“I’m very worried that Crossrail doesn’t have enough escalators”

A worryingly small number of escalators at Liverpool Street Crossrail station. Image: Getty.

Last weekend was Open House, a fantastic chance to check out some amazing buildings and sites around London. Visiting Farringdon’s future Crossrail station, however, reminded me of a worrying thought I’d had some years prior:

Crossrail, vaunted as the solution to all London’s problems, isn’t being built with enough escalators in each station. And we’re really going to regret that in years to come.

Surely my non-technical opinion is irrelevant, you would hope, because this has all been worked out by proper transport planners and engineers, people will degrees, and more than my B in Maths at GCSE. Sadly experience teaches us that this isn’t always the case. The Victoria Line is a good example: escalators were taken out of the plans as part of cost-saving efforts ahead of construction.

More recently there are the shortcomings at points on the Jubilee Line. At Canada Water, the two escalators from Jubilee to East London Line proved to be vastly fewer than needed. At North Greenwich, the station closed a mere six years after opening for the addition of another escalator “to meet demand from development on the peninsula” – development that was entirely predictable and was indeed one of the main reasons the station was being built in the first place

My point is, TfL does get these things wrong, either through cock-up, or through a need to deliver something to a budget. So, how many escalators should you have in a Crossrail station? Time to do some maths!

In 2002, academics at the Indian Institute of Management and the LSE conducted a study on escalator capacity. Behaviours can change capacity (see Holborn’s foolish experiments with banning walking on the left), but basically, on the London Underground, you can move 110 people per minute (ppm) on one standard escalator: that’s 6600 per hour.

The shiny nine car class 345 trains ordered for Crossrail have a capacity of 1500 people. Crucially, the platforms have been built long enough to extend this to 11 cars, for a potential capacity per train of around 1,800. Crossrail is planning for 24 trains per hour (tph), but the line was designed for 30 tph to be possible. Once those changes are brought into use, and with trains in two directions, that gives us a maximum number of people passing through a central Crossrail station at peak time of 108,000.


It’s not likely that everyone is not going to get off every train at one station except in an emergency. But at peak times, the idea that half the passengers on a train might get off at key stations – Liverpool Street, say – does not seem unreasonable. After all, from the east this service replaces the Shenfield metro, so many people will have commutes planned around alighting at that station; and from the west, Crossrail will be far the fastest and most pleasant route into the City.

With half the potential capacity alighting at Liverpool Street - some 54,000 passengers per hour - you would require eight up escalators to remove the arriving passengers from the platform at the rate they arrive. That’s before you’ve provided any down capacity, which will also be in high demand from passengers arriving from mainline services wanting to get to the West End and Canary Wharf.

So how many escalators does Crossrail have planned for its Liverpool Street station? It appears to be six. Six is the number of escalators the Victoria Line’s planners put in to serve Victoria Station, which became inadequate in the 1990s, and where TfL ending up spending £700m on a painful project to add three more.

It’s also three fewer than the nine that serve the Central Line at Liverpool Street – a line with a total capacity of slightly more than half that of Crossrail. If nine is what’s needed for the Central Line at Liverpool Street, and the Victoria Line at Victoria, scaling up to Crossrail’s foreseeable passenger capacity would suggest a potential requirement of 16.

And then there’s maintenance. As everyone who has regularly used a tube station knows, three escalators being present does not mean three escalators will be available. Every ten years or so, they close them off one at a time for maintenance that seems to take between six months and a year.

Perhaps this is all nonsense; perhaps they have got it right this time. But I fear that, a decade or two from now, when those same engineers start costing up the remarkably expensive “Liverpool Street Crossrail Platform Access Enhancement Project”, I’ll have a moment of schadenfreude, which I can enjoy for a few minutes as I queue to get off the platform.

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So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

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

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