Sim Chris Grayling: What else could Britain's transport secretary build if he cancelled High Speed 2?

Imagine you are this man. No, don't click away, it's a good article, I promise! Image: Getty.

Good morning, Chris! Here are your briefings – there’s an important one in there about HS2 there, with a memorandum attached from Theresa and Philip.

What? No! Yes. It’s like the worst-ever iteration of Freaky Friday you could think of. You’ve woken up as Chris Grayling, longtime stalker of the shadows of darkness and erstwhile Transport Secretary.

Tentatively, you open the red ministerial box that the staffer (who weirdly seems to be in your bedroom) has brought you. The top paper lists different possible cost projections for High Speed 2, a seven-year-old’s notion of building a new train line (“Darling there’s already a train line there” / “Yes, mummy, but this one is faster!”).

Estimates from back in June 2013 revised the expected cost upwards, from £33bn to £43bn. The November 2015 Autumn Statement then put the estimate of how much it might cost at more than £55b.  But so-called “Treasury insiders”, as cited by the Sunday Times, are talking about the project with a £73bn price tag attached. (And so-called experts, of whom this country has had enough, have said the entire jolly could rack up £90bn bills by the time it’s all over. )

But what’s this? A note from Theresa May and Philip Hammond, saying the prime minister wants it cancelled, but the chancellor still wants to spend the money on transport infrastructure to show Britain means breakfast?

So. You’ve got somewhere between £33bn and £90bn to spend, and barely any time to work out how to do it and fire off a response to Philip and the team. Whip out your calculator…

The Varsity Rail Link – Cost: £530m

The train link between Oxford and Cambridge – two of the fastest-growing cities in the country with rocketing house prices and burgeoning job growth – has been on the cards for decades, almost ever since services chugged to a halt in 1967.

 

The technical name for the project is the “East-West Rail Link”, and the plan as a whole is to link Oxford with Cambridge via Bicester, Milton Keynes, and Bedford, with the possibility of spurs heading onto Ipswich and Norwich. While it’s hard to get hold of all that many decent estimations of the cost, the reckoning seems to be about £530m of your English pounds for the privilege of saving thousands of beleaguered science and tech types from enduring either the X5 bus between the two (don’t even), or the current three-hour journey on the train via Paddington and King’s Cross.

A good, dependable, “white-heat-of-technology” addition to the expenses claim.

Northern Hub Rail Links – Cost: £560m

Yes, George Osborne has been put on the naughty step, but in fairness to him the idea of actually, like, investing in infrastructure outside of London and the South East was one of his finer moments.

The Northern Hub project isn’t one of the sexiest in the books – it mostly involves electrifying lots of bits of line, sprucing up some seriously-in-need stations, putting in a couple of corners of track, and making things generally faster, better, and more efficient by very small and wonkish improvements. Like Hillary Clinton, but in rail project form.

The cost is estimated at around the £560m mark, but the benefits are thought to be pretty significant. Faster trains, more of them, and (allegedly) at least £4bn in economic rewards to be reaped. Plus, if Theresa fancies a flashback to the ancien régime, loads of opportunities to stand on building sites wearing hi-vis and a hard hat.

Boring but important. An exemplification of this government’s personal brand.

Total cost of all projects so far: £1.1bn

Crossrail 2 – Cost: £32bn

At the end of the day, being Transport Secretary is only fun if you can play Mini Metro but in real life and with actual trains and all that. If you enjoyed the Elizabeth Line, née Crossrail, just wait until you see the sequel! Spiralling from somewhere south-west-London-ish, like Epsom (my seat! Hurrah!) through transport-connection-starved places like Balham, Clapham Junction, Victoria, King’s Cross, St. Pancras, and Euston up towards Hackney, Enfield, and Southgate, it’s a big-bucks investment.

Click to expand. Image: TfL.

It may seem like London has far too many lines and way too much money poured into its infrastructure already, but when you think about the fact that the Elizabeth Line, née Crossrail, will be almost entirely choc-a-bloc within just a few years, it’s probably worth doing some future-proofing.

And if I’m still around by then, I might even get to name it. If Elizabeth gets her own line, why can’t I? “The Chris Grayling Line” – I can just see it now. Or if the future king wants his own, you could get punny and call it The Caro-line. Because niche linguistic banter is the best kind of banter.

Expensive, but chaos-averting. Plus, makes my trips into Soho much easier

Total cost of all projects so far: £33.1bn

At this point, we’ve done great things, and only spent around the £33bn mark – the lowest estimate of the cost of HS2, from back in the innocent days pre-2013. There’s more.

Extending the Bakerloo Line – Cost: £3bn,

The Bakerloo Line extension is a tale as old as time, and it’s really only down to a managerial oversight that it wasn’t included in the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale collection.

