Glass towers will be great for Greenwich Peninsula – but it still needs a bridge to Canary Wharf

An artist's impression of Peninsula Place. Image: Knight Dragon.

The plans for a £1 billion revamp of North Greenwich tube station look amazing on paper. A famous architect, 800 homes, a performance venue and 30-storey glass towers… What’s not to love about Santiago Calatrava’s Peninsula Place?

Greenwich Peninsula may finally get a building that replaces the Dome as its symbol. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan even showed up at the launch, purring about “unlocking” the area’s potential.

Peninsula Place is due to replace the Norman Foster-designed bus station that sits on top of North Greenwich underground. The 20th Century Society wants it listed, but it’s no longer fit for purpose. An awkward design leads to buses queuing up to exit the station, particularly during the evening rush hour and major O2 events.

The problems also come from North Greenwich being the only tube station south of the river for miles around. It’s burdened with huge demand even before the 15,000 new homes planned for the peninsula are taken into account.

Peninsula Place won’t stop the battle of the buses

When North Greenwich opened in 1999, few lived nearby. Commuters bussed their way in from neighbouring districts such as Charlton and Blackheath, grateful for an alternative to poor National Rail services to central London. It can be cheaper, too: westbound trips from North Greenwich start in zone 2, neighbouring stations are in zone 3.

That big catchment area now stretches out to zone 4 Eltham, with one bus running non-stop down the Blackwall Tunnel approach to North Greenwich. Unsurprisingly, the 132 is now struggling to cope with demand from cost-conscious commuters.

The bus station is now at capacity. It’s packed and chaotic in rush hour. There are occasional reports of fights among passengers, while police sometimes have to supervise queues. A modest expansion – space to fit 17 buses rather than 15 – has been approved in the area’s masterplan. But this is unlikely to satisfy demand.

Pressure could be eased by improving National Rail services in the area, and maybe tweaking their fares to incentivise people away from North Greenwich. But change seems years off. The UK government is unwilling to devolve these services to the London authorities. So the new facilities will continue to face huge demand from people who don’t live nearby – piling pressure on the Jubilee Line.

The Jubilee Line will soon be at capacity

There’s some room for expansion at North Greenwich station, such as putting new entrances in. But the trains themselves can only hold so many. After the next Jubilee Line upgrade, which should see 36 trains per hour from 2021, there’ll be no more room on the line itself.

With major housing schemes also coming to Stratford, West Ham and Canning Town, it’ll be an almighty squeeze. TfL admitted so much in a submission to Greenwich Council in 2015, when the peninsula’s masterplan was approved, saying: “Jubilee Line crowding is already an issue and is forecast to continue in 2031.”

There are no new plans to provide any significant public transport access off the Greenwich Peninsula – even if Sadiq Khan mistakenly told one TV interview the area is getting Crossrail.

So if the Jubilee Line breaks down, you’ll be stuffed. You’ll just be stuffed beneath some £1bn glass towers, rather than in a draughty bus station.

Greenwich Peninsula needs a bridge to Canary Wharf

But a fair chunk of North Greenwich’s commuters are heading only one stop west, to Canary Wharf. So why not build a pedestrian/cycle bridge over the Thames to the business district? One is already pencilled in for the west side of the Isle of Dogs – but one to the east would relieve the Jubilee Line, provide a bit of resilience and bring the peninsula closer to its neighbour across the water.

Building a bridge that could cope with shipping – including cruise liners – would be a challenge, but it wouldn’t be insurmountable. Architect Sir Terry Farrell has suggested a low-level lifting bridge.

In 2009, TfL estimated the cost at up to £90m – but dropped the idea and built the cable car around the other side of the peninsula instead.

Greenwich Council also turned its nose up at the idea when approving the peninsula’s current masterplan in 2015 – even though the planning gain on Greenwich Peninsula could have covered most of the cost.

Repeating the mistakes of the past

Instead, a ferry to Canary Wharf is being mooted. But it’ll be expensive for users, will be vulnerable to the weather and is unlikely to provide round-the clock access.

The controversial Silvertown Tunnel road scheme (declaration of interest: I’m involved in the No to Silvertown Tunnel campaign) is likely to provide some extra buses (watch that bus station capacity). And the much-mocked Emirates Air Line cable car may see fare cuts if the tunnel gets the go-ahead.

But none of these will provide much capacity or resilience for the most popular journeys – and the peninsula will stay isolated from other areas of the capital.

Greenwich Peninsula was meant to be a community of the future. But much of what was built in the late 1990s hasn’t lasted. If Sadiq Khan and developer Knight Dragon want to avoid those mistakes and really unlock the area’s potential, they should think about putting some proper infrastructure in before the glass towers go up.

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Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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