13 places the Elizabeth line won’t go to

At least you can get to Reading. Image: Crossrail.

London’s Crossrail, which will finally open this December under the cringe-worthy name “the Elizabeth line”, has been on the table a long time. The £15bn project wasn’t officially approved until 2008 – but a similar scheme received parliamentary consideration in the 1990s, was first seriously discussed in 1974, and has its origins in schemes proposed as far back as the 1940s.

That’s not to say all these schemes were early drafts of the Lizzie line in any meaningful way. In January, the excellent Ian Visits blog ran an article summarising more than a century of plans for new east-west rail tunnels under London, under the headline “The Crossrails that weren’t built”. But while the various projects it cites were clearly part of the process that led, ultimately, to the line due to open next December, it would be a bit much for me to claim that a line on a map in a 1968 rail study really counts as an unbuilt branch of Crossrail.

Even over the last 30 years, though – since a tunnel from Paddington to Liverpool Street was first seriously considered by ministers, and publicised under the name Crossrail – passengers at stations all across the south east have been breathlessly told that they’re going to get Crossrail, only to then be told five minutes later that oh no, actually they’re not. Here, for a giggle, are five.

Harrow, Amersham & Aylesbury

Leaflets promoting Crossrail first appeared at my local station in the early 1990s, and I’m not saying I had an empty childhood or anything but it was probably the most exciting thing to happen to me that year.

The 1991 Crossrail proposals. Click to expand. Image via Ian Visits.

The route discussed then, however, was not quite the route we’re getting now. There’s no Docklands branch, no Whitechapel, and no Heathrow.

This all looks fairly baffling now – but 27 years ago, remember, Canary Wharf was a single half empty tower, the London Overground didn’t exist, and there was no main line railway to Heathrow Airport. That said, all three of those things were planned, in at least some form, so it’s a bit bizarre that the people hoping to persuade the government to give them billions of pounds in public money didn’t take account of them.

But anyway. The biggest difference between the 1991 proposal and what we’re actually getting is to the north west. This first Crossrail plan included a second western branch, to Harrow-on-the-Hill, Amersham and Aylesbury. This would have swallowed the suburban services out of Marylebone and probably done unspeakable things to the Metropolitan line, too.

This version of Crossrail was refused parliamentary approval in 1994, however. And anyway, the idea of fast, direct trains to the West End and City proved less popular with some Buckinghamshire residents than one might imagine. In 2002 Chiltern District Council, which includes Amersham, said it would rather have the promised upgrades on the suspiciously named Chiltern Railways routes into Marylebone.

At any rate: when the new plans for Crossrail officially emerged, the north western branch was conspicuous by its absence.

Richmond, Kingston & Norbiton

In the autumn of 2003, things got serious again, when then-transport secretary Alistair Darling asked Cross London Rail Links (CLRL) Ltd., a Transport for London/Strategic Rail Authority joint venture set up to work on the new line, to consult on a new version of Crossrail

...based on a scheme serving Heathrow and Kingston in the west and Shenfield and Ebbsfleet in the east.

Hang on a second. Kingston?

The Kingston branch would have diverged from the mainline somewhere west of Paddington, and used either a new 8.5 mile tunnel via Chiswick Park, or a 2.5 mile viaduct, to take over the Richmond branch of the District line. Beyond that, it’d run through Twickenham and Kingston, before terminating at Norbiton in the deep south west of London.

No maps seem to survive of this version of Crossrail, unless they’re on the Dark Web somewhere. So to show where it would go, I did what any self-respecting nerd would do, and defaced a London rail map with highlighter pen

Click to expand. Image: Transport for London/CityMetric.

Once again, this proposal proved surprisingly unpopular with those who’d be affected by it, as Richmond residents grumbled about the possibility of losing the District line. So when a second consultation was held in autumn 2004, the Heathrow branch had been extended west to Maidenhead – but the Kingston branch had been mysteriously dropped.

Southend, Stanstead & Surrey

Around the same time this was going on, a bunch of senior railway managers were pushing their own version of Crossrail. To highlight the fact it was, to their minds, better, they called “Superlink”.

Superlink differed from most versions of Crossrail in that it was a regional railway, rather than metro scheme – that is, it aimed to serve stations right across London’s commuter belt, rather than just in the conurbation and its immediate neighbours. It would have branches extending as far as Northampton, Basingstoke, Cambridge, Ipswich and Southend. It would provide direct trains from Stansted airport into the West End.

And the central tunnel would serve Canary Wharf as well as the City and West End, effectively linking all London’s major business hubs.

Superlink. Click to expand. Image: Sagredo/Wikimedia Commons.

It was, in effect, a lot more like Thameslink, providing infrequent services to far-flung destinations, rather than the giant tube line that the Elizabeth line will be.

