Heathrow to Canary Wharf

Nick Richardson

It took sixty years for the supporters of Crossrail, the new railway being built under London, to convince Parliament it was worth the investment. Recession scuppered the project twice, in the 1970s and 1990s, and slowed it down again in 2009: it was supposed to be finished in time for the Olympics, then budget cuts forced the completion date forward to 2018. Now, at least, construction is irreversibly underway, despite general indignation over the disruption it’s caused and who stands to benefit most from it – the City. By 2018, 21 km of tunnel will have been dug, linking the Great Western line at Paddington to the Great Eastern at Whitechapel. We’ll have spent £15 billion, we’ll have seven new London train stations, and we’ll finally be able to travel from Essex or Greenwich to Berkshire or Heathrow, via Central London, without getting off the train.

On 13 March, Boris Johnson fired up the first thousand-tonne tunnel-boring machine. This beast – a toothed slug called Phyllis (after Phyllis Pearsall, who created the London A-Z), which is the length of 14 buses – is now chugging its way through the soil from Royal Oak to Farringdon. Two weeks later, Crossrail announced the completion of the outer shell of the new station at Canary Wharf: a 250-metre-long concrete coffin sunk into the dock. I went to visit it, along with a handful of other journalists, including a man from World Tunnelling magazine. Helmeted and booted, we were led down into the ‘station box’ by representatives of Crossrail and Canary Wharf Contractors, the company that built the thing. The chief engineer explained that the station’s four walls had been fastened to the dock floor by long steel piles, driven into the ground using a hydraulic rig – hydraulic, rather than the more common (and cheaper) diesel-powered hammers, so that the piles went in silently and didn’t disturb Canary Wharf’s delicate financiers. The man from World Tunnelling was impressed. But it was hard even for a non-specialist to have reservations about the project when confronted by this piece of the industrial sublime.

The Crossrail construction site at Canary Wharf.
The Crossrail construction site at Canary Wharf.

One hundred million litres of water had been pumped out of the box to make room for platforms, floors and escalator shafts, but it was still damp, and without the usual things you find in train stations – billboards, vending machines, people – it felt enormous, like the great chamber of a cave system. At either end were two huge holes stoppered with giant wagon wheels. A pair of tunnel borers will come crashing through these apertures in 2013, drilling Crossrail’s second tunnel from Limmo Peninsula in Docklands back to Farringdon. The floor above the platforms will become the ticket hall; above that is the ‘retail floor’, to be filled by Pret A Mangers and tie-on-the-fly boutiques. On its top deck, the finished station will have a garden and a restaurant with a ‘spectacular timber lattice roof’, and to one side, a large pond is intended to compensate the Thames’s fish for the imposition: a Swedish eco-lodge in the middle of Gotham.

The idea of building tunnels under the city to connect stations on its outskirts via the centre has its origins in the town planner Patrick Abercrombie’s utopian plans for postwar London. For Abercrombie, the Blitz had created an opportunity: we could pack displaced Londoners off to ‘new towns’, plant vegetables where their houses had been, and sink the railways. Blackfriars Bridge, which he thought an eyesore (it’s now Grade II listed), could be demolished and replaced with a tunnel from Loughborough Junction in Lambeth to Farringdon; Abercrombie also proposed a tunnel under the Thames between Hither Green in Lewisham and Canning Town in Docklands that would have made it possible to travel from Southend to York, via the capital, in a single train journey. But the plan was expensive, and Britain was broke, and the way we moved goods round the country was changing: Abercrombie’s tunnels would have improved routes for freight trains, but freight – certainly as the first motorways opened in the 1950s – travelled more and more by road. The tunnels stayed unburrowed and Abercrombie moved east to rebuild Hong Kong.

