Caroline Pidgeon writes…Elizabeth Line: Much to celebrate, but much to learn as well

Today’s opening of the central section of Crossrail is something to celebrate.

The benefits from Crossrail (or the Elizabeth Line as it has become) will be immense.

It will transform travel across London, but also large parts of the South East.  Indeed, it is myth that it is solely a London project. It will cut journey times, provide much needed additional train capacity and encourage people to switch away from making many journeys by car, including in time many people who travel around London by the M25.

Most importantly it will lead to a transformation in genuinely accessible travel.  Passengers will be amazed by the long platforms and trains of 200 metres in length; taking rail and tube travel to a new level.   All 41 Elizabeth line stations will be step-free to platform level, staffed from first to the last train, with a ‘turn-up and go’ service offered to anyone needing assistance. 

 However, whilst celebrating its opening, there is no excuse for forgetting that, as a project, it has fundamentally failed the basic test of being delivered on time and on budget.     

 The central section of Crossrail is opening three and half years late and even then one key station, Bond Street, will not be ready.   Crossrail’s total construction bill is already £4 billion over budget and its delayed opening has drained TfL of much needed fares revenue over the last few years.  The project will have cost around £20 billion on completion, though a good chunk of this has been paid for by London businesses.

The increased construction costs of Crossrail have resulted in many other transport schemes being delayed or even cancelled.   The Bakerloo Line extension and the signalling upgrades on the Piccadilly Line are just two key projects from a very long list of transport schemes in London which have been ‘paused’ in recent years.

I have set out in detail how lessons need to be learnt from Crossrail in a recent article for the website OnLondon.   Back in 2018 no one, including the then Chair and Chief Executive of Crossrail, wanted to admit it was not going to be ready on time, clutching at straws rather than reality. In addition, at this time, significant concerns raised by the independent reviewer, as early as January 2018, were largely ignored.  

The work undertaken by the London Assembly Transport Committee – which I have co-Chaired since 2008 – discovered that the desire to achieve the completion date overpowered any professional and critical assessment of risk.  We also concluded that the Crossrail Executive did not have the skills required at the later stages of the project to adequately assess and understand risks as they became apparent.  There are very different skill sets needed on such a project from the early civil engineering, to the complex systems integration.

Celebrating the opening of Crossrail must go hand in hand with ensuring lessons are learnt for the future.  We need more investment in rail across the UK, with learning from the Elizabeth Line on what went well, and what so clearly didn’t.  Projects such as High Speed Two in particular have much to learn from Crossrail.

To the many people across the country who feel that rail improvements are much needed in their region – I agree.  Investment in rail is needed across the UK.  I would also add that despite all the rhetoric of levelling up, this Government has hindered the process by denying access to the cheap lending of the European Investment Bank.  It is one of the many contradictions of Boris Johnson, that despite his role in the UK leaving the EU, he was happy for Crossrail and other transport projects to benefit greatly from borrowing from the European Investment Bank while Mayor of London.

I would like to see the funding mechanism that has funded Crossrail (which saw London businesses contributing significantly around the country) used as a model for new infrastructure projects.

But most importantly I also want to ensure that mistakes made with Crossrail are not repeated again.

We have much to celebrate today, but also much to learn for the future.  We need to keep on investing in rail across the UK, to make it fully accessible and help with modal shift.

  

 

* Caroline Pidgeon is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member and Deputy Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee

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20 Comments

  • Peter Martin 24th May '22 - 10:10am

    @ Caroline,

    It makes sense for euro using countries, and perhaps local councils in the UK, to make use of the European Investment Bank if the terms on offer are favourable. The situation is somewhat different for the UK central government. As we saw during the Pandemic, the availability of money is never a problem per se.

    The affordability, or otherwise, of projects such as the Elizabeth Line depends on the available resources in the economy. If they are available, governments can sensibly spend to make use of them. They don’t need to borrow in the conventional sense from external sources. However, if they are not available in the amounts necessary, any extra spending could create extra unwanted inflation.

  • £20 billion to connect places that are already well connected by one of the most comprehensive underground and rail systems anywhere in the world. What could this money have done for the Midlands and the North?

    It doesn’t even link the major rail termini to the main national airport – Heathrow is still not connected by express rail to Euston, St. Pancras International or King’s Cross

  • George Thomas 24th May '22 - 12:40pm

    “I would like to see the funding mechanism that has funded Crossrail (which saw London businesses contributing significantly) around the country used as a model for new infrastructure projects.”

    If London projects can be millions over budget and significantly delayed but other major projects aren’t even started because they risk getting there business will continue to move on mass to London (with significant numbers of the population following) and plans to have business contribute to local projects outside this one area won’t get off the ground.

