“When I was at school I liked art.” Says Michèle Dix CBE, Managing Director of Crossrail 2, when we ask her how she began her journey to the world of London transport. “I liked drawing, creating stuff and science. And then someone mentioned engineering and I thought ‘well civil engineering actually combines those.’ ”

“So I did civil engineering and liked it.” She explains. “But the bit I liked was actually the transport stuff. I don’t know why! But I just liked transport because it was more people related somehow. So I got interested in the relationship between transport and land use and did a transport and land use Ph.D., which made me more interested. Then I thought… ‘well, I’d better get a job!’ ”

A period at the Greater London Council (GLC) followed, in which Dix found herself involved in policy and scheme work on everything from the Docklands Southern Relief Road to the Fleet line (which would become the Jubilee line, and a whole lot more). The abolition of the GLC in 1986, however, forced a sudden shift from public to private sector.

“Everyone at the GLC hated consultants” Dix says, “So I thought I’d go work for one and see what they’re like… and I really liked it!”

“I stayed there fifteen years and whilst I was there, again, I found myself working on all these projects that were started donkeys years ago – including the East London River Crossing, more work on an area toll congestion charge and then we did the pre-Mayoral work on road tolls – on a central London £5 charge. I did the policy work on that.”

It was that work on the Congestion Charge which would eventually pull her back into the public sector, and into TfL. “When Ken wanted to run with it he said he needed someone to implement it.” Dix explains. “And I thought: ‘Ooh! I would like that!’ So I came back. It’s been really good to do big policy strategic things and specific schemes. I do like this.”

Crossrail Squared

To describe the scheme Dix currently heads simply as ‘big’ would almost be an understatement. Should it go ahead, Crossrail 2 will stretch from north-east to south-west London. Depending on its final route and chosen branches, it could touch places as far apart as Shepperton, Chessington and Epsom in the south, to New Southgate and Broxbourne in the north. In doing so it will provide almost 270,000 new passenger journeys into London in the am peak alone and free up space on National Rail lines, allowing towns and cities like Cambridge, Southampton, Basingstoke, Woking, Guildford and Portsmouth to potentially benefit from more frequent services as well. All this, at an estimated cost of between £27bn and £32bn.

Yet these impressive transport numbers, Dix is quick to point out, aren’t really what the project is about. They are the means to a far more important end – helping tackle one of London’s greatest challenges: population growth.

The proposed route

“As London grows,” she explains, “not only do we need to move people around but we need somewhere for them to live. And we need those houses connected to places where they can work. So the population challenge generates a housing challenge, which generates a transport challenge.”

Crossrail 2, she insists is a critical part of meeting that challenge. Not just because of the transport benefits, but because of what they potentially unlock – not just an opportunity to build 200,000 new homes and to support roughly the same number of new jobs, but also to connect them together.

“Of all the schemes we have looked at it’s going to be the most transformational.” She says. “So if we look at what’s in the [Mayor’s Transport] Strategy to date, we’re addressing issues east-west with Crossrail 1. We’re addressing issues north-south with Thameslink. We’re addressing the issues more broadly across the network by upgrading the Tube and on the National Rail lines [with] longer trains, longer platforms.”

“But if we look across the network there’s a gap” She continues. “In the south-west there’s not a solution that exists for the problems there at present. If we look at the north-east there’s not a solution there for connecting a vast potential housing area to jobs. And if you look at the centre, through which Crossrail 2 would go, then yes, there is increasing capacity being provided through the Tube upgrades, but that is slowly being consumed by the growth.”

Of all the schemes we have looked at it’s going to be the most transformational

“And like it or not,” She says, frankly, “people want to agglomerate around central London and work there. It’s either that we provide for that or we ignore it and ignoring it means we potentially lose that increase in productivity.”

“I tell people that I come from Grimsby.” She says. “There’s loads of homes up there, but no jobs. Without them, what’s the point of building more? You’ve got to get the jobs in! And you could build homes around London in different places but unless they’re linked to the places with jobs then what’s the point?