The name ‘Crossrail’ was coined by David Barran, a monocle-wearing, snuff-snorting industrialist, in a 1974 report drawn up at the request of the Department of the Environment. Barran, like Abercrombie, proposed two tunnels, one from London Bridge to Victoria, the other from Paddington to Liverpool Street. As the managing director of Shell, and soon to be chairman of the Midland Bank, he might be said to have had a vested interest in thinning out the riff-raff on rail links to the City, where he worked, and back to Kensington, where he lived. But Britain was in the middle of a recession and Parliament didn’t spend much time on Crossrail. As Sir George Young, the MP for Ealing (and Leader of the House from 2010 until Cameron’s recent reshuffle), put it, ‘the report is conducted in a financial vacuum.’ Young joked that, since Barran’s Crossrail tunnel passed under Buckingham Palace, the queen might agree to a Palace station to relieve congestion at her garden parties. The idea was mothballed.

In 1989, the Department of the Environment rebooted the east-west line. ‘More and more people are coming to work in the tightly packed central area,’ the then transport secretary Paul Channon wrote in the preface to the Central London Rail Study: ‘This is putting severe strains on London’s transport system.’ The study included a map of Central London’s train routes captioned ‘Extent of Overcrowding in 1987’, a spaghetti mess of thick red danger-lines. A second diagram, ‘Extent of Overcrowding in 2001’, appears a few pages later: it’s not as gory – improvements to station and train capacity are assumed to have taken place – but it’s still pretty bad. The report considers several partial solutions, a few of which have since been taken up: the Jubilee Line extension to Docklands opened in 1999; a new Chelsea-Hackney tube line is supposedly due for construction once Crossrail has finished; the plans for the extension of Thameslink contained in Channon’s document have been exceeded – a viaduct over Borough Market and a stretch of new track between St Pancras and the East Coast Main Line will open in 2018. The star of the report is Crossrail’s east-west tunnel, praised as the scheme

which comes closest to eliminating overcrowding on the most heavily loaded section of the Underground … It is also the only one to reduce loads to below planning standard on the Metropolitan/Circle line east of Baker Street. It has some effect on the District and Piccadilly Lines around Earl’s Court; this is because many passengers from the Ealing area would use Crossrail in preference to the Underground.

A bill was submitted to Parliament in 1991, and reluctantly thrown out, because, as in the 1970s, there was a recession and so no available funds.

In 2001, Cross London Rail Links, a company set up by the newly formed Transport for London and the Strategic Rail Authority, began looking for a way to make Crossrail East-West recession-proof. To manage, promote and fundraise for the project they were given £154 million, plus a further £100 million in 2005. The SRA was the Labour version of the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising, the body created by the Tories to negotiate PFI contracts between state and private sector railway companies. It even had the same director. By rebranding Crossrail and seducing private capital, CLRL eased the Crossrail Bill’s passage through the House. The PR campaign was extravagant: 103 days of public consultation took place at 55 pop-up info centres around the country where people were plied with brightly coloured pamphlets in several languages; a Crossrail website appeared, as well as a Young Crossrail microsite for kids; 600,000 copies of a newsletter called ‘The Link’ were distributed to schools; a 24/7 Crossrail helpline was set up. All this tinsel helped to persuade a sceptical public, or at least the sector of the public prepared to spend an afternoon at a pop-up info centre. The questionnaire distributed at the centres returned 40 per cent in favour, 2 per cent against, 33 per cent abstentions and a wodge of spoiled ballot papers.

Crossrail route diagram

Crossrail 4.0 had a new route: branches went to Heathrow in the west, and to Docklands in the east. The 1989 report had stressed the importance of improving transport links to Docklands, but there had been no plans for Crossrail to go there: this was because new roads would service Docklands, as indeed they do, as would the Jubilee Line extension, as indeed it does. Channon mentioned Heathrow just once: ‘Experience of the Docklands Light Railway and the Paddington-Heathrow Link show that the private sector is prepared to make substantial contributions towards the cost of improved transport links when they will result in development gain or other commercial benefits.’