    It’s not that it wasn’t needed, it was, but there is such an eagerness to build in London (and constituencies where Tories are defending small majority/attacking one) that the normal standards go out the window whereas they are clung too tightly to for anywhere else.

  • It is one of the many contradictions of Boris Johnson, that despite his role in the UK leaving the EU, he was happy for Crossrail and other transport projects to benefit greatly from borrowing from the European Investment Bank while Mayor of London.

    No contradiction at all. While in the EU the UK was subject to the limits on government borrowing imposed by the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP). This resulted in public sector projects being funded ’off the books’ by EIB loans and schemes such as PFI. Now we are free of the SGP, the government no longer needs to ‘launder money’ via the EIB – it can fund projects directly, as it has done for HS2.

    At the time the Crossrail loans were taken out in 2009 and 2013, the EU had put the UK into Excessive Deficit Procedure (EDP) necessitating severe cuts in public spending and borrowing…

    ‘2008/713/EC: Council Decision of 8 July 2008 on the existence of an excessive deficit in the United Kingdom’:
    https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A32008D0713

    ‘Austerity has not been a Tory choice, but an EU one’ [July 2019]:
    https://joelrwrites.wordpress.com/2019/07/04/austerity-has-not-been-a-tory-choice-but-an-eu-one/

    The EU has opened Excessive Deficit Procedure measures against the UK three times (1998, 2004 — 2007, and 2008 — 2017) since the Stability & Growth Pact was signed. It was the most recent recommendations from 2008 which led to all major parties in the UK promising to reduce the deficit through austerity measures.

  • Malcolm Todd 24th May '22 - 3:17pm

    Still touting that old rubbish, Jeff?

    Have you actually read the text of the EU ‘decision’ that you repeatedly link to?

    The EU ‘decided’ that “an excessive deficit exists in the United Kingdom”.

    That’s it. That’s all. It neither had nor claimed to have any power whatsoever to do anything about the “excessive deficit” – and whilst you and I and Peter Martin may all agree that there wasn’t really anything “excessive” about it, British public opinion was the other way.
    Austerity was absolutely made in Westminster. Blaming the EU for it is either laughably ignorant or contemptibly dishonest.

  • Malcolm Todd 24th May ’22 – 3:17pm:
    Still touting that old rubbish, Jeff?

    Rubbish or not, it’s what we had signed up to. It was a treaty obligation as I’ve explained before…

    https://www.libdemvoice.org/guardian-vote-liberal-democrat-in-north-shropshire-69276.html#comment-564321

  • Malcolm Todd 24th May '22 - 6:55pm

    Complete and utter rubbish Jeff. As I pointed out in more detail in the discussion you’ve kindly linked to. Your attempts there at refuting it make no sense and are self-contradictory. The difference between “avoid” and “endeavour to avoid” can’t just be swept under the carpet and all the rest is just pious verbiage. Point to a single actual consequence that it was in the EU’s power to bring about in order to coerce the UK government to do anything on the deficit that it didn’t want to do. Go on.

  • @Jeff – ” it can fund projects directly, as it has done for HS2.”
    The UK government has been funding HS2 directly since 2010, it didn’t need to leave the EU to do this…
    By the way, Westminster had to do this as there no one was prepared to invest; yet private investors were prepared to invest in a new Liverpool – Channel tunnel freight line, something Westminster didn’t want, probably because it would have made better use of the existing trackbeds they were wanting for HS2…

  • James Fowler 24th May '22 - 7:53pm

    It was great to see Crossrail finally opened today. First touted in the early ’90s, it’s taken a while(!) but the result is superb. I think a public transport system can compete with the car if its ticketing satisfies convenience equivalent to a set of car keys and it confers a degree of social status on its users. Crossrail does both, and it’s great to see it. Sadly, we needn’t hold our breath for the next installment though. It was built to serve the effervescent capital city of a confident, open, outward looking country that doesn’t exist anymore.

  • @ James Fowler, “it confers a degree of social status on its users”. I’m not so sure that that is what radical social liberalism ought to be about, James.

    @ James Moore, “What could this money have done for the Midlands and the North ?”
    Indeed, James, but please don’t forget there are some other bits of the UK as presently constituted beyond certain borders – and outside the (increasingly) Anglo-centric bits – who pay taxes into the Commonweal.

    Having said that you may well have a point about how some folk (including a fair number in the Lib Dems nowadays) whose horizons are centred only as far as ‘Blue Walls’ in London and the Home Counties.

  • Thanks Caroline. A very helpful briefing for those of us a bit bewildered by this whole saga.

  • Roland 24th May ’22 – 7:42pm:
    The UK government has been funding HS2 directly since 2010, it didn’t need to leave the EU to do this…

    That small early funding counted towards government borrowing making it harder to meet our obligations under the Stability and Growth Pact. Essentially, it displaced government spending on other priorities such as schools and hospitals. By contrast, money borrowed from the EIB didn’t count towards government borrowing. Now we are free of the SGP rules there’s no need to borrow ‘off the books’ anymore – no bank can borrow new pounds into existence more cheaply than the government. There may be other reasons why the government doesn’t wish to do so as you indicate by example.

