Even the casual visitor to London must be aware of its sprawling public transport network. The world-famous backbone to this is the London Underground, universally known as ‘The Tube”. Latest in its many extensions is the Elizabeth Line, also known by its working title of “Crossrail”. Scheduled to be a £14bn project, due to open to the public late last year, it has quietly transmogrified into a £17.6bn project, now due for completion “between October 2020 and April 2021”. The reasons given are software and safety.
The economic benefits of all this money are listed as
- £42bn benefit to the UK economy
- Better links between the capital’s major commercial and business districts – Heathrow, the West End, the City and Canary Wharf
- 55,000 full time jobs and 75,000 business opportunities during the construction of the new railway.
What they don’t say is that 95% of such benefits accrue to the London metropolitan area—their 10.4m people already the richest region in the UK (average salary £35,303) leaving 5% of diddly squat for the other 56m Britons (average salary £27.875).
It’s not that Crossrail is a bad idea, linking the atrociously served Heathrow airport with Paddington, Bond Street, Centre Point, Smithfield, The City and out past Stratford is a visionary link that fills a transport gap. But its execution is another example of UK Tory Government fixation with farming out huge public projects to the private sector. Though the collapse of the £5.4bn Carillion giant in January of 2018 was not the sole cause of Crossrail delay but its contribution of the Paddngton Integration component further muddied already murky waters.
Carillion’s collapse two weeks into the year, and then just two week’s ago Crossrail’s latest admission that the line will need £2bn more to be completed”. (New Civil Engineer, Jan. 2019)
Rather than trains at 5-minute intervals planned to run from December 2018, trains at 10-minute intervals are planned for Spring 2021, with the Bond Street station not due to open until later. While major projects of such complexity can be expected to run into problems, the reason for the delay is given as safety, especially the software control of signalling. Given that Crossrail over its central portion consists of two opposite tracks in tunnels with no branches and that even the DLR has been running for decades without even dives, this must count as the flimsiest of excuses. The tunnels are finished; the track is laid; most stations are complete, despite having to be show-horned into some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
Perhaps most galling for the rest of us is the scale of the cost increase. £3.6bn is seven Scottish Parliament buildings, four Edinburgh tam systems or three Queen Margaret Crossings. Add that in to other eye-watering London projects since the millennium alone, such as:
- Portcullis House—£235m (includes £1/2m for rented decorative fig trees!)
- Heathrow airport expansion—£18.6bn
- Extra runway at Gatwick airport—£7.4bn
- HST line to the Chunnel—£1.9bn
- St Pancras refurb for Eurostar—£800m
- Houses of Parliament refurb—£3.5bn
Even leaving aside major pre-2000 projects like the Jubilee Line, the Millennium Dome, renovation of most London train terminals, etc., that’s a round £50bn spent on London infrastructure alone, or about £5,000 for every Londoner. That’s five times the entire budget of all 32 local authorities in Scotland, who can’t even afford to build a mile of road, let alone an airport.
It is natural for investment in a capital city may be higher than elsewhere. But when the only significant infrastructure investment elsewhere is in essential schools and hospitals and little that will boost local economies and address some of this chronic imbalance, it is time to ask whether the Imperial Capital is siphoning off a lion’s share of the Imperial Budget and further skewing the income imbalance at the root of the provincial unrest behind Brexit Fever, Scottish independence, the mythical Northern Powerhouse and much else in the ex-industrial former heart of Britain.