Comment: London transport developments leave the regions out in the cold

By Alex Burrows

There appears to be a growing disconnect between London and the rest of the country when it comes to investment in transport schemes.

We can point to numerous London stations recently, about to undergo major redevelopment – think of St Pancras, King’s Cross, Blackfriars and London Bridge – in addition to the huge Thameslink upgrade and the construction of the new Crossrail 1 line.

But then look outwards to the rest of the country; what do we see of equivalence? Yes, the Birmingham New Street and Reading station rebuilds, and Northern Hub and Manchester Metrolink schemes, but these hardly seem like a fair share of the deal on the face of it.

It was in this context that we recently hosted an event with the transport minister Stephen Hammond to discuss Crossrail 2. London First, who successfully campaigned for Crossrail 1, recently published a report on the need for Crossrail 2, and it makes compelling read. With 1.5 million extra people living in London and 700,000 additional jobs by 2030, London’s transport network is going to be under immense strain. The minister and all present considered the scheme necessary to plan for the future, especially given the length of time it takes to deliver major infrastructure.

But how does this all fit? I think everyone accepts that investing in infrastructure is of vital long-term strategic importance to the country’s wealth and wellbeing. Furthermore, the link between good transport infrastructure and a successful economy is well evidenced, with the converse being equally true and evident. Well connected towns and cities economically outperform poorly-connected areas. Connectivity is vital as is capacity. A great transport network is all well and good but it will naturally support and create demand. Once demand outstrips supply then problems begin. Think of rush hour and the relative fare levels compared to the quieter off-peak times.

So a successful economy needs a transport network that provides sufficient connectivity and capacity. This is where Crossrail 2 makes a strong case. The Crossrail 2 line of route links south-west London and north-east London via central London. The long-standing Chelsea-Hackney line is broadly the base for Crossrail 2, connecting the two areas with existing demand but poorly served by the current tube network. But the big gains are the major capacity relief this route will provide for the stations on the current south-west trains network. This is a hugely busy network reaching out from Wimbledon to towns like Kingston, Surbiton, Twickenham, Shepperton, Chessington and many others who are seeing continued growth, but very limited room to expand.

Crossrail 2 will also provide great relief to the busy Northern, Victoria and Piccadilly lines along with Waterloo and Victoria stations, which are in desperate need of such additional capacity. Then there is the arrival of High Speed 2 into central London. The London First proposition suggests a station spanning Euston, St Pancras and King’s Cross – a mega-station that will suck thousands of commuters an hour through the funnel of these north London termini and out across the breadth of London. The ability to move those passengers through from their trains and onto London’s transport network is vital, and Crossrail 2 provides a valuable means of achieving that.

So the Crossrail 2 proposition is a logical response to the issue of how we keep pace with London’s growth. But to go back to the start, it begs the question of whether there are two completely separate worlds where major investment in such huge schemes is considered not just acceptable, but vital for London’s wealth, wellbeing and competitiveness – whereas a scheme with the fraction of the cost would struggle to be funded in even the large regional cities.

For example, look to the West Midlands. The neighbouring conurbations of Birmingham and the Black Country (each with a population of around 1.1 million people), have long held plans for developing the Midland Metro network to connect the numerous towns and communities with Birmingham and Wolverhampton city centres, along with Birmingham Airport, the International Convention Centre and numerous other key areas. This is another example of a major scheme that connects people with jobs and supports the economic growth that all our regional economies are looking to achieve. But the case simply is not there by comparison, even though it would cost much less than Crossrail 2.

Has London got to the stage where the public transport network is so good that in order to develop it, the cost is going to be significant? Is it because of the fact that politicians and civil servants are all based in London? Does London transport hold a special place in the national decision-makers’ psyche? Or is it just the case that London makes the case better because of the governance structures in place (ie mayor, assembly and transport for London)?

I consider the case for Crossrail 2 a strong one – starving London of such long term strategic planning and investment would do far too much harm to London and the country as a whole; so, surely, now is the time for the regional cities to raise their game to match London’s status?

Alex Burrows is head of transport and infrastructure at Insight Public Affairs.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.