  • Malcolm Todd 24th May ’22 – 6:55pm:
    The difference between “avoid” and “endeavour to avoid” can’t just be swept under the carpet…

    The difference in sanctions is discussed in the article I cited: eurozone members can be fined (0.2% of GDP) while non-eurozone members, like the UK, could not. In practice, no country has ever been fined so the difference is largely academic.

    A deliberate policy, as you seem to advocate, of ignoring our then treaty obligation to follow the SGP rules would eventually have had consequences both financial and political.

    Point to a single actual consequence that it was in the EU’s power to bring about in order to coerce the UK government to do anything on the deficit that it didn’t want to do.

    Suspension from one or more of the five European structural and investment funds: the European Regional Development Fund, the European Social Fund, the Cohesion Fund, the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development, and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund…

    ‘Stability and Growth Pact – An Overview’:
    https://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201410/20141008ATT90771/20141008ATT90771EN.pdf

    Possible sanctions in the preventive and corrective arms of the SGP
    […]

    Furthermore, the so-called macro-economic conditionality (in force since end 2013) implies, both for euro area and non euro area Member States, possible suspensions of up to five European structural and investment funds in case of failure or repeated failure to take effective action to correct the excessive deficit.

  • James Fowler 25th May '22 - 10:30pm

    @David Raw. People are, whether we like it or not, acutely conscious of the social signals that their choices emit in all kinds of ways. One of the worst things that happened to public transport after WW2 is that it became linked to the idea of being the ‘choice’ of people who could not afford a private car. The frequently shabby facilities and poor state and age of vehicle fleets underlined the message that ‘public’ was the second best, or the last resort. Prestigious developments rub off on their users – yes, sometimes in pernicious or trivial ways. But in the case of Crossrail, I think the inferred status is a good thing.

  • Andy Boddington 26th May '22 - 8:42am

    Can I remind contributors to the comments thread that they should address the subject and treat other commenters with respect? Thanks. Andy

  • @Jeff – “That small early funding counted towards government borrowing making it harder to meet our obligations under the Stability and Growth Pact. Essentially, it displaced government spending on other priorities such as schools and hospitals.”

    An entirely self-inflicted stage of affairs which the LibDems in Coalition contributed to by being daft enough to support HS2, enabling it to remain on the post-2010 “priority” government spending list.

  • Andrew Tampion 26th May '22 - 12:05pm

    Ian Sanderson
    “Actually, in respect of through city centre railways to outer suburbs, London is about 40 years behind Paris and major German cities.”
    Maybe but it’s approximately 100 years ahead of the rest of the country.
    Consider my adopted home town of Hinckley, Leicestershire. When I moved here in 1989 there were 2 serves an hour in both directions. One from Birmingham to Leicester and one from Coventry to Nottingham. Then 20 years ago the Coventry to Nottingham service was axed. Not because of usage but because of changes to the track layout at Nuneaton to improve journey times to and from London on the West Coast Mainline. These make it impossible for trains to transfer from the Coventry to Nuneaton line onto the Nuneaton to Leicester line. This means that Leicester and Coventry, less than 30 miles apart, are not connected by rail unless you change trains. There are proposals to restore the link which would cost £100 million. I am sure that the Elizabeth line is a great achievement. But even if you assume that the restoration of direct trains between Leicester and Coventry would cost double a hundred projects of that kind would be a far greater achievement and would benfit the whole country by promoting levelling up.

  • Jason Connor 26th May '22 - 6:17pm

    “Celebrating the opening of Crossrail must go hand in hand with ensuring lessons are learnt for the future. We need more investment in rail across the UK.” I agree Caroline. One of your many excellent articles as always. Part of the levelling up agenda should be to ensure that transport infrastructure and connectivity is improved as others have mentioned in the Midlands, up North and other parts of the UK. These projects should not be London centric. I will probably not be using Crossrail much as it does not reach my area of SE London or come close and one of its disbenefits is to reduce bus journeys borough-wide.

  • Peter Martin 27th May '22 - 9:10am

    @ Malcolm Todd,

    “….whilst you and I and Peter Martin may all agree that there wasn’t really anything “excessive” about it, British public opinion was the other way.”

    According to the principle of sectoral balances the Government’s deficit is everyone else’s surplus (or savings). This is made up of domestic savings plus the savings of our international trading partners which they accrue due to our continued trade deficit. So, despite what many might have thought, the actions of the public, ie substantial savings plus a widespread desire to purchase imported products, did dictate that the Government would run a deficit.

    If this had been properly explained….

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