This is why the Garden Bridge may never actually happen

Be honest, you're going to miss this artist's impression when we stop using it. Image: bloody Heatherwick again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article originally incorrectly stated that the new bridge had yet to gain planning permission on the South Bank of the river. We are happy to make this correction.

One of the great mysteries of contemporary London is how the Garden Bridge project came to be so hated. Gardens are nice. Bridges are nice. Even Joanna Lumley, if you’re into such things, is nice.

And yet, at least among the sort of people inclined to bang on about municipal politics on social media, the Garden Bridge seems to have become an icon of everything that is wrong with contemporary London: money thrown at functionless nicknacks for tourists and the rich corporations, and designed by the authorities’ mates, even while the city’s real problems go unsolved. It takes impressive PR skills to turn what is essentially just a park into the infrastructure equivalent of the Masque of the Red Death, but somehow the Garden Bridge’s backers have done it.

Anyway, for the reason, the publication of the Garden Bridge Trust’s accounts yesterday caused rather more excitement than some numbers from a charity normally would. The Trust has tended to respond to all stories about them with bland assurances that everything is just peachy (honestly, they once asked me to add a clarification to what was very obviously a joke story), so you might expect the news to be good.

The news is not good. The accounts, which cover the 17 months to March 2016, and are put together by the charity’s trustees – effectively, its board, rather than its management – conclude that the project is in serious trouble. The key line in the introduction by the trust’s chairman, Lord Mervyn Davies, is this:

“Due to the material uncertainties in existence ahead of finalising these accounts, trustees are unable to conclude that the trust is a going concern, and feel it only appropriate to flag these risks in this report.”

“Not a going concern” is exactly the phrase you want people reading just before you ask them to donate to your infrastructure project.

So what’s gone wrong?

The costs have soared

The project was expected to cost £185m. Its actual costs are now likely to “substantially exceed” that.

The project still needs more public support

One of the hurdles still to be overcome, Davies notes, will be to get mayor Sadiq Khan to promise to honour the pledge made by his predecessor that the London city authorities will guarantee the bridge’s future maintenance costs. It’s unclear, to say the least, that Khan has any intention of doing this. More likely, in fact, he’s trying to cancel it by stealth.


Donations are down

Even to cover the £185m, the Trust would need to raise another £56m. Yet in the 17 month period covered in the accounts, the trust raised just £13m in new private donations for the bridge. At that rate, it’s going to take years.

The clock is ticking

And the project doesn’t have years. The planning consent the bridge has on the north bank of the river, from Westminster council, expires in December 2017. (It also requires a deal to be in place to guarantee maintenance costs, hence the pressure on Sadiq Khan to do what Boris Johnson promised.)

So – the Garden Bridge Trust needs to find substantially more than £56m, get more planning consent, and persuade the mayor the project is worth throwing more money at, all in the next few months – otherwise, the whole thing is dead. Good luck with that.

It’s a shame, in its way. The Garden Bridge should be lovely: a new park, in a part of London that’s short of them. But it probably isn’t going to happen – and the project’s chequered history mean that many won’t mourn when it doesn’t.

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

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What other British cities can learn from the Tyne & Wear Metro

A Metro train at Monument. Image: Callum Cape/Wikipedia.

Ask any person on the street what they know about Newcastle, and they’ll list a few things. They’ll mention the accent; they’ll mention the football; they’ll mention brown ale and Sting and Greggs. They might even mention coal or shipbuilding, and then the conversation will inevitably turn political, and you’ll wish you hadn’t stopped to ask someone about Newcastle at all.

They won’t, however, mention the Tyne and Wear Metro, because they haven’t probably heard of it – which is a shame, because the Metro is one of the best things the north-east has to offer.

Two main issues plague suburban trains. One is frequency. Suburban rail networks often run on poor frequency; to take Birmingham for an example, most of its trains operate at 30-minute intervals.

The other is simplicity. Using Birmingham again, the entire system is built around New Street, leading to a very simple network. Actually, that’s not quite true: if you’re coming from Leamington Spa, Warwick, Stourbridge, Solihull or a host of other major minor (minor major?) towns, you don’t actually connect to New Street – no, you don’t even connect to the ENTIRE SYSTEM BUILT AROUND NEW STREET except at Smethwick Galton Bridge, miles away in the western suburbs, where the physical tracks don’t even connect – they pass over each other. Plus, what on earth is the blue line to Walsall doing?

An ageing map of the West Midlands rail network: click any of the images in this article to expand them. Image: Transport for the West Midlands/Centro.

But Newcastle has long been a hub of railway activity. Tragically, the north-east has fewer active railway lines than any other region of the UK. Less tragically, this is because Tyne and Wear has the Metro.


