under that scenario. Long term we should not worry too much because there is a lot of potential to increase capacity with up to 30tph in the central section and the trains could be extended from 9 to 11 carriages. Under current tentative plans Crossrail is not due to go to 30tph until 2029 but one cannot see why that could not be brought forward. Meanwhile we have the absolute unknown of how much traffic Old Oak Common will generate and it is strange that no mention was made in the announcement of a station at Old Oak Common.

Perhaps mentioning a station at Old Oak Common was inappropriate because Old Oak Common is associated with HS2. It does seem though that if ever Crossrail got too busy then separating the two main western branches with an interchange station at Old Oak Common and combining this with using one of the, by then, existing Crossrail branches to form the basis of of a new Crossrail line many years hence, would be the obvious way to go. One wonders what provision for this, if any, will be made in the masterplan for Old Oak Common.

Avoiding objections

Beyond the practical potential benefits and problems, there is one other aspect of this scheme which is no doubt very attractive to the DfT – that it goes some way to answering the objections the Mayor’s Office have raised (on TfL’s behalf) to HS2.

That TfL are one of HS2’s objectors is something which, perhaps surprisingly, has not featured significantly in the press. Perhaps this is because it is clear that their objection is not ideological but operational – as far as they are concerned the arrival of HS2 at Euston would place an intolerable extra level of passenger pressure on the Underground connections there. As a result, their general stance on the project has so far been clear – there can be no HS2 without Crossrail 2, whose plans they modified to include a station at Euston specifically to address this demand.

For the DfT this presents a particular problem. Even if Crossrail 2 represents good value for money, it is still a big expense to be pushed past the Treasury, and thus having it coupled in anyway to HS2 places a burden of risk on the timing of the latter. Diverting services away from Euston, however, provides room to manoeuvre, and in the aftermath of yesterday’s announcement both TfL and the DfT were happy to admit this was a key reason why this idea was being considered.

This did, however, come with one clear caveat – from TfL at least. That any extension to Hertfordshire should have no negative impact at all on the current service pattern for Crossrail.

An Investigation not a Decision

Ultimately, as some commenters have pointed already, this is an announcement that commits to nothing. To that extent it is seen as a weakness. This seems to be a legacy of the Thatcher era. Prior to Mrs Thatcher being Prime Minister it was quite common for the government and indeed the GLC to issue Green Papers. Green Papers were consultation documents intended to do exactly that – consult (as opposed to white papers which spelt out government policy). Mrs Thatcher did not believe in Green Papers. She believed in strong decisive government and the number of Green Papers issued during her period of office is one fewer than the number of state nationalisations that took place under her leadership. Whilst Mr McLoughin may not have formally issued a document, the announcement may thus be considered the verbal equivalent of a green paper. Maybe this is not a bad thing and maybe we should get back to genuine consultation as part of the government process without it being considered a sign of weakness.

Whatever the outcome of that consultation is (and according to the DfT we can expect this in December 2014), the announcement itself remains an unusual one. That this was a case of HS2 in Crossrail’s clothing is relatively obvious, but why it was felt important to make it now remains unclear. It was made at an event intended to highlight the Bam Ferrovial Kier’s 100th Apprentice on the Crossrail project. Crossrail are rightfully proud of their push to get apprentices involved in the project and it seems unlikely they will have looked favourably on the Transport Secretary hijacking this event simply to announce that he’s vaguely thinking about taking Crossrail to Tring. Perhaps the Secretary of State saw this as a government/DfT thing and was anxious to get the credit before the Mayor of London did. We are still left wondering if this sudden and apparently unscheduled announcement was by some means prompted by Boris Johnson announcing his intention to stand again for parliament the previous day.

Whatever the reasons, we will follow the consultation with interest – and (with tongues firmly in cheek) look forward to the half-term holiday announcement of an extension to Gravesend…

Written by Pedantic of Purley