Taking the Bakerloo line further south from its current terminus at Elephant and Castle was first on the cards as part of the London Electric Metropolitan District and Central London Railway Companies (Works) Act, which passed in 1931 but was strangely not acted upon. Congestion on the Metropolitan line diverted attention to extending the line north from Baker Street to Finchley Road (on track now appropriated by the Jubilee Line), and then a big old thing called the Second World War happened and everyone forgot about it.

The mantle was taken up again in earnest by various politicians – including local Camberwell & Peckham MP Harriet Harman – around the turn of the century. Ken Livingstone, the then mayor of London, boldly declared in 2006 that Camberwell would have a tube station within 20 years – he’s got 10 years to not be wrong, and very little power to do anything about it, so we’ll see.

Click to expand. Image: TfL.

A consultation is up and running on extending the Bakerloo line via either Camberwell and Peckham or various stops along the Monopoly-stigmatised Old Kent Road, with a view to ending up somewhere in Bromley, Beckenham, or Hayes, currently serviced by miserable Southern and Southeastern services.  

A chance to shift London’s centre of gravity, even if everyone already hates the Bakerloo line anyway. Why not?

Total cost of all projects so far: £36.1bn

The “New Tube for London” – Cost: £16.4bn

With one of the sexiest transport launch videos in history (if you’re into that sort of thing), the “New Tube for London” programme promises faster and more regular walk-through trains with air conditioning and fancy screens for the three innermost circles of hell – also known as the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, and Central lines. The Waterloo & City line is getting some too, but nobody really cares.

Image: TfL.

The investment in rolling stock is set to be one of the biggest in the history of the London Underground, matched only by the huge roll-out of the S7/8 class trains on the Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City, Circle, and District lines from 2010.

So much cool shiny new stuff doesn’t come cheap, though, and at £16.4bn it’s certainly a pretty penny for the privilege of being able to back slowly but entirely away when you realise you’ve got on the same tube carriage as an ex.

Worth it? Totally.

Total cost of all projects so far: £50.7bn

Fund a 7-day Night Tube for 5 years – Cost: £350m

We don’t yet know exactly how much the night tube in its entirety costs to run, mostly (obviously) because the whole night network won’t be up and running until December. But we do have some figures from before the launch which implied a running cost of £1.5m a month to stump up night tube services two nights a week, Friday and Saturday.

So if you extrapolate those figures, and multiply them by three and a half, you can roughly guess that to run the night tube seven nights a week would cost  around the £5.35m a month mark to run. Put that into an annual context and you get £63m a year. Give it a bit of leeway and bump that up to £70m a year. Times that figure by five and you get £350m, everyone’s favourite political number.

“We don’t really send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the night tube for five years instead.”

I’ll buy it.

Total cost of all projects so far: £51.1bn

That takes us to roughly the financial ball-park of the official £55bn estimate. But if “insiders” and “experts” are throwing around other figures, why not keep going?


Bridge Over Troubled Water – Cost: £22bn

Back when Margaret of the House Thatcher sat on the Iron Throne, a plan for a bridge over the English Channel did the rounds. Details emerged when files were released from the National Archives in 2007.

The bridge was ditched because it was thought unfeasible and too expensive, but the plans sketched out at the time estimated cost at £3bn. Hash that through a dubiously-reliable inflation calculator and you get a cost of around £11bn. Double it, because, you know, life is expensive, and you’re on £22bn. Add that to everything else and you’re almost bang on £73bn, the figure those insiders at the Treasury say HS2 is likely to end up costing.

Then we’d have a mainland connection to Europe (sorry Northern Ireland), the glorious world of Schengen could extend direct from John O’Groats to Gibraltar via the great and the good of our European family. Because Brexit means bridge, and we are going to make a dog’s breakfast of it.

Happy Autumn Statement, Philip!

Total cost of all projects so far: £51.1bn

P.S Alternatively wait a few years for Hyperloop technology to get cheaper and then build one of those from London to Birmingham like the one they’re getting in Dubai. Sunglasses emoji.

Yours, The Rt. Hon. Chris Grayling MP.

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“Black cabs are not public transport”: on the most baffling press release we’ve seen in some time

An earlier black cab protest: this one was against congestion and pollution. I'm not making this up. Image: Getty.

You know, I sometimes think that trade unions get a raw deal in this country. Reports of industrial action almost always frame it as a matter of workers’ selfishness and public disruption, rather than one of defending vital labour rights; and when London’s tube grinds to a halt, few people will find out what the dispute is actually about before declaring that the drivers should all be replaced by robots at the earliest possible opportunity or, possibly, shot.

