After being on the first ever Elizabeth line train this week, James Potts outlines the importance of the project, and makes the case for continued investment in railway by the next Labour government.
Tuesday 24th May was a big day; I woke up to a 4:30am alarm but this didn’t faze me. I was like a child at Christmas, after years of waiting I was off to the opening of the Elizabeth line.
Bleary eyed but buzzing with excitement, I was in the queue at Paddington for 5:45am. I met up with two good friends and we thankfully made the first ever train out at 6:33am. Within 30 minutes we were on the other side of the capital in Abbey Wood having whizzed through the city, via Liverpool Street station and Canary Wharf. Incredible. There was a real sense of excitement as our fellow rail enthusiasts took it all in, we couldn’t believe it was finally open. I sadly then had to go to work, but my journey there will be changed forever as I will be a regular commuter on the new line.
The size and scale of this railway is staggering. Overnight, London’s rail capacity increased by 10% which is game changing as the Central, Jubilee and the sub-surface lines between Paddington and Farringdon all become less crowded by the transfer of passengers to the new line. These are brand new 200m mainline trains running in tunnels under central London. A trip from Paddington to Canary Wharf takes around 15 minutes, a huge cut which will transform journeys across London and you really feel how quick the trains go when you’re on them. The stations are also incredible, with everything down to the artwork being designed to impress. They have rightly been described as cathedrals.
But the Elizabeth line stands for something more than just a new railway. It demonstrates what we can do as a country when we get it right.
The idea of running mainline trains through central London in tunnels was first advocated for in the 1940s, but the first real study recommending “Crossrail” took place in 1974. There was more serious work done in the early 1990s as Canary Wharf needed better transport links to support the emerging financial hub there. However, it was delayed again as John Major’s Government opted to extend the Jubilee Line instead.
Instead, it fell to the New Labour Government to dust off the plans in the early 2000s and have the impetus to get the bill across the line in 2008. The Crossrail Act was passed and work began on the project in 2009. Thankfully it survived the incoming Coalition Government who began to scrap and cancel numerous projects and after some delays due to getting the signalling systems to integrate, it arrived just shy of 50 years after it was first seriously proposed.
The benefits of this railway cannot be understated, £42bn has been invested into the UK economy, not a bad return. Most of it was funded by London itself, mostly through Business Rates and a special Mayoral Community Infrastructure Levy (or MCIL) which allows the Mayor of London to raise the funds to contribute to a scheme like this. The construction of the Crossrail project also supported 55,000 jobs throughout the supply chain. For instance, the trains were manufactured in Derby and the signage was made on the Isle of Wight.
Given we have such a shining example started by a Labour Government and completed by a Labour Mayor, Labour should commit to spending on large rail infrastructure projects across the UK. Imagine if we had the ambition and will to deliver Crossrail 2 in London and the South East, HS3 to span from Liverpool to Hull calling at Manchester and Leeds, and completing all of East-West Rail between Oxford and Cambridge to name a few.
Each of these will boost the economy, make travel more environmentally friendly, plus it will create jobs and opportunities across the land. The plans and ideas are already there, we just need the drive to do it. I personally would like to see all of these in the next manifesto. Long-term thinking beyond the election cycle can show we’re serious about a proper vision for our country.
We have HS2 under construction which is also a bold commitment which also survived but is now in a much-reduced form. It will pay dividends when it opens in the coming years but in the age of austerity the era of big infrastructure has struggled as other priorities take over. Labour should also commit to building all of HS2 in full so that these benefits can be multiplied.
Sometimes speculating sensibly can mean you accumulate awesomely. This has been demonstrated this week by the opening of the Elizabeth line. More is needed.
James Potts is Vice Chair of the Young Fabians. He tweets at @JamesPotts.