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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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.