We should be a bit more sympathetic towards trade unions, is what I’m saying here: a bit more understanding about the role they played in improving working life for all of us, and the fact that defending their members’ interests is literally their job.

Anyway, all that said, the RMT seems to have gone completely fucking doolally.

TAXI UNION RMT says that the closure of the pivotal Bank Junction to all vehicles (other than buses and bicycles) exposes Transport for London’s (TfL) symptom-focused decision-making and unwillingness to tackle the cause of the problem.

So begins a press release the union put out on Thursday. It’s referring to a plan to place new restrictions on who can pass one of the City of London’s dirtiest and most dangerous junctions, by banning private vehicles from using it.

The junction in question: busy day. Image: Google.

If at first glance the RMT’s words seem reasonable enough, then consider two pieces of information not included in that paragraph:

1) It’s not a TfL scheme, but a City of London Corporation one (essentially, the local council); and

2) The reason for the press release is that, at 5pm on Thursday, hundreds of black cab drivers descended on Bank Junction to create gridlock, in their time-honoured way of whining about something. Blocking major roads for several hours at a time has always struck me as an odd way of trying to win friends and influence people, if I’m frank, but let’s get back to the press release, the next line of which drops a strong hint that something else is going on here:

TfL’s gutlessness in failing to stand-up to multi-national venture capital-backed raiders such as Uber, has left our streets flooded with minicabs.

That suggests that this is another barrage in the black cabs’ ongoing war against competition from Uber. This conflict is odd in its way – it’s not as if there weren’t minicabs offering a low cost alternative to the classic London taxi before Uber came along, but we’ve not had a lengthy PR war against, say, Gants Hill Cars – but it’s at least familiar territory, so it’d be easy, at this point, to assume we know where we are.

Except then it gets really weird.

With buses stuck in gridlock behind haphazardly driven Uber cars – and with the Tube dangerously overcrowded during peak hours – people are turning out of desperation to commuting by bicycle.

Despite its impracticality, there has been an explosion in the number of people commuting by bike. Astonishingly, 30% of road traffic traversing Bank Junction are now cyclists.

Soooo... the only reason anyone might want to cycle is because public transport is now bad because of Uber? Not because it’s fun or healthy or just nicer than being stuck in a metal box for 45 minutes – because of badly driven Ubers something something?

Other things the cabbies will blame Uber for in upcoming press releases: climate change, Brexit, the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war in July 1870, the fact they couldn’t get tickets for Hamilton.

It is time that TfL refused to licence Uber, which it acknowledges is unlawfully “plying for hire”.

Okay, maybe, we can talk about that.

It is time that black cabs were recognised and supported as a mode of public transport.

...what?

It is time that cuts to the Tube were reversed.

I mean, sure, we can talk about that too, but... can you go back to that last bit, please?

RMT General Secretary, Mick Cash, said:

“RMT agrees with proposals which improve public safety, but it is clear that the driving factor behind the decision is to improve bus journey times under a buckling road network.

“Black cabs are an integral part of the public transport system and as the data shows, one of the safest.”

This is all so very mixed up, it’s hard to know where to begin. Black cabs are not public transport – as lovely as they are, they’re simply too expensive. Even in New York City, where the cabs are much, much cheaper, it’d be silly to class them as public transport. In London, where they’re so over-priced they’re basically the preserve of the rich and those who’ve had enough to drink to mistakenly consider themselves such, it’s just nonsense.

Also – if this decision has been taken for the sake of improving bus journey times, then what’s wrong with that? I haven’t run the numbers, but I’d be amazed if that wasn’t a bigger gain to the city than “improving life for the people who take cabs”. Because – as I may have mentioned – black cabs are not public transport.


Anyway, to sum the RMT’s position up: we should invest in the tube but not the buses, expensive black cabs are public transport but cheaper Ubers are the work of the devil, and the only reason anyone would ever go by bike is because they’ve been left with no choice by all those people in the wrong sort of taxi screwing everything up. Oh, and causing gridlock at peak time is a good way to win friends.

Everyone got that straight?

None of this is to say Uber is perfect – there are many things about it that are terrible, including both the way people have mistaken it for a revolutionary new form of capitalism (as opposed to, say, a minicab firm with an app), and its attitude to workers (ironically, what they could really do with is a union). The way TfL is acting towards the firm is no doubt imperfect too.

But the RMT’s attitude in this press release is just baffling. Of course it has to defends its members interests – taxi drivers just as much as tube drivers. And of course it has to be seen to be doing so, so as to attract new members.

But should it really be trying to do both in the same press release? Because the result is a statement which demands TfL do more for cab drivers, slams it for doing anything for bus users, and casually insults anyone on two wheels in the process.

A union’s job is to look after its members. I’m not sure nonsense like this will achieve anything of the sort.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @jonnelledge.

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