A Short History of Crossrail 2: Part 2 – Underlying factors


Recent own goals by Crossrail 1 (CR1) on the construction and software fronts, not helped by project management by silos, have tarnished its outcome so far. Part 1 of this series presented a summary history of how Crossrail had battled for two decades to survive political, planning, funding and authorisation processes, and offered some important lessons for Crossrail 2. In a few years, CR1’s problems may be past memories and its successes prominent. Like the Victoria line era, London may wonder how it managed without the new urban capacity. Can Crossrail 2 anticipate and manage away this host of project issues?

Credit-ability and credibility

CR1’s history demonstrates the perils and challenges faced by mega rail schemes in urban areas – where Crossrail 2 (CR2) is another such project. It doesn’t help that CR1 has handed on several dud cards to CR2:

  • The financial deficit imposed by Crossrail 1, with that scheme’s larger bill still being paid off well into the 2030s, which could hinder funding authority for CR2 and other projects.
  • The construction and testing credibility of a second Crossrail tarnished in advance by CR1’s failings, where CR2 will need to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt.
  • Wider concerns about integrated project management, the openness of decision-making and the veracity of progress reports.

Also, for those with long memories, the Victoria line had successfully introduced straightaway a new automated train control and signalling system as the new railway opened. However, that had undergone development and operational trials as an integrated train/track design throughout the preceding decade. This is unlike the timescale allowed by CR1 to validate new train/track interfaces whilst relying on separate software suppliers! (Not that a unified train/signalling supplier is a guarantee of success either, witness Bombardier’s aborted involvement with the sub-surface signalling upgrade.)

The credibility of major capital cost estimates could also be a greater challenge for all large-scale rail projects including CR2, alongside searching questions about project control. There is an allegedly poor record of HS2 project management which has contributed to the current Government-led review of HS2 Ltd as well as the delayed project deliverables. A number of HS2 senior directors had come from Crossrail 1. Bernadette Kelly, the Permanent Secretary at the Department for Transport, commented to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee on 2nd October 2019 that:

We are all very concerned to be feeding in the lessons learned from Crossrail. Within the Department, we have been thinking very hard for some time now about how we do that most appropriately in the context of HS2.

A new mega project has to confront these contexts. This is totally different to the rapid approval of Phase 1 of the Fleet Line in 1971 following on from the initial opening of the Victoria line in 1968-69. The proposed Fleet line had been stimulated partly by the large success of the Victoria line scheme, both in construction management and in exceeding passenger demand forecasts by 1970. The passenger demand pressure in turn worsened Bakerloo Line crowding north of Oxford Circus – which had been anticipated and was an important reason for the first part of the Fleet Line.

A honeymoon dowry for GLC’s ownership of London Transport from 1970 might also be taken into account for the Fleet Line, just as go-ahead of the Victoria line followed the creation of the London Transport Executive in 1963. There is no such dowry available for Crossrail 2, unless a Brexit good-luck charm could be included.

Demonstrably right Crossrail 1

In its favour, Crossrail 1 mirrors an obvious and self-evidently crowded east-west corridor across the central area. The new railway was steered via main line termini at each end, plus a primary interchange (at Farringdon) between east-west and north-south high capacity cross-London railways. Tunnelling-wise, it helped to have part of the route under existing lines and a Royal Park.

The interchanges at Tottenham Court Road and Liverpool Street/Moorgate would also achieve direct connections between Crossrail 1 and London Underground’s intended future north-south high-capacity railway – an enhanced Northern line. For many years there have been long-term plans to split the current-day Northern line into two lines with each having more intensive frequencies.

The geography of an express distributor and capacity relief railway along the east-west routeing was eventually endorsed, particularly after the failure of the 1990s’ attempts to specify a poor man’s version via the north side of the Circle. The latter offered bad operating impacts, few capacity gains (limiting growth of London’s economy, and of transport revenue), and poor value for money, in contrast to the CR1 corridor.

Put simply, CR1 had ‘route believability’, where a map says a thousand words and can influence political and stakeholder perceptions – if it looks right, it is right, goes the argument, even if ultimately this is the heart ruling the head. Does Crossrail 2 have similar ‘route believability’?

Demonstrably right Crossrail 2?

It is obvious at a strategic level that Crossrail 2 can be London’s ‘Albert line’, paralleling, relieving and partnering with the Victoria line which has been highly successful, but has reached its limits of capacity with a peak time 36 tph tube service. In Central London, CR2 is intended with current plans to connect Victoria, Shaftesbury Avenue/Tottenham Court Road, Euston/St Pancras and The Angel.

The following is an updated Central London rail map, showing Crossrails 1 and 2, the ‘Albert line’ effect of Crossrail 2 paralleling the Victoria line, and the new West End and Theatre-land links achieved from Tottenham Court Road to Dean Street and Shaftesbury Avenue. The latter echoes the Piccadilly Line’s historic Theatre-land spur to Strand (latterly Aldwych).