Superlink was never a serious proposal, but CLRL did at least consider it in 2005, before rejecting it on grounds of cost, complexity and reliability. Today its Wikipedia page contains a magnificent but rare piece of railway nerd shade:

The proponents of Superlink claimed Crossrail gives poor value for money and was unlikely to be built. They suggested that benefits of the Crossrail scheme, including relief of congestion on the public transportation network within London, had been overstated.

Superlink was rejected. Crossrail received Royal Assent in 2007 and a funding agreement in 2008.


Watford & Milton Keynes

One of the problems with Crossrail as designed is that there’s far more demand for its eastern branches than its western. The Shenfield metro service, currently operated as TfL Rail, already receives unusually high frequencies for a National Rail service, which hasn’t stopped them from becoming overcrowded. The south eastern branch to Abbey Wood, meanwhile, will be busy because of demand to travel to Canary Wharf.

The western branches are a whole lot quieter. I suspect one can credit to the tube’s north west London bias but whatever the reason, of the 24 trains per hour running through the central tunnel when Crossrail is complete, fully half of them will turn round at Paddington and head east again. It’s this imbalance that explains the short-lived enthusiasm for extra western branches like those to Amersham or Kingston.

A third such option was in contention until relatively recently. Network Rail’s July 2011 London & South East Route Utilisation Strategy recommended diverting Milton Keynes commuter services onto Crossrail via a new link at Old Oak Common. This would free up capacity at Euston, in preparation for the arrival of High Speed 2.

Versions of this extension were still on the table until about five minutes ago, and transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin suggested in August 2014 that Crossrail could take over stopping services to Tring in Hertfordshire (three stops short of Milton Keynes Central).

A route map showing the proposed Tring branch. Click to expand. Image: CityMetric.

In August 2016, though, this project was abandoned too, on grounds of poor value for money. And so, half of all Elizabeth Line trains will never make it west of Paddington. Boo.

Dartford & Ebbsfleet

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice I skipped past an unbuilt extension earlier. Back in 2003, the south eastern branch of Crossrail was due to continue beyond Abbey Wood, along the existing railway line to Erith, Dartford and finally Ebbsfleet International – a weird place in the middle of nowhere which serves as the west Kent stop on High Speed 1 or Eurostar. (They’re meant to be building a load of houses out there, too, but, y’know how it is.)

This bit of the route was never an official part of the Crossrail plan approved in 2008 – but it was “safeguarded”, meaning that you can’t build anything that would get in its way should the government change its mind. And London mayor Sadiq Khan did express his support for the extension as recently as January 2018.

Yes we did it again. Click to expand. Image: TfL, vandalism: CityMetric’s own.

I have no idea what this would do to the service pattern of the North Kent lines: there are already three different routes from Dartford and Ebbsfleet to central London, and thinking about adding a fourth, while popular with passengers, is likely to give transport planners a nosebleed.

But this, unlike the other abandoned routes described above, might actually happen. And it’s nice to end on a hopeful note, isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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Ducks and the City: how birds thrive in urban spaces

A mandarin duck, possibly a distant relative of New York’s Hot Duck. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

New York may be well known one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan places on Earth, but the arrival of one East Asian migrant in October 2018 still managed to surprise and delight the city. One lonely male mandarin duck – a gorgeous rust-red duck streaked with white and blue, native to Japan, Korea and East China – somehow found its way to Central Park and settled down on one of the ponds among the mallards and wood ducks to become the media sensation “Hot Duck”. Although not strictly wild in the birdspotting sense as it likely escaped from someone’s collection, the duck lives as free as, well, a bird among the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

A few months later, the mandarin’s native territory was graced by a rare visitor of its own when a European robin ended up in the heart of Beijing. Having shown up just when Britain was falling deeper into political crisis, Chinese birdspotters nicknamed it “Brexit refugee” and raced in from across the country to see what Brits would probably consider an incredibly ordinary bird.

A rash of unusual birds have hit the headlines after landing in cities lately – other recent examples include Melbourne’s “Goth Duck” (a tufted duck, a mainly northern European species never before seen in Australia) and the eagle owl that divebombed bald men in Exeter – but when they do, it’s always their rarity that makes them newsworthy, along with the incongruity of seeing a beautiful wild animal among concrete and litter. Normally cities aren’t home to anything more interesting than a dirty pigeon or a bloodthirsty seagull.


Moving in

Popular myth says London’s first ring-necked parakeets were released in Carnaby Street by Jimi Hendrix. It’s probably not true, but it’s one hell of a story. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was any other city. Thousands of years ago, wild birds discovered new opportunities on the edges of the first villages. Today the house sparrow is ubiquitous in just about every urban area in the world, but before the first house was built it lived in the dry grasslands of the Middle East, picking seeds out of the sandy soil. Then humans came along and started farming wheat; and whenever a grain fell from a mill or blew from a market stand, a sparrow was there to pick it up. As the technology of farming spread around the world, sparrows came along, too.

