So there we were, digging this hole…

Headshot-Stuart07Stuart Nathan
Features editor

The confirmation of Crossrail 2 came as no surprise and won’t please everyone, but London will survive. Its distorting effect on the UK is a fact of life.

We now know for sure what we’ve known of for some time: another big infrastructure project is set to be launched in London. Before a single station has opened on Crossrail, before a single train has been delivered, before a single piece of litter has been dropped, the whistle has been blown for Crossrail 2. The new line will run from the northeast of the capital, in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire and describe a diagonal across the city, connecting to stations in Surrey, terminating at Shepperton.

She'll probably never use it but it'll be named after her anyway: HM The Queen at the naming event for the line formerly known as Crossrail. Credit: James O Jenkins
She’ll probably never use it but it’ll be named after her anyway. Credit: James O Jenkins

London’s new bend sinister has been a concept since the early 20th century, and concrete plans date from the 1970s, when