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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A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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