Gliding beneath central London, from Paddington station in the west to Abbey Wood in the south-east, Crossrail is almost upon us. The capital’s new railway, which was due to open four years ago, will have passengers boarding before the summer. It will be transformative, easing congestion and effectively shrinking the city.
The cathedral-like stations and snakeish trains of the Elizabeth line contrast with woes elsewhere in London’s transport system. Thanks to the pandemic, the finances and prospects for Transport for London are dire. And with national attention focused elsewhere, the capital’s global reputation risks sinking if a funding settlement between the government and TfL — overseen by mayor Sadiq Khan — is not struck soon.
Much of the UK glares at Crossrail with envy, questioning why £19bn has been spent on another railway for a city already well furnished with infrastructure. Were the project proposed today, neither Labour nor the Conservatives would spend the political capital to back it; both are focused on decades of under investment elsewhere.
Good transport is vital to a city’s success — New York’s decline in the last century showed what happens when infrastructure is ignored. Since Covid hit, Whitehall has handed piecemeal funding to TfL to fill the chasm caused by a two-year dearth of passengers. Four tranches totalling some £5bn — with onerous conditions — have kept the buses and trains running. But there is no consensus about a long-term deal, whether passenger numbers will ever return to near pre-pandemic levels or how best to use the public purse.
Tories blame Khan for mismanagement, citing his partial fare freeze in his first term in office. But a deal struck in 2015, makes London very reliant on fares, which in ordinary times raise 72 per cent of transport revenue, compared with 38 per cent in New York and Paris.
Whitehall’s transport focus has been elsewhere, not least on the new HS2 railway from London to northern England. But Khan’s City Hall fears TfL risks going into managed decline if its future is not secured — threatening a 9 per cent slice off tube services and 18 per cent off busses.
This short-termism has consequences. The north-east to south-west Crossrail 2 project has been mothballed, likewise a Bakerloo line extension. Yet the capital’s population is still expected to grow.
There is an argument that given the vast inequalities between the south-east and the rest of the UK, limited public resources should be used elsewhere — particularly when the future of city life is unclear. When not everything can be done, levelling up might seem the proper priority.
But investment in London’s transport should be welcomed nationally. According to City Hall, for every £1 spent on Tube investment 55p goes on jobs outside London. As well as being responsible for 22 per cent of gross domestic product, London contributed a net £36bn to the Treasury the year before Covid, much of which is invested elsewhere.
Adam Tyndall, a programme director at the London First advocacy group, praised the ambition of levelling up but noted the capital “is the only region of the country to generate a significant tax surplus for the Exchequer, and if those revenues are to continue then it is vital that the government does not ignore what the capital needs.”
The capital’s infrastructure projects actually aid levelling-up. In Goole, Yorkshire, trains are being built for the Piccadilly line, as will new ones for the Bakerloo line. Zero-emissions buses will mean significant orders for Ballymena in Northern Ireland and Scarborough in northern England.
London’s issues are simple politics. Since Boris Johnson’s left as mayor in 2016, the Tories have struggled in the capital outside the suburbs while Labour hoovers up inner city support. The next general election will not be won in the south-east.
Johnson told me last year that he is “a creature” of the giant metropolitan economy. He added that levelling up is not about levelling down prosperous parts of the UK. “It doesn’t mean you don’t think that London isn’t the greatest city on Earth. I do. But it means that you go for the whole thing.” He should prove it by fixing the capital’s transport.