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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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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