Dix’s acceptance of the fact that economies of agglomeration – the principle that businesses tend to clump together and benefit from doing so – still draw an enormous number of businesses to central London is refreshing. This isn’t to say that other parts of TfL, or indeed the GLA and the boroughs, don’t accept it. Simply that most discussion is often focused on how to mitigate it as a problem rather than seeing it as something that is, to a certain extent, inevitable.

“Centralisation of employment will happen.” Dix says, matter-of-factly. “Lots of work has been done within TfL and the GLA asking how you can decentralise employment. Can you make the boroughs bigger employment hubs? Can you go back to that metropolitan centre model that disperses some of the employment from the centre to those areas?”

“It didn’t work.” She says, bluntly. “The Outer London Commission went around looking at London,” she says, “looking at how you can get more employment in outer London. Can you get some of the central London employment out there? But it’s about recognising that fewer employers – fewer big employers – want to go there and that you can’t force them.

“They either go to central London or they go to, say, Frankfurt.” She shrugs. “They don’t go to central London and then Croydon.”

This isn’t, she stresses, to say that those areas don’t have options. Simply that those options are more complex than simply shifting businesses outwards.

“It’s interesting to look at Croydon as a model.” She says. “Croydon was a big office hub location and that’s just gradually disappeared. Now, when redeveloping Croydon… well [the borough] have come to the conclusion that it’s got a different function now. It will have office hubs there, but it’s more about leisure and pleasure. You want people living there in the middle – more shops more theatres more culture. More mixed-use development.”

“You need activity in those centres. You need life in those centres. So these mixed use developments seem to be one way forward. But the other thing is that if you’re building houses, for every house you build you generate so many jobs – the teachers, the nurses, the retail people – within the local areas. Of the 200,000 new jobs we’ve identified which Crossrail 2 will support, some 70,000 of them are dispersed. They’re within outer London.”

An old idea

We ask how this apparently modern need to focus on housing meshes with a scheme whose route and safeguarding dates itself back to the early seventies at least.

“Earlier!” She says with a laugh. “Some of the first studies in 1944.”

“Well, 1944 was the first ideas for these Crossrail solutions, then the seventies for further cross-London rail studies.” She explains. “In 1991 Crossrail 2 was then safeguarded as the Chelsea-Hackney line. That was essentially joining the District line to the Central line with a tunnel in the middle, with a station at Chelsea Kings Road and a station in Hackney.”

“But when we came to review the safeguarding in about 2009, when we were doing the Mayor’s Transport Strategy, we looked at what else was going on, what else had been put in place – so the Jubilee Line Extension, further work to the Central line, the East London line work – and recognised that actually there was more of a need to go northwards when you got to Angel than there was necessarily to go eastwards, as quite a lot was being planned out to the east versus a gap to the north.”

“We also reviewed the route through the middle, and whereas the Chelsea-Hackney line went to King’s Cross, we recognised that with HS2 going into Euston – particularly the second phase going up to Manchester and Leeds – you put much more pressure on Euston station and you need much more capacity to disperse those passengers.”

“Similarly when we got to the southern end and were looking at the best route forward, one of our big problems was not only South West Trains being overcrowded, but the Northern line. So we were trying to find a solution to relieve the growing problems on the Northern line, and this meant that we diverted the safeguarding to relieve that as well.”

“Because of that, quite a lot of optioneering was done around what Crossrail 2 should look like.” She says. “What emerged from that in 2013 was a route that is pretty similar to what you see today. Plus the option of just having a metro scheme, which would have run from Wimbledon to New Southgate – or rather Ally Pally [Alexandra Palace] at the time.”

Going public

We point out that the potential routes for Crossrail 2 must have led to considerable work during the public consultation stages, certainly more so than for Crossrail 1.