Less than 5 per cent of the funding for Crossrail comes from the private sector, a small but crucial fraction. Private money didn’t get Crossrail moving by paying for it, but by promising future returns. A route connecting the City, Docklands and Heathrow would, it was predicted in one partisan estimate, add £30 billion to GDP over sixty years, and £12 billion in tax revenues. So the route was changed accordingly. In late 2007, eight months before the Crossrail Bill gained royal assent, BAA – the Spanish company that owns Heathrow airport – agreed to contribute £230 million to the scheme. ‘In return,’ as the Crossrail press office put it, ‘Crossrail will guarantee a fast train service four times an hour for the majority of the day. This will provide direct services from Heathrow airport through Central London, the City and Canary Wharf.’ ‘This vital new link will directly connect the City and Canary Wharf to the airport,’ BAA’s strategy director added. The kudos of Docklands as a global financial centre will be boosted, and a stream of the silver-haired and deep-pocketed through Heathrow guaranteed. Lawyers, traders and media bigwigs will be able to whisk themselves off to the terminals – Terminals 1 to 4 at least; the new Terminal 5 has been inexplicably neglected – with a click of their embrogued heels: it’ll take 39 minutes to Heathrow from Canary Wharf, 33 minutes from Liverpool Street.

Canary Wharf Group, which owns the 97-acre Canary Wharf Estate, announced that it would contribute £150 million. That was in December 2008, after the royal assent, but as one of my minders told me on the press trip, the tycoons had been negotiating with CLRL since the early 2000s. ‘You can’t identify an economic benefit to Crossrail,’ he said – he meant that you can’t wholly justify Crossrail in terms of its benefit to the British economy – ‘but the new station should allow us to double the estate.’ The Jubilee Line extension increased the value of the land along its route by £13 billion; the owners of Canary Wharf can expect a similar effect from Crossrail. CWG affirmed its faith in the future of the estate by investing £90 million in a new site slightly further east in January. The station itself has already substantially expanded CWG’s portfolio of rentable space. On our way out of the station box, one of the contractors pointed to One Canada Square, the tallest skyscraper in London after the Shard. ‘You see that tower?’ he said. ‘The station is as long as the tower is high.’ This gives some sense of the dimensions of the station’s retail floor, and the number of shops and restaurants it’ll take to fill it. The new station means the area is being ‘regenerated’, which makes the authorities more likely to grant planning permission and businesses more likely to move in and commission Canary Wharf Contractors to build for them. Since CWG started on the new station they’ve been contracted to build a public plaza on the estate as well as the new HQ of the European Medicines Agency.

CLRL’s biggest coup, or their most egregious howler, depending on the way you look at it, was the deal it cut with the City of London Corporation. In December 2008, the City’s governing body announced that it would contribute £350 million to Crossrail: £200 million from the City’s own funds, and £150 million from City-based businesses. In fact, the terms of the deal were laid down in 2007, when the City told CLRL it would help with funding only if the government restored what’s known as the ‘City Offset’ grant: money paid by Westminster to the corporation in return for looking after public spaces, such as Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath, outside the City limits. The grant had been withdrawn by the Blair administration, which figured that the Corporation had more than enough cash at its disposal to keep giving back to the community even without the offset – what with the £100 million it receives annually from the government anyway, plus its enormous income from council tax, interest and rents.

The offset was reinstated. In 2003, the last year it was paid before being cut, the grant stood at £6 million a year. In 2010, when it was reinstated, it was bumped up to £10 million a year, which means that in twenty years’ time, provided the offset stays – and the deal will make it hard to cut again – the City will have recouped its investment and start turning a profit. The money invested by City businesses will turn to profit more quickly. As Michael Snyder, the Corporation’s head of policy, noted, Crossrail will stop the City from losing the £1 million a day it currently loses as a result of transport delays: one hundred and fifty days and the banks will be laughing all the way to, well, themselves. Without the Corporation’s investment, Crossrail might not have got off the ground at all. Whether or not you think the bargain made with the City was worth it will depend on how happy you are, having bailed out the banks, to allocate yet another £10 million a year of public money to the City in exchange for a railway that the City is going to get more out of than anyone else. And that’s on top of £11.3 billion of public money we’re already committed to spending: the Department for Transport has underwritten a contribution of £5.1 billion; the GLA and Transport for London, which are funded by London council tax and transport fares, are to chip in £3.5 billion and £2.7 billion respectively. Most of the rest of the money will come from a levy on London-based businesses.