Other birds didn’t come by choice but were dragged in by humans. Thousands of rock doves, plump grey-striped birds that nest on cliffs, were caged up and brought into the new cities for their eggs, meat and uncanny ability to find their way home. Naturally, a few of these escaped, but quickly discovered that the walls of buildings were just as good for nesting as natural cliffs. The familiar pigeon was born.

More recently, many species of ducks and geese found a home in cities for the same reason, as have pets-gone-wild like the Indian ring-necked parakeets that brighten up London’s parks and the Javan mynas that chatter in Singapore’s streets.

Bohemian waxwings mainly live in the forests of Scandinavia, but in cold winters they will fly across the sea to British parks and gardens to feast on garden berries. No prizes for guessing where this one is. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

As cities have changed, so too have the birds that lived there. Back when most meat was butchered in shops and markets, piles of skin and bone attracted huge flocks of scavengers like ravens and red kites. Now city streets are mostly free of scrap meat thanks to bin lorries, supermarkets and industrial meat processing; both species fled into the countryside, where they found themselves persecuted by farmers and gamekeepers, the red kite almost to the point of extinction. Now both birds are making a slow comeback.

On the other hand, parks and gardens have lured new species out of the woods and into the town with their sweet berry bushes and seed-filled bird feeders. Blue tits – tiny birds that in the forest prefer to pick spiders off oak trees – adapted especially well to garden life: in the days of milk rounds, the birds learned how to peck open bottle caps and sip at the cream inside. The birds’ behaviour has recently changed again because of the rise of supermarkets and the fall of dairy delivery, and it certainly won’t be the last time.

What do city birds think of us?

Herring gulls are as happy in a Latvian bus station as they are on a windswept beach. Happier, maybe. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

If you walk in a forest you might well find yourself absolutely surrounded by bird song but unable to see where it’s coming from. Birds are shy and, unless they grew up on a desert island, they will fly away and hide at the slightest hint of a threat. They almost behave like programmed characters from a video game – they draw an imaginary circle around themselves (known as the “flight zone”) and if anyone enters that circle, they flee.

Urban birds consistently have a much smaller flight zone and will tend to let humans get much closer to them; and the longer a species has been urbanised, the more this radius shrinks. In the most extreme instance, urban birds will hop right up to someone who might feed them and even land on their hand. (In one of the best birding moments of my life, a parakeet in Hyde Park snatched a peanut from a tourist then landed right on my shoulder to eat it, staying there long enough to pose for a selfie).

If one bird invades another’s territory, things can get messy. Here, two magpies chase off a buzzard as its partner watches. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Then again, not all birds are that friendly. Many are very territorial, especially in the nesting season. Even medium-sized birds like vicious Australian magpies can cause eye injuries to people passing their nests; really big birds like swans can seriously injure people who get too close. Others, like the larger species of gulls, are just greedy and will attack people to steal their food.

Most birds aren’t quite that bold, but living close to humans has still affected their behaviour. Many species of birds are very intelligent – European magpies might be the cleverest non-mammal on the planet – and they’ve worked out how many of the systems of the city work. Pigeons can hop on-board trains for a lazier way to travel between feeding spots. Seagulls understand how to open automatic doors in order to raid branches of Greggs. Crows use passing cars to crack tough nuts, and will even wait at traffic lights to swoop in when the cars stop.

What do we make of city birds?

The robin was voted Britain’s favourite bird in a recent poll, which just goes to show what being small, cute and surprisingly aggressive can do for you. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although we share our cities with a whole menagerie of wildlife, most of it is either shy and nocturnal, or prefers the dark, dirty places where humans rarely venture. Birds by contrast are inescapable – on any day on any city street you can expect to at least see a few pigeons flying overhead, or hear something singing from a nearby bush. For some people, this constant awareness has morphed into affection; for others, jealousy at sharing urban spaces with other species.

Even setting aside the risk of attack, birds can come into conflict with humans. Their droppings are not only unpleasant, but they can damage buildings and cause nasty lung diseases. Not every bird has a beautiful song either – a great tit squeaking away outside your bedroom window at 5am is bad enough, but spare a thought for the Australians who have kookaburras scream-laughing on their balconies. If waking you up wasn’t antisocial enough, big birds like herring gulls and Australian white ibises (better known as “bin chickens”) will rip open bin bags and fling the rubbish across your garden. The birds guilty of these indiscretions are generally classed as pests and many cities are fighting back – either by killing the birds or by taking eggs from their nests.

Herons eat fish from ponds and occasionally birds of prey will attack small pets. Urban pigeon keepers, angry after having a prize bird attacked by a sparrowhawk, occasionally try to poison or set cruel traps to kill hawks; but in general cities actually provide a safe haven for birds of prey. Scottish sparrowhawks seem to breed significantly better in cities, likely because there are so many other birds there to hunt.