“Well the overriding public response to those two options was the original scheme.” She says. “Because that would give rise to wider benefits. Certainly affecting a larger group of people beyond London as well as helping London.”

This, she says, then informed the subsequent consultation that took place in 2015. Even here though, the goal was to make clear what was actually up for debate.

“[We wanted] to inform on a preferred scheme that we can – subject to the strategic outline business case being approved in March by the Mayor and Secretary of State – take forward and develop for the Hybrid Bill.” She says. “So narrowing down what the scheme should be.”

“As I say to people though, even if we narrow it down for that position, it doesn’t stop people still objecting to it and raising concerns and thus making changes. Because if someone comes up with something we haven’t thought of then we’d want to make those changes.”

“And ideally” she laughs. “You’d want to make them before you get to the Hybrid Bill!”

[Big employers] either go to central London or they go to, say, Frankfurt. They don’t go to central London and then Croydon.

No matter how carefully you try to define the debate, public consultations can be hard to do well. We ask how Dix attempted to keep the Crossrail 2 consultations on track.

“[I said] ‘it’s a consultation not a referendum!’ ” She jokes, before admitting that there does seem to be a certain question and answer process down which all major rail consultations inevitably go.

“‘Do you want this shiny tunnel underground?’” She says, describing the first question and answer. “‘Yes we want it!’”

“‘Do you want a shiny tunnel underground that might pop up near you?’” She continues. “‘Yep! We want it!’”

“‘Do you want this shiny tunnel that will pop up near you, but here’s the big hole that needs to be dug to build it?’” She says, with a wry smile. “‘Erm… not so sure of that.’”

“That’s the sort of engagement we’ve had.” She says, honestly. “And quite rightly people don’t want big holes dug near them and all the noise and work that’s associated with that, so we are listening to people’s concerns.”

Dix explains that in an effort to capture those concerns they tried to take things even further than on Crossrail 1 and think a bit more out of the box. They still found, however, that for some people the more traditional approach of large public meetings was still relevant.

“We had these drop-in sessions where people could come to the sessions to talk to staff directly.” She explains. “What we hadn’t planned in 2015 were lots of big public meetings though. We ended up doing them anyway because the people concerned about the scheme wanted them so they could say, in public, that they weren’t happy.”

“But the drop-in sessions were very helpful for individuals because they’d say ‘what does it mean for my house?’ ‘What does it mean for me?’ ‘What do I need to do?’ And that’s not always the sort of thing they’d be asking in a big public meeting. So engaging at that level was important.”

To assist with these very specific queries, the Crossrail 2 team developed a postcode lookup tool that would allow TfL staff and the public to look in close detail at how even individual houses would be affected. Dix explains that she also felt it was important to make sure the staff attending the drop-in sessions weren’t just reading from a script.

“[We were] utilising as many staff from across TfL as possible within those consultations – and Network Rail as well, as obviously we’re doing this with Network Rail – so that it was staff who knew something about the project. Not just nice people saying: ‘Hello! Thank you very much! Take a leaflet!’ And if the staff at the time couldn’t answer the questions we’d take them away and get back to those people about those concerns.”

She comments that it was also important during the consultation process to be honest.

“It takes a little while to respond to people’s concerns, work out whether or not they’re valid and work out whether or not you can do something about that – and not simply push the problem away onto somebody else.”

“No one wants some of these bits of kit that you require.” She says, honestly. “And it’s our job to ensure that we put it in the best place, having heard what people say, but also from a technical point of view. We need to hear what people say, but it’s not a referendum at all!”

Dealing with opposition

As with virtually all railway lines, even in London, Crossrail 2 was always likely to face some opposition. We ask if there were any particularly vocal groups.

“Yes!” She laughs. “But no one’s obstructing the project.”

She points out that in most cases opposition has been largely, and understandably, focused on specific local concerns.

