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Past, present and future collide on London’s Underground’s 150th birthday

The scenes over the last two weeks as London Underground celebrated its 150th Anniversary have served to highlight that many of the challenges facing the capital’s transport network would seem very familiar to the original promoters of the tube and their investors.

Anniversary celebrations

London’s public transport network is in rude health at the moment; ridership is at an all-time high, the largest capital investment programme since the New Works Programme between the wars is well underway and metrics such as reliability and customer satisfaction are all moving in the right direction. But there has been a high price for this; per capita investment in London’s transport is now running at three times the level of the other major metropolitan centres in the UK and the gap is likely to widen as local authority spending cuts continue over the next few years.

In the meantime, the pressures which led to the original development of the Underground seem to be combining again to produce a perfect storm.  London’s population, having already increased by 12% in the last decade, is projected to increase further over the next two decades. The existing public transport infrastructure (and much of the road network) is at capacity and no model exists for funding the capital investment required to increase capacity except via Government subsidy in some form or other.

TfL’s current and likely investment programme in the tube uses the coincidence of replacement of the rolling stock and signalling, together with station capacity improvements, to wring out a one-off 15%-20% gain in capacity. Beyond that point it seems unlikely that much more can be squeezed into the current system, partly because the 25-30 year life of the kit being installed will preclude further upgrades, but mainly because we will be at the limits of what is technologically possible. The result is that this programme and Crossrail likely won’t provide enough capacity and that at least one new rail link will need to be built on a north-south axis across London.

This brings us full circle to the challenges facing the original promoters of the tube network, most importantly the need to find a way of funding capital investment which will never be recovered from fare box revenue. With costs estimated at between £10-£15bn, a decision to build a second Crossrail link will inevitably cause a political storm, especially in the major regions outside London who have struggled to obtain funding for small projects.  However, behind the scenes, London’s business community is being mobilised to push the case with a focus on the economic benefits designed to appeal to central Government and the experience of the last decade says they have a good chance of making a successful case.

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