Boris Johnson’s channel bridge would be a car crash in more ways than one

Boris cycling. Image: Getty.

As Boris Johnson’s Churchillian dream of a road bridge across the Channel Tunnel emerged and then quickly disappeared, it got me questioning a logistical issue. The French drive on the right, and the English on the left; so what would happen in the middle of Boris’s hypothetical bridge? If it was going to be the high speed connection that he hoped for, it wouldn't do to have an automobile mosh pit in the middle.

The UK has the privilege of being an island, so the two systems don’t ever meet. The same sadly can’t be said for the rest of the Left-Hand Traffic world – largely countries which were, at one point, a part of the British Empire. Just as we exported our uniquely difficult range of units to the colonies, so too did we insist they drive on the left.

Blue = Left Hand Traffic, Red = RHT. Image: Benjamin D. Esham/Wikimedia Commons.

As empires collapsed and the world globalised, the left driving countries trended towards driving on the right. Sometimes this was just to spite their previous colonial oppressors, but there were also local and regional considerations as well. After all, if your larger, more economically powerful neighbours used a different system, you might align with them to encourage cross border trade etc (looking at you, Canada).

Pakistan considered swapping sides in the 60s but couldn’t because of the wide use of camels. The camel trains had been trained to keep to the left so that riders could get some shut eye during the long journeys, and it was considered too difficult to retrain them, so the whole country kept with Left-Hand Traffic (LHT).

So, thanks to a weird mix of history and local context, we now have borders across the world where Left- and Right-Hand Traffic meet.  Poor LHT Thailand and Kenya each have three land borders with countries that drive on the other side of the road. Most of these border points manage the change over with traffic lights, which works when there are only small numbers of vehicles making the switch. But for the billions of cars that Johnson envisions using the Channel Bridge (Chidge?), traffic lights just won’t cut it.

Lotus Bridge in Macau. Image: BurnDuck/Wikimedia Commons.

The Lotus Bridge manages the swap from RHT China to LHT Macau far more smoothly. Macau was a Portuguese colony and as such developed a different system to its larger neighbour. In the same year that the small island was ceded to China, the bridge opened, complete with a clever interchange on the Chinese side to ensure those coming across from Macau ended up on the right side (in both senses of the word). As its title would suggest, the bridge supposedly looks like a lotus flower, although ask a teenage boy and you may receive a different comparison. 

So traffic lights won't cut it for BoJo’s mythical bridge, but neither would an interchange akin to that of the Lotus Bridge. Not only would the British school system collapse under immature giggling, but the project would sink under arguments over which side of the Channel should play host to the interchange, and, thus, on which side you drive on while actually on the bridge. Which is exactly the type of issue that would matter almost nowhere else in the world other than Whitehall and the Élysée Palace, where it would matter greatly.

Therefore, I propose that about half way along this bridge – which will probably never be built anyway probably – the traffic coming from England slowly drops down before looping under the oncoming traffic and coming up again with the opposite lanes on their left. No slow traffic lights required, no phallic interchanges, and no damaged national pride. Boris, where’s my consultation fee?


Why doesn’t London build an RER network, like Paris did?

A commuter walking by a map of the RER B line at the Chatelet-Les Halles station in Paris. Image: Getty.

I’ve heard many people make many different complaints about the Parisian transport system. That it does a bad job of linking a rich, white city with its poorer, more diverse suburbs. That, even as subway systems go, it’s a hostile environment for women. That the whole thing smells distractingly of urine.

I’m familiar with all of these complaints – I’ve often smelt the urine. And I’m aware that, in many ways, London’s is the superior transport network.

And yet I can’t help be jealous of Paris – In large part, because of the RER.

Central Paris. The Metro lines are thinner, and in pastel shades; the RER lines are thicker, and in brighter colours. Image: RATP.

Paris, you see, has not one but two underground railway systems. The more famous one is the original Paris Metro, opened in 1900: that’s the one with those fancy green portals with the word “metropolitain” written above them in a vaguely kooky font.

