Department of Transport boss warned ministers about risk Garden Bridge posed to taxpayer five months ago

Getting a bit sick of this artist's impression to be honest, lads. Image: Heatherwick.

Since April 2012, Philip Rutnam has been the permanent secretary – that is, the head – of the UK Department for Transport (DfT). In that capacity, he's also the “accounting officer”, responsible for ensuring that the department achieves good value for money.

If he's worried that a project will cost too much money, or provide too little benefit, he's entitled to write to his minister to request direction. In this way he can both formally set out his concerns, and – let's be honest about this – make sure it’s not his fault if it all goes tits up.

The reason I mention all this is because, last May, Philip Rutnam did just that. The letter in question concerns London's proposed Garden Bridge, which will be a much loved addition to the skyline or an embarrassing waste of time and money, depending on whose side you're on.

Rutnam begins his letter by explaining why he's writing it in the first place, and how the Garden Bridge came to be DfT's problem. Chancellor George Osborne promised to commit £30m to the project in December 2013, “subject to there being a satisfactory business case for the project".

Rutnam makes clear he was always cynical – “After examining the business case for the project in summer 2014, my judgment was that the transport benefits of the project were limited and came with a relatively high level of risk to value for money”. But, he adds “on the balance of probabilities I considered that this risk was acceptable”.

The problem is that the risk kept increasing, because the amount of money DfT had to make available before construction started – money that would, if the project collapsed, be lost – kept on increasing, too. Why? Because the Garden Bridge Trust (GBT), the charity running the scheme, asked for it. Here's the relevant passage:

One important control on the DfT's contribution is a cap on the amount that can be spent prior to construction. This was originally set at £8.2m, but it has since twice been agreed to increase the cap following requests from the Garden Bridge Trust, and it now stands at a little under £13.5m.

The Trust has now asked for a further increase in its permitted preconstruction spending of up to £15m (across DfT and Tfl combined). This is to underwrite the potential cancellation liabilities that it now will face if the project does not proceed. The Trustees have been advised that under charity law they could become personally liable for the Trust's unmet financial obligations if they have failed to manage risk prudently.

So – to protect the GBT’s trustees, the trust asked DfT and Transport for London (TfL) to underwrite their liabilities. Except that TfL then asked to be excused, too:

Following recent discussions with the Mayor of London, DfT has been asked to increase its pre-construction exposure by up to £15m to underwrite the potential cancellation liabilities.

And, Rutnam warned, for all sorts of reasons – GBT’s failure to acquire land on the South Bank, the need to raise another £40m in private donations – “the probability of these liabilities materialising is not negligible”.

The result:

If we increase our pre-construction commitment as requested and the bridge does not proceed, there would be cancellation costs to the public sector of up to £15m. This is in addition to sunk costs of around £13.5m committed by DfT and £22m by TfL. In this scenario, around 90% of the cost of the cancelled bridge would have been provided by the public sector funders, and DfT specifically would have provided up to a half of the total amount spent. In my judgment, this represents a disproportionate level of exposure for the Exchequer to the risk of failure on a charity-led project that was intended to be funded largely by private donations.

Look past the civil service jargon, and this is quietly damning. Rutnam is saying exactly what the Garden Bridge's critics have been saying since the project began: that, even though its transport benefits are limited, the cost of the project was  falling disproportionately on the taxpayer.


And yet, ministers decided the project would still go ahead. Go figure.

We approached the Garden Bridge Trust for comment. It said it couldn't comment on internal government communications.

This morning, the National Audit Office, a government spending watchdog, published its long-awaited report on the  project. It found that there is significant risk the bridge would never be built, and the DfT stood to lose as much as £22.5m if that happened.

And if the project isn't cancelled?

If the project continues, it is possible that the government will be approached for extra funding should the Trust face a funding shortfall. The project has faced cost increases and delays to the schedule. The pattern of behaviour outlined in this report is one in which the Trust has repeatedly approached the government to release more of its funding for pre-construction activities when it encounters challenges. The Department, in turn, has agreed to the Trust’s requests.

The Garden Bridge Trust is commenting on this one. Here’s the first paragraphs of its statement:

The Garden Bridge is a visionary project, connecting the South Bank with the North Bank, Covent Garden, the city and beyond.  It is the first of its kind, a pedestrian walkway through a garden of 270 trees, hedging, shrubs and plants.  It is an asset funded primarily by the private sector and bequeathed to London, enabling 9,000 commuters each weekday to cross the Thames without having to share a Bridge with traffic.  It will be a fantastic place for people to visit for free, 365 days a year.

It is right that there is scrutiny of the project because it involves public money and transparency is good for us at an uncertain time.

Draw your own conclusions.

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

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To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.