“There’s obviously a Kings Road ‘no to a station’ lobby who are very vocal and very organised in their opposition to having a station there.” She says. “Which is natural! But they don’t want a station. Interestingly, there is now quite a big ‘we want the station’ lobby but they’ve been slow to come to the table. There is a group – particularly of businesses – who want the station because their employees benefit directly. So Kings Road is the biggest area of opposition.”

“There was a big issue over whether the station went to Balham as we had proposed versus Tooting, which we’d previously proposed.” She continues. “But because of the concerns that we had about the geology where Tooting is, and the fact that it would be more disruptive to build – more lorries, bigger holes – we proposed Balham instead because it would give you not as much, but nearly as much, transport benefit and is easy to build and less disruptive.”
“But if we go to Balham we have to have a ventilation shaft on Wandsworth Common.” Dix explains. “If you went to Tooting you wouldn’t. So quite a lot of the responses to the Balham or Tooting issue were actually related to the Wandsworth Common issue.”

“The other big area is Wimbledon. People didn’t like the solution we had for Wimbledon, because it would require taking some – not all – of the existing shopping centre. And even though we had a way of phasing that so that you’d always have retail in the town centre people were not at all happy.”

Crossrail 2 are now looking at ways of avoiding the shopping centre.

“But the question with that is can we avoid disruption to Wimbledon at all?” She says, again highlighting her belief in the need for honest engagement. “The answer is no. You can’t make an omlette without cracking an egg. You’ve got to have some holes somewhere, but it’s about how you can have those holes in the least disruptive of places.”

Dix highlights Tottenham Court Road as another area where there have been objections.

“[It’s over] the Curzon cinema.” She says. “There’s quite a lot of ‘save our Soho’ campaigners who feel that taking the Curzon would affect the nature of Soho.”

There’s also Euston, she continues, where people angry with HS2 are keen to ensure that Crossrail 2 doesn’t have further negative effects.

Working with the boroughs

Consultation, of course, is not just about talking to individuals. We ask Dix what the general reception has been so far among the London boroughs affected. “

All the boroughs along the route are broadly happy with the alignment. Merton want that better Wimbledon solution, obviously.” Dix says, beginning to count off the key players. “Wandsworth have been…”

She pauses.

“Well… they’ve not been ‘definitive’ on the Balham or Tooting problem. But they understand the problems at Tooting and they understand the problems at Balham and the sensitivities of the ventilation shaft. Meanwhile Camden obviously want a better design for Euston.”

“Haringey, Enfield and Barnet are now very concerned that we would chop the New Southgate branch.” She continues, and explains that this was the result of feedback received by Crossrail 2 from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC).

“One of the recommendations from the NIC was to ask whether there were things that could be done to make the scheme more affordable.” She explains. “And to ask whether you could phase it. So, could you build a certain amount and take some of the branches off and add them at a later date? One branch they’ve suggested we look at is the New Southgate branch: could that be part of a phase 2?” “

And obviously the boroughs affected by that – Haringey, Barnet and Enfield – aren’t very happy about that proposition. They’re lobbying to keep that branch in.”

We ask roughly how much she feels could be saved by taking up such an option.

“It saves about three and a half billion.” Dix says. “But only if you can find a feasible solution for the sidings and the infrastructure maintenance depot that sit at the end of that branch. Because the reason we went to New Southgate in the first place was to reach a place where you could have those facilities. Chop the branch off and you have to find another location.”

“If you can’t find that then it’s not very clever!” She says, smiling. “You might save the money, but by the time you’ve spent money on an alternative site which will be more difficult and expensive, then the savings you make won’t justify the decision.”

“We have to work that through in detail and look long and hard to see if we can find a workable solution though.” She admits, but then points out that a knockon effect of this discussion has been to open up another debate elsewhere.

Go east?

“We do have a little spur that goes off to the east to Hackney,” Dix explains, “and that spur’s always been there, safeguarded, so that if there was a case in the future for an eastern extension we’ve got the ability to do that.”