The Metro, though, mostly serves Paris Intra-muros: the official city, inside the Boulevard Périphérique ring road, site of the city’s last set of walls. As a result, it’s of very little use in most of the city’s suburbs. Its stations are very close together, which places a limit on how fast its trains can cross town. It was also, by the mid 20th century, becoming annoyingly overcrowded.

So starting in the 1960s, the city transport authorities began planning a second underground railway network. The Réseau Express Régional – Regional Express Network – would link suburban lines on either side of Paris, through new heavy rail tunnels beneath the city. Its stations would be much further apart than those of the metro – roughly one every 3km, rather than every 600m – so its trains can run faster.

And fifty years and five lines later, it means that 224 stations in the suburbs of Paris are served by trains which, rather than terminating on the edge of the city, now continue directly through tunnels to its centre.

The RER network today. Image: RATP.

London is, belatedly, doing something similar. The Elizabeth Line, due to open in stages from later this year, will offer express-tube style services linking the suburban lines which run west from Paddington to those which run east from Liverpool Street. And Thameslink has offered cross-town services for 30 years now (albeit not at tube-level frequencies). That, too, is going to add more routes to its network over the next few years, meaning direct trains from the southern suburbs to north London and vice versa.

Yet the vast majority of suburban National Rail services in London still terminate at big mainline stations, most of which are on the edge of the centre. For many journeys, especially from the south of the city, you still need to change to the London Underground.

So, could London ape Paris – and make Thameslink and Crossrail the first element of its own RER network?

In a limited way, of course, it’s doing just that. The next big project after Crossrail is likely to be (original name, this) Crossrail 2. If that gets funding, it’ll be a new south-west to north-east route, connecting some of the suburban lines into Waterloo to those in the Lea Valley.

The proposed route of Crossrail 2. Click to expand.

But it’s not immediately obvious where you could go next – what Crossails 3, 4 or 5 should cover.

That’s because there’s an imbalance in the distribution of the remaining mainline rail services in London. Anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the geography of the city will know that there are far more tube lines to its north. But the corollary of that is that there are far more mainlines to the south.

To usefully absorb some of those, Crossrail 3 would probably need to run south to south in some way. There is actually an obvious way of doing this: build a new tunnel from roughly Battersea to roughly Bermondsey, and take over the Richmond lines in the west and North Kent lines in the east, as a sort of London equivalent of RER C:

Our suggestion for Crossrail 3. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

But that still leaves a whole load of lines in south and south east London with nowhere to send them beyond their current terminal stations.

In fact, there are reasons for thinking that the whole RER concept doesn’t really fit the British capital. It was designed, remember, for a city in which the Metro only served the centre (roughly equivalent of London’s zones 1 & 2).

But London Underground wasn’t like that. From very early in its history, it served outer London too: it was not just a way of getting people around the centre, but for getting them there from their suburban homes too.

This is turn is at least in part a function of the economic geography of the two cities. Rich Parisians have generally wanted to live in the centre, pushing poorer people out to the banlieues. In London, though, the suburbs were where the good life was to be found.

To that end, the original operators of some lines weren’t just railway companies, but housing developers, too. The Metropolitan Railway effectively built large chunks of north west London (“Metroland”), partly to guarantee the market for its trains, but partly too because, well, housing is profitable.

In other parts of town, existing main line railways were simply added to the new underground lines. The Central line swallowed routes originally built by the Great Western Railway and London & North Eastern Railway. The District line absorbed part of the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway.

At any rate: the Tube was playing the same role as the RER as early as the 1930s. London could still benefit from some RER-type services, so hopefully the Elizbaeth Line won’t be the last. But it doesn’t need an entire second metro network in the way 1960s Paris did.

There is another idea we could more profitably steal from Paris. Those suburban railways which aren’t connected to the RER are still run by the national rail operator, SNCF. But it uses the Transilien brand name, to mark them out as a part of the Parisian transport network, and – as with the RER – each route has its own letter and its own colour.

The Transilien & RER networks in Paris. Image: Maximilian Dörrbecker/Wikimedia Commons.

This would not have the transformative effect on London that building another half a dozen Crossrails would. But it would make the network much easier to navigate, and would be almost infinitely cheaper. Perhaps we should be starting there.

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

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