TfL map showing CR2 and proposed new entrances, adapted by London Reconnections

However is that all that should reasonably be expected of CR2? Or, a different emphasis, is that what should be expected? Unlike Crossrail 1, the new line wouldn’t serve the historic main line termini (Waterloo, Liverpool Street/Moorgate) which are associated with the suburban networks intended to be served. Is the retention of ‘stub termini’ valid, for other suburban services? What about a variant or different line linking those? The detailed routeings in the suburbs are also debated.

So it will be Crossrail 2’s further task, alongside all the essential assessments, to promote its intrinsic merits – that routeing and interchanges are best or most affordably served by the preferred alignment, even if this is not all obvious at first glance. We shall review later how this requirement stands up to such queries.

What matters now?

A starting point is careful validation of different scheme options. Validation factors have changed over recent decades, and intensified in terms of assessment reviews as a substitute for simple financial returns. If you can’t make a direct profit over the maturity period of a project, it can be a big task to demonstrate that enough wider policy / social / economic development and/or other benefit goals are met, to justify a scheme and expenditure of public money.

What could have been acceptable in the 1970s or 1980s, might not be now, and anyhow it wasn’t authorised then so either fell by the wayside or wasn’t a high enough priority to make the cut when a go/no-go decision was made. So any proposition has to start again. Certainly you can’t just say ‘there was a corridor in the, say, 1972-74 London Rail Study, or the 1986 Underground Capacity Review, it was worthwhile then so it must be worthwhile now’.

There is a probability that land uses and transport shortcomings will still suggest something like it, but other schemes have come along, the assessment rules have changed, and the case for now being the top priority will have to be made with even greater force. Safety and technical standards and general cost bases will have changed, as well as how benefits are evaluated.

Balancing A-B-C

There are visible pressures within a triangulation of key elements A-B-C, measured on a whole life basis (nominally within a Treasury assessment limit of 60 years):

  • Affordability is the basic enabler. This, as seen with recent transport business collapses (air travel and bus manufacturing most recently), combines cash flow and funding sources, the latter including revenues, government aid and grants, and third party contributions.
  • Benefits of all sorts, these days including corridor impacts, environmental, catchment land use, socio-economic and travel safety, as well as classic items like road and rail capacity relief.
  • Costs of all sorts, such as powers and design, land acquisition, tunnelling and shafts, environmental mitigation, general construction, station locations, train numbers, track and signalling, depots and sidings, and operations and maintenance.

This is an ‘eternal triangle’ – change one aspect and you change the other two. With a rail project, a smaller scheme might reduce costs and increase affordability, but does it reduce benefits a lot or a little? If you can lower costs compared to benefits (ie, with cheaper inputs achieving higher net benefit-cost ratio – BCR), then funding and benefits become more attractive and the scheme is more likely to go ahead.

With a long project timescale, phasing is another way of spreading affordability, benefits, costs – and risks. The economic cycle is likely to affect projects – what about a recession, or poor balance of payments in a go-it-alone nation? What then can be afforded?

The political importance of the scheme cannot be ignored – there is strong competition from other transport and non-transport funding requests. Electoral maths can also influence which elements of rail projects are adopted or deferred – witness the October 1991 change of route for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link ahead of the 1992 general election, and the current local debate about a CR2 Chelsea Kings Road station, quite apart from pleas originating anywhere for special funding.

Conventional travel and land use factors

There are current and foreseeable travel and land use elements, such as trends on major corridors towards longer distance commuting and general intercity travel, which require more capacity in increasing steps:

  • First, higher capacity within the same train lengths.
  • Second, longer trains, and related adjustments to platforms, stations, signalling and junctions.
  • Third, more hourly slots into London termini, or into cross-London lines, or requiring new tracks.

Some London corridors are already within or on the verge of the third category. There is also growing inner suburban volume – in earlier generations of rail planning up to the 1980s those services would have been slimmed to make room for more outer commuters, not least as forecast inner demand was dropping. If you forecast far enough ahead now, the resultant effect is a need for more suburban capacity, however that is to be achieved.

New high speed lines are a further element if they can release capacity on existing routes. Capacity impacts on distribution networks such as the Underground and DLR may be greater from the refill of those classic railway slots by other London and Home Counties passengers, rather than directly as a consequence of the high speed volumes.

Land use factors are linked to the over-riding London Plan, and, outside Greater London, the regional housing forecasts where local authorities are currently mandated to safeguard land for an additional five-year housing supply. The latter is too short term for major infrastructure planning, which has to look further ahead and anticipate trends over a 15-30 year period.

A better strategic plan

Greater London has the advantage of a strategic planning overview, the London Plan, which is updated every few years and designates key development zones such as Opportunity Areas and Areas of Intensification, see map below. These suggest locations appropriate for greater rates of land use change.