“But because the NIC talked about potentially deferring the New Southgate branch, then the eastern boroughs have said ‘well, you know, perhaps the second branch should be our branch not the New Southgate branch.’ So the NIC suggested that the pros and cons of each branch coming second should be considered.”

We ask Dix whether she feels there’s likely to be a strong case for doing so.

“We’ve always thought that the case for the eastern branch is not an immediate case, because of the amount of investment going on in the east.” She says. “There may be a case – and we need to do the work to work out whether there’s a business case – for it in the 2040s, but there’s a stronger business case for the New Southgate branch in the 2030s.”

“That’s work we’re having to put into the mix though.” She admits.

The regional effect

We ask whether the complexity of the debate over where Crossrail 2 goes is made harder by the fact that it was the regional model that they opted to push forward.

“It’s resulted in more actors to deal with.” She admits. “But it’s made it better – it will be a better solution.”

“It’s also made it more complicated because of the interfaces with Network Rail and running on the NR tracks with other services.” She says. “As soon as you’ve got an interface between Network Rail and what we call the ‘core’ then you’ve got to build in reliability. You’ve got to build in some sort of buffer system so that the trains coming down from the branches can readily serve the core in a frequent and reliable way.”

We ask her to elaborate on how this is likely to be handled.

“So what we have in the core is we’ve got 30 trains per hour.” Dix says. “And we want to ensure that we can run those 30 trains per hour by having at either end of the core some trains that turn back and feed the core, as well as trains coming in from the branches.“

“So in the south where we’ve got four branches, we’ve got 20 trains on those branches. And then we’ve got ten trains that turn back at Wimbledon so that we get reliability for 30 through the core. So it’s not just a case of four lots of seven and a half, which obviously doesn’t make any sense. It just wouldn’t work. We have to have that slight buffer.”

Crossrail 2’s branches – and their impact on potential reliability – has long been a subject of debate. We ask whether it’s a valid concern.

“If you provide the buffer, and you recognise that the buffer is making sure that you’re getting the right gap between the trains, then it’s doable.” She says, confidently. “But it scares people because they see branches and instantly think ‘what if the signalling doesn’t work? What if this train gets caught behind that train?’ But if we’ve got the right signalling and the buffer in place then we’re confident it’s not a problem.”

“But what we’ve got to do is demonstrate to people that it’s not a problem.”

If it’s proven not to be a problem, we ask, then does she foresee a time when this might lead to more than 30 trains per hour through the core?

“We couldn’t do it within the core.” She says, shaking her head. “I mean, we can make the trains longer – we’re building in 250m platforms – but 30 trains per hour would be the maximum we run through there, because in part that’s determined by the ventilation systems and the safety systems in the sense that we can only have one train in each section controlled by the ventilation shafts.”

“So there’s a structural limitation imposed by that. Similar there’s a limitation imposed by the dwell times at stations. So if you’ve got particularly busy stations then across the whole route you can only have so many trains. So how you design platforms, how you design the ends, the interchange with the other lines is all critical in making sure that dwell time is minimised.”

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any potential capacity improvements on Crossrail 2, she stresses again, just that they’re unlikely to come from running more trains through the core.

“Again, the trains can be longer.” She explains. “You could run more on the branches and certainly you could run more up the upper Lea Valley as we’re assuming currently that you turn so many back at Tottenham Hale. But you can run more up there if you address the issue of the single track.”

“But we are already providing capacity for 270,000 more people in the am peak period.” She says, smiling. “That’s 10% additional peak capacity to the whole of London, which is huge!”

The financial elephant in the room

With the consultation process now largely completed, we ask Dix what she believes is the project’s major obstacle now. Her answer is hardly surprising.

“Agreeing the funding and finance package.” She says, immediately. “Because we – London – are required to find at least half. Indeed we thought we’d found at least half, but then the Chancellor said ‘can you find at bit more?’ ”

“It’s finding that money and finding the revenue streams that provide that money though. And also providing it at a time that helps you pay off the debt that you’re incurring by borrowing the money in the first place. That funding and finance package is critical. Particularly in light of the fact that TfL and the GLA… well, we’ll be taking on a large new debt.”