Many Londoners who work outside the big money enclaves of the City and Canary Wharf feel uneasy about Crossrail. It doesn’t help that it’s been tainted by the macabre. In May 2009, construction workers at one of the borehole sites in Farringdon found human bones among the rubble. Shock gave way to panic as it dawned on the workers that they’d struck a plague grave and they rushed to get themselves checked out. In April last year, another four thousand skeletons turned up beneath the site of Crossrail’s future Liverpool Street ticket hall: the remains of inmates of Bedlam who’d died in the hospital. The horror-movie body count, the false starts and backroom deals – all these have given Crossrail something of an air maudit.

The tunnelling is disruptive, and the people behind it have not taken much care to warn the public about what they’re doing. Green spaces have been polluted by noise and dust, allotments pushed aside. In February, unannounced excavation work at Paddington closed station exits, rerouted buses and taxis and caused many to miss trains. In March, hundreds of residents of Queen’s Park took to the streets to protest against the 30,000 heavy duty lorries that they’d just learned were due to pound down the Harrow Road for the next 14 months transporting tunnel segments to the Crossrail depot in Westbourne Park. Boris Johnson promised to reroute some of the trucks so as to distribute the punishment more evenly: ‘We want to take the “cross” out of Crossrail,’ he said.

It’ll take more than rerouting the trucks to do that. Crossrail has swallowed whole neighbourhoods. The area behind Centrepoint, now the site of the new Tottenham Court Road Station, was once pretty exciting. The Astoria, where Nirvana played one of their first UK gigs and Oasis were crowned kings of Britpop, was forced to close in January 2009, along with the nightclubs LA2, Metro and the Ghetto, all of which have now been razed. The First Out Café, one of London’s oldest gay bars, closed last October because the arrival of the new station and its projected shopping centre has jacked up rents in the area. The Royal George pub struggles on, though the tall blue fences that conceal the building site have hidden it from view. Mario Forte, who owns the Star café and bar on Great Chapel Street, next to what will be the new station’s main entrance in Soho, had to wait nine months to put a new sign up. Normally, he’d have bought the sign, got up a ladder and put it up himself in a day, but this time its design had to be checked and approved by both Crossrail and Westminster Council. It was finally bolted to the wall by a Crossrail construction worker in a high-vis jacket and regulation helmet. ‘If you put up your own signs,’ Forte was told by Soho’s ‘Community Relations’ officer, ‘then we’ll have them taken down.’ Since 2010, when work at the Soho site began, Forte’s profits have plunged by 35 per cent. This is partly because Great Chapel Street’s film production studios, on whose custom Forte depended, have gone the way of the wrecking ball. It’s also because people simply can’t see the café behind the hoardings and cranes: ‘There is no street anymore,’ Forte told me – ‘people don’t know we exist.’ When he complained to Crossrail about the impact the site had had on his business he was told he’d reap the benefits eventually. But if his profits keep contracting at the same rate, he won’t have a business left by 2018. Outside the Star Crossrail have plastered a map to the wall to help pedestrians navigate the area. The arrows that should point to Tottenham Court Road and Soho Square point in the wrong direction, and Dean Street has been rechristened Davies Street.