London Plan’s Opportunity Areas & Intensification map

The London Plan addresses many other city planning elements. London had already looked ahead in 2013-14 towards 2050, with an outline assessment of infrastructure needs, as discussed in the London Infrastructure 2050 series and subsequent parts. The Mayor’s full strategic policy portfolio embraces: Transport; Environment; Health inequalities; Housing; Skills; Economy; Culture; and Food. Sport, which could be redefined as part of a ‘Leisure’ portfolio, doesn’t yet qualify for a strategic policy, but is listed alongside the others on the Mayoral website.

To the LR team, there are other interesting items not featuring as strategic at Mayoral level, though they might be argued as such: energy; climate change and water; social, community relations and crime; accessibility to services; neighbourhood viability; and affordability of living. At least some of these are similar to scoring measures in the national and regional indices of multiple deprivation.

However, the underlying driver behind much of the London Plan is the pressure of population migration (both international and internal), allied to the continuing expectation of many more jobs being located in London. Brexit (or not), and bids to ‘rebalance the regional economies’, will challenge these assumptions. Network Rail in its long term forecasts to the 2040s (also made around 2013), was still projecting large growth in London population and jobs if the nation were ‘planning in global isolation’. Unless these assumptions are seriously flawed, London’s conventional pressures remain fairly predictable.

Other factors to accommodate

There are many other foreseeable elements to take into account. Nicole Badstuber’s article in ‘The Developer‘ examines trends in travel demand which need to be assessed as secular or as short term blips. Wider factors include:

  • Social trends projected over decades, such as:
    ○ changes to workplace context: a 7-to-3 or 9-to-5 industry or office-based existence lifestyle turning into part-week working in employer premises and part at home (less likely in a factory environment). Or is it ‘working from home’, which is different to ‘working at home’!
    ○ living longer lives plus the decline of Saturday (and now Friday and arguably Monday) working, leading to more scope for leisure-based activities,
    ○ changes in family and household size,
    ○ changes in different genders’ demand for travel, for occupational or other demographic reasons,
    ○ more on-demand knowledge of travel choices, including evening/night-time/weekend travel options such as Uber.
  • An increasingly varied range of travel products, such as a choice between peak and off-peak fares, discounted travel such as season tickets, carnets and advance fares, or click-in click-out capability with instant price capping. What else is to be anticipated from the transport industry?
  • Housing vs. travel – do you move further out to buy (or rent) a larger and affordable home, or put up with less living space, to achieve a shorter journey to work or other lifestyle priorities? Do you have any choice anyhow, if London overall is critically short of affordable accommodation and London’s jobs growth and population growth still continues?

Geographical distribution of demand across London and beyond is also important. If outer and long distance commuting are correlated with housing growth, inner suburb densification has been the urban equivalent since the 1990s (it was a different story in London prior to that). One extra principal line serving, for example, two suburban corridors on each side of a large city – a generalisation of a classic railway proposition – may not be the right approach for all London geography if densification becomes more widespread.

Certainly, within areas of dense activity such as a central city core, the distribution and interchange functions of a cross-city railway are also vital considerations.

Finally, greater monetisation of environmental factors and/or a refreshed definition of environmental absolutes are clearly work needing to be put in hand, given the increasing pan-governmental concerns about carbon neutrality and what that may mean for prioritisation of mass transport solutions and other matters.

Ought bigger to be better?

For major schemes which are primarily radial, the main goals are to prioritise:

  • London’s economic and growth capabilities
  • Overall transport network effectiveness, measured as travel and capacity benefits and revenues
  • Looking to current and future global objectives, strong environmental benefits

These may not be consistent with each other, in the forms that they are currently implemented, but they are not in principle mutually irreconcilable.

For network effectiveness, this includes well-understood lessons from the north side Circle reviews, where the absence of substantial London-wide gains was seen as a bad outcome. So if a bigger scheme costs more, well the benefits may be even greater.

You may not get another chance for major investment along the relevant radial corridor(s) until the next generation, or when infrastructure needs large scale re-investment. However, whether a bigger scheme survives the political, planning, funding and authorisation tests remains subject to all sorts of uncertainties, so there can still be a case of ‘lesser or incremental’ getting somewhere sooner and this needs to be kept in mind. Phased or ‘pre-Crossrail 2’ options may be relevant.

Next – The past reasons

We should now look at the other non east-west radial corridors in London which might justify a large step change in capacity. This requires us to disentangle the validation for different schemes. There is a past record of projects such as the Chelsea-Hackney line and we can’t avoid their history, they are part of Crossrail 2’s background. So we propose in the next part of this series to look particularly at the reasons which provided the logic for earlier versions of N/NE and S/SW corridors. That should allow a better comparison between ‘apples then’ and ‘apples now’.

Written by Jonathan Roberts