At first sight, the transport section of the Conservative manifesto published yesterday looks rather bland compared to the drama elsewhere.
It pledges to continue “putting some £40bn into transport improvements across the United Kingdom over the rest of this decade” and to “continue our programme of strategic national investments, including High Speed 2, Northern Powerhouse Rail and the expansion of Heathrow Airport”.
The first response to this is relief. There are several ideas that have been floating around the Conservative Party and affiliated think-tanks for a while which would be less than great – from dropping the new Heathrow runway to the cancellation of the HS2 high-speed north-south rail link or George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse project, via the privatisation of infrastructure operator Network Rail, through to the abolition of all rail subsidies and safety regulations.
Transport is a sector that’s all too likely to experience major reorganisations, funding and scope changes halfway through major projects based on political whims. Given the change in government focus after the Brexit vote, more radical changes to transport policy could have been on the cards.
The manifesto pledges greater government involvement in private-sector areas such as energy and banking, so it’s perhaps not surprising to see Network Rail privatisation disappearing from the picture. A sell-off would go against Theresa May’s desire to appeal to former Labour and UKIP voters as a break from the Cameron government’s City of London establishment.
Indeed, the one major project that does appear to have got the axe is a London one. The Crossrail 2 project, providing a new heavy-rail line between north-east and south-west London – which was included in the 2015 Conservative manifesto – isn’t mentioned at all this time round.
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The Department for Transport was scheduled to report on the business case for the program that Transport for London has created by the end of this month, but has now delayed any decision till after the election. So things are looking shaky for the project’s future, despite its strong backing from the Mayor and TfL.
The obvious question is why. Crossrail 2 is one of the highest benefit/cost ratio (BCR) schemes going in the UK, with a BCR of 1:2.7, compared to about 1:1.8 for HS2 and about 1:2 for the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail 1) that’s currently being completed. (The Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme hasn’t even calculated one.)
Partly this is because of the nature of BCRs. Transport investment in London always shows up more productive in BCR terms than transport investment in the rest of the UK, because it’s a bigger, denser city containing more people who earn more money than people anywhere else. It’s also the only place in the country where all transport networks continuously run at or above capacity.
As a result, it’s easy to show how capacity enhancement projects will have benefits, because you can see exactly who will use them and what they’ll use them for. Regeneration and massive change projects require much more of a wing and a prayer outlook – and while “If you build it, they will come” may have worked for Kevin Costner, it’s hard to factor into economic appraisals.
So if the government wants to move away from its predecessor’s focus on London, it pretty much has to neglect high BCR London projects in favour of lower or incalculable BCR projects elsewhere – and accept the economic hit that will ensue if this means further crowding on the capital’s commuter lines.
There’s one problem with this for Crossrail 2, though. The current plans for HS2 – which have gone through parliament and detailed design, and are almost ready to start – rely on the new commuter line. The terminus for HS2 will be at Euston, which is on the north side of central London. It’s an hour’s walk from Euston to Westminster or to London Bridge, and the three tube lines connecting Euston directly with everywhere southwards are already well over capacity.
The biggest economic case for HS2, national showing-off aside, is that commuter routes to the north of London are saturated. Moving high-speed trains to a new line allows more commuter trains to run on existing lines – both by swapping them, and by improving the line’s capacity. (When all trains on a track go at the same speed, there’s room for more trains than there is if fast ones keep catching up with slow ones.) This increases the number of people who can be moved from northern suburbia into London.
But without Crossrail 2, everyone who arrives into Euston will then find it hard to get anywhere else. The commuters who HS2 has made room for will be using up the last vestiges of space on the Victoria Line; and the time benefits of the new line will seem irrelevant when you have to queue for just as long before you can get on the Tube.
Is this an unintended consequence that the Conservatives haven’t thought through? Is it an excuse to cancel HS2 after the election? Is the apparent disappearance of Crossrail 2 actually just a total red herring, or even an attempt to play hardball with TfL over funding splits? We’ll see – but the plans as they appear now just don’t seem to make sense.