Changing London

Planners need to be as bold as the Victorians to avoid a gridlocked capital

Plans have been unveiled this week for Crossrail 2 – a £12bn route running north-south, from Cheshunt and Alexandra Palace in north London to centres including Epsom, Shepperton, and Twickenham in the south west.

The new lines would create around 100,000 extra journeys during the morning peak period, greatly relieving congestion at busy stations such as Victoria, Euston and King’s Cross. Anyone who currently uses the Piccadilly, Victoria and Northern lines to get to and from work will benefit.

But if you think it’s bad in rush hour now, fast forward to 2033 when HS2 is completed and there is a consequential influx of additional passengers arriving in central London. Without improvements to the metropolitan transport network, Lord Adonis, who chairs London First’s Crossrail 2 task force has warned that by 2030, Euston and other Tube stations at mainline termini “will be so congested they might have to be closed for parts of each weekday because of the danger to passengers.”

While Crossrail 1, which is due for completion in 2018, will relieve west-east congestion, transport experts say it must be complemented by Crossrail 2 to relieve traffic build-up in other parts of the city.

In a sense, the dilemma facing London in the coming decades has echoes of the debate that troubled the Victorians. Back in the 1850s when mainline trains arrived in the capital with large numbers of people, London became gridlocked.

The problems stemmed from the fact that in 1846 a Royal Commission drew a virtual ring around the London (along roughly where the Circle Line runs today), meaning that the new railways could not enter the West End or the City. The ruling explains why termini like Paddington, King’s Cross, Euston and Liverpool Street were built where they were – on the city’s outer limits.

Once passengers got off their trains, getting across London became a slow process. It was reported, for example, that it took an hour and a half to travel by horse-drawn omnibus the five miles from Paddington to Bank

The solution was the Tube, which is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary. If you’ve been following this in the press recently, the story of the Metropolitan Railway Company, formed in August 1854, will be familiar. An underground railway from the Great Western Railway’s terminus at Paddington to Farringdon, via the Great Northern Railway’s terminus at King’s Cross, was constructed.

The Company had problems raising the £1m capital for the scheme, not least because of the scare stories the press pushed about the prospect of collapsing tunnels and passengers being poisoned by emissions. But over the course of five years they succeeded and on 10th January 1863 the Metropolitan Line opened to instant success – almost 40,000 passengers travelled on it on the first day.

And even before the first underground trains ran, plans were in place for additional lines across the capital. This was to be a phenomenon that would not be stopped.

But now the network conceived in Victorian times is completely overstretched. As Lord Adonis pointed out this week, London has opened “only one-and-half new Underground lines since the Second World War (the Victoria and the Jubilee extensions)”.

London is expected to grow to a population of nine million by 2020 and 10 million by 2030, with 700,000 new jobs by the early 2030s. We risk our capital quite literally grinding to a halt if we don’t take action now – a project of this scale can’t be built over night.

Yes, it will be expensive. Yes, there will be disruption. But we can’t afford to let this great world city that we’ve been lucky enough to inherit lose it’s competitiveness.

Today’s authorities need to be as bold as the Victorians to ensure that the capital does not become gridlocked.

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Categories: Changing London, Society

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