Mostly, though, people don’t like Crossrail because they can’t see why the taxpayer has to shoulder most of the cost of building a stretch of tunnel that basically duplicates the stretch of Hammersmith Line between Paddington and Whitechapel, while swathes of the country remain woefully ill-connected. You can already get from Greenwich to Heathrow on public transport: it takes about an hour. Crossrail may one day link up with Eurostar, or with the planned new high-speed railway between London and the Midlands, HS2, but the Crossrail that opens in 2018 won’t. Nor will it connect with the old Great Western route at Reading: Crossrail runs into the ground ten miles short of it, at Maidenhead. There’s a feeling that the taxpayer, the London taxpayer especially, is bankrolling a project that has been designed to make life easier for the affluent commuters coming to the City and its over-the-river satellite from the eastern and western suburbs, and for no one else. In an interview for the BBC’s Long View programme, Alistair Darling, the chancellor who gave Crossrail the green light, spoke as though the financial crisis had never happened. The City makes 10 per cent of Britain’s GDP, he said: isn’t it about time we gave them something back? For the privilege of bestowing this gift, all London businesses worth more than £55,000 have to pay the GLA 2 per cent of the value of their business per year for at least the next 31 years. The levy applies across all London boroughs, making no distinction between those that will benefit from a new Crossrail station and those that won’t. The terms were finalised just three months before the levy kicked in. We don’t know yet how much Crossrail tickets are going to cost, but they’ll be more than the Tube, which has already become prohibitively expensive for many.

Eighty per cent of the workers at the new Canary Wharf Station construction site were provided by local East End construction companies. This is the kind of statistic that makes Crossrail advocates happy. For all its faults, they say, Crossrail is good for jobs. When Gordon Brown gave the go-ahead in 2008 he announced that the project would create 30,000 British jobs. No one opposes the creation of 30,000 jobs (though these weren’t necessarily full-time or jobs for the duration of the project), but only a few of the major contracts have gone to British firms. Tunnelling contracts have been awarded to the UK’s BAM Nuttall, Balfour Beatty and Kier Group, but also to Ireland’s John Sisk & Son, Austria’s Alpine BeMo and the Spanish firms Dragados SA and Ferrovial Agroman (a subsidiary of the infrastructure giant that owns BAA). The tunnel-boring machines have been shipped in from Germany, the rig used to nail Canary Wharf’s concrete box to the dock was bought in from Japan. The winner of the contract to make the trains themselves will be announced later this year. There are four firms in the running: CAF, Siemens, Hitachi and Bombardier, with Siemens, which won the Thameslink contract last year, the bookies’ favourite. The company that ends up operating trains on the Crossrail line will be able to choose whose carriages they buy. Given that many of the big train operators in Britain are owned by foreign state railways, Bombardier, which owns the only train factory in the UK, is worried that it will be passed over in favour of those who make their trains abroad. If it doesn’t land the contract, the factory will be shuttered. As for Crossrail’s biggest corporate investors: BAA is Spanish, or mostly Spanish, while 70 per cent of the Canary Wharf Group is owned by Songbird Estates, a syndicate comprised of Qatari, American and Chinese businessmen, and Morgan Stanley.

As we emerged from the Canary Wharf Station box into a bright sunlit morning I chatted with one of the Crossrail representatives. ‘It must be great to work here,’ I said, ‘surrounded by all this wonderful architecture.’ I was only half-joking. The steel and glass colossi of the estate are monstrous but seductive. They are inscrutable: looming, black and silent, while inside invisible multitudes frantically rake in billions. ‘You like these, do you,’ he said, ‘these temples of Mammon?’ But Canary Wharf Station is a temple too. Crossrail has taken the form it has because the prospect of growth drives policy-making more than any other consideration, and as a result capital is able to bend government to its will. Meanwhile places that lack the necessary economic clout, including much of London south of the river, remain isolated. But it’s no use griping. In late 2009, when second thoughts still seemed worth having, the Liberal Democrats’ Norman Baker asked Sadiq Khan, the transport minister, how much it would cost to cancel Crossrail: too much, he was told. The project is so recession-proof we can no longer afford to give it up.