“So making sure that we’ve got funding streams in place to pay off that debt will be important.” She stresses. “And therefore getting the buy-in from all the people from whom we’re expecting those revenue streams to come from. And we want to try and get more money out of the opportunities for oversite development. So capture that value ourselves for the benefit of the scheme.”

What are some of the funding options she feels are relevant for Crossrail 2? we ask.

“Well there is the Council Tax Precept which was set for the Olympics.” Dix says. “It was the equivalent of £20 a year for a band D property and the last Mayor changed it back down to £8 a year. Now it’s the sort of thing where if you look at what Crossrail 2 does for the whole of London… well it actually does benefit the whole of London. It’s just a shame that [the Precept] was reduced.”

“But this is an opportunity to say that if Crossrail 2 is important for the whole of London – and people thought that the Olympics was important for london – then is £20 on a band D property unaffordable?” She asks. “Could we consider that? Again, that requires Mayoral buy-in and support. And people don’t like taxes. People don’t like setting them. People don’t like requesting contributions. But if we don’t then we won’t be able to fund these things.”

We ask her whether there are other options at capturing land value, beyond simple oversite development.

“The business rate supplement is another.” She says. “But we are also looking at whether or not there are other mechanisms that one could put in place that are more local in relation to the benefits that accrue along the route. Direct and indirect mechanisms.”

“One of the indirect mechanisms that we’ve been arguing with government over is this: All properties along the route will go up in value. We know that because it’s happening with Crossrail 1 as we speak and the thing’s not even finished.”

“And the people who benefit from that are the government.” She continues. “Because as those properties go up in value, and they’re bought and sold, they automatically get an incremental increase in stamp duty.”

“If you’re able to support an additional 200,000 new homes – which is one of the key parts of our case – then you’re also going to get 200,000 homes worth of new stamp duty. All in, that’s 20 billion pounds! The government will get that in its coffers, so we’ve tried to make the argument that can we hypothecate that back to paying for the cost of the scheme.”

“It’s not an argument we’re winning!” She admits, with a laugh, “but it’s that sort of argument that we need to make – or whether there are additional local taxes that need to be considered and applied to the local developments that directly benefit from the scheme.”

“And I think in a world where it’s recognised that the people around these schemes will benefit, it is perhaps reasonable to ask them to pay a little bit more to help pay for it.”

“But that’s down to politicians to decide,” she shrugs. “We’ll generate ideas though and see what the willingness is to implement them.”

Getting political

In addition to finance, there is always the risk on a multi-year (indeed potentially multi-decade) project like Crossrail 2 that politics will lead to scope creep. We ask whether for Dix this is a concern.

“Politicians…” She says, then pauses.

“If there are changes to make, if promises have been made, then it is making sure that the decisions that are made are understood in terms of their financial consequences.” She says firmly. “But if a politician promises something, then there’s a consequence. And it’s making sure that they understand those consequences before anything is promised. Because it might seem like an easy fix to say ‘yes we’ll do that’ but if it’s going to cost a billion more and take a year longer then is that worth it, if who you are appeasing is a few people whose concerns could be addressed in a different way?”

“It’s making sure that those things are fully understood.” She warns.

Once again it becomes clear that from Dix’s perspective politicians are to be listened to in the same way as both the boroughs and public – openly but above all else honestly.

“If, however, decisions are made, cognizant of costs and the time it affects, and politicians are prepared to pay for it… well so be it.”

“But,” she says firmly, “it has to be made quite clear what the impacts of those decisions are.”

Like what you read? You’ll find more in our magazine

Read in-depth articles about the past, present and future of transport in London and beyond. All in a beautifully laid out print magazine that you can read at home, work or on your commute. Buy it now

Written by Nicole Badstuber