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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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.