The Metro was formed in 1980 from a somewhat eccentric collection of railways, including freight-only lines, part of the old Tyneside Electrics route, underground tunnelling through the city centre, track-sharing on the National Rail route to Sunderland, and lines closed after the Beeching axe fell in the early 1960s.

From this random group of railway lines, the Metro has managed to produce a very simple network of two lines. Both take a somewhat circuitous route, the Yellow line especially, because it’s literally a circle for much of its route; but they get to most of the major population centres. And frequency is excellent – a basic 5 trains an hour, with 10 tph on the inner core, increasing at peak times (my local station sees 17 tph each way in the morning peak).

Fares are simple, too: there are only three zones, and they’re generally good value, whilst the Metro has been a national leader in pay-as-you-go technology (PAYG), with a tap-in, tap-out system. The Metro also shares many characteristics of European light rail systems – for example, it uses the metric system (although this will doubtless revert to miles and chains post-Brexit, whilst fares will be paid in shillings).

 

The Metro network. Image: Nexus.

Perhaps most importantly, the Metro has been the British pioneer for the Karlsruhe model, in which light rail trains share tracks with mainline services. This began in 2002 with the extension to Sunderland, and, with new bi-mode trains coming in the next ten years, the Metro could expand further around the northeast. The Sheffield Supertram also recently adopted this model with its expansion to Rotherham; other cities, like Manchester, are considering similar moves.

However, these cities aren’t considering what the Metro has done best – amalgamated local lines to allow people to get around a city easily. Most cities’ rail services are focused on those commuters who travel in from outside, instead of allowing travel within a city; there’s no coherent system of corridors allowing residents to travel within the limits of a city.

The Metro doesn’t only offer lessons to big cities. Oxford, for example, currently has dire public transport, focused on busy buses which share the same congested roads as private vehicles; the city currently has only two rail stations near the centre (red dots).

Image: Google.

But it doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, Oxford is a fairly lateral city, featuring lots of north-south movements, along broadly the same route the railway line follows. So, using some existing infrastructure and reinstating other parts, Oxford’s public transport could be drastically improved. With limited engineering work, new stations could be built on the current track (blue dots on the map below; with more extensive work, the Cowley branch could be reinstated, too (orange dots). Electrify this new six-station route and, hey presto, Oxford has a functioning metro system; the short length of the route also means that few trains would be necessary for a fequent service.

Image: Google.

Next up: Leeds. West Yorkshire is a densely populated area with a large number of railway lines. Perfect! I hear you cry. Imperfect! I cry in return. Waaaaaah! Cry the people of Leeds, who, after two cancelled rapid transit schemes, have had enough of imaginative public transport projects.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire:

Image: Google.

Here’s a map of West Yorkshire’s railway network:

 ​

Image: West Yorkshire Metro.

The problem is that all of the lines go to major towns, places like Dewsbury, Halifax or Castleford, which need a mainline connection due to their size. Options for a metro service are limited.

But that’s not to say they’re non-existent. For example, the Leeds-Bradford Interchange line passes through densely populated areas; and anyway, Bradford Interchange is a terminus, so it’s poorly suited to service as a through station, as it’s currently being used.

Image: Google.

With several extra stops, this line could be converted to a higher frequency light rail operation. It would then enter an underground section just before Holbeck; trains from Halifax could now reach Leeds via the Dewsbury line. The underground section would pass underneath Leeds station, therefore freeing up capacity at the mainline station, potentially simplifying the track layout as well.

 

Image: Google.

Then you have the lines from Dewsbury and Wakefield, which nearly touch here:

Image: Google.

By building a chord, services from Morley northwards could run into Leeds via the Wakefield line, leaving the Dewsbury line north of Morley open for light rail operation, probably with an interchange at the aforementioned station.

Image: Google.

The Leeds-Micklefield section of the Leeds-York line could also be put into metro service, by building a chord west of Woodlesford over the River Aire and connecting at Neville Hill Depot (this would involve running services from York and Selby via Castleford instead):

The path of the proposed chord, in white. Image: Google.

With a section of underground track in Leeds city centre, and an underground line into the north-east of Leeds – an area completely unserved by rail transport at present – the overall map could look like this, with the pink and yellow dots representing different lines:

Et voila! Image: Google.

Leeds would then have a light-rail based public transport system, with potential for expansion using the Karlsruhe model. It wouldn’t even be too expensive, as it mainly uses existing infrastructure. (Okay, the northeastern tunnel would be pricey, but would deliver huge benefits for the area.)

Why aren’t more cities doing this? Local council leaders often talk about introducing “metro-style services” – but they avoid committing to real metro projects because they’re more expensive than piecemeal improvements to the local rail system, and they’re often more complex to deliver (with the lack of space in modern-day city centres, real metro systems need tunnels).

But metro systems can provide huge benefits to cities, with more stops, a joined-up network, and simpler fares. More cities should follow the example of the Tyne and Wear Metro.