In fact, many city councils are encouraging birds of prey as a natural way to control the population of pigeons and rats. Peregrine falcons – the fastest birds on the planet – are given protected nesting sites on church spires and skyscrapers and their every move is streamed on webcams. Harris hawks – native to American deserts – have been brought across the Atlantic to scare birds away from the tennis courts at Wimbledon.

Smaller, cuter birds don’t have any such image problems, and millions of Brits put bird seed in their gardens or feed the ducks at their local park. (I should add: if you do, please don’t give them bread, which lacks the vitamins birds need and causes a horrible disease called “angel wing”; seeds, vegetable peel or little bits of fruit are better.) Cities are increasingly recognised as places where you can spot interesting birds – right now, the bird tracking portal eBird lists no fewer than 289 species that have been seen in London – and the last couple of years have seen guides such as David Lindo’s How to be an Urban Birder and even scientific journals such as the Journal of Urban Ecology dedicated to the life of the town.

Save the birds

An American robin has a rest in Boston Common. American robins are in a completely different family to European robins, in case you ever wondered why the robin in Mary Poppins looked so messed up. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Although cities offer food and shelter, they also contain many threats. Glass windows are invisible death to birds flying at full speed – the exact number killed isn’t clear, but it might be as many as 30 million a year in the UK alone. Vehicles can also kill, especially in suburban areas where dense gardens meet busy streets.

Although city birds are protected from some of the predators that they would encounter in the countryside, there are still plenty of animals looking for a meaty meal – not least pet cats, which the RSPB estimates kill 55 million birds in the UK every year. 

These threats aren’t necessarily having an effect on bird populations as a whole – most birds lay more eggs than needed, and if one young bird is killed by a cat a sibling can take its place. The bigger risks come from changes to the environment itself. Pesticides, patios and over-neat lawns have reduced the number of insects crawling around, and therefore the amount of food available for birds like thrushes, starlings and sparrows.

In spite of how easy they are to observe, urban birds tend to be understudied compared to their rural cousins. The fact pigeons are so widespread means researchers often overlook them, but their ubiquity means that observing the birds can help scientists to track environmental changes and to compare cities that otherwise have little in common. Citizen science can help here – the bird tracking apps Birdtrack and eBird let anyone submit their bird sightings, and actually need more coverage of urban and suburban areas.

Thankfully, the idea of creating urban bird sanctuaries is now being taken seriously. Parks have a role to play, but many birds actually prefer the wild roughness of building sites and industrial land, where bare soil crawls with bugs and wildflowers grow gloriously high – ironically, brownfield sites can be as important to the ecosystem as pristine green belt. Perhaps the most spectacular example is the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. Just across the Thames from Hammersmith, this Victorian waterworks has been converted into marsh land and attracts huge flocks of water birds, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in London. In fact thanks to the reserve, a few birds such as the reed-dwelling bittern – which almost went extinct in the UK – are now easier to spot in London than in the countryside it.

Flying into the future

This blackbird probably doesn’t understand its rural cousins. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

In his book Darwin in the City, the biologist Menno Schilthuizen suggests that we’ve been looking at blackbirds all wrong. European blackbirds were originally forest-dwellers eating berries and bugs from the ground. For this, they needed long, probing beaks and the ability to migrate in the winter when the soil froze hard. However, a few blackbirds – possibly initially those living in the hills around Rome – made their way into cities and found plentiful supplies of food year round.

Since they no longer needed to pry into the earth or the bark of trees, their beaks started to get shorter. Because food was available year round, their migration instinct was switched off. And because they needed to compete with traffic and the other noises of city life, their songs got louder. The city dwelling birds became incompatible with their forest dwelling ancestors; the changes to their beaks meant that their songs changed too, until they were effectively speaking different languages. There is a compelling case to be made that there isn’t just one species of blackbird, but two: the forest blackbird, Turdus merula, and the city blackbird, Turdus urbanicus.

Where the blackbird has led, other birds are sure to follow. British great tits are evolving bigger beaks that help them dig around in garden bird feeders and many urban birds have started singing the dawn chorus earlier to avoid traffic and aircraft noise and to take advantage of artificial streetlighting. City-dwelling pigeons even seem to be evolving darker feathers, probably because the dark pigment captures the toxic elements pigeons accidentally ingest when they peck at paint.

Nesting in coated metal gutters like this exposes pigeons to dangerous chemicals in the paint, and this pigeon’s dark feathers are likely an evolutionary response to that threat. Image: Stephen Jorgenson-Murray.

Birds are no longer just accidental wanderers into cities, nor are they just greedy opportunists: they are an integral part of urban ecosystems. Not only do cities need their birds – Increasingly, birds need their cities.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets at @stejormur. Many of the birds mentioned in this article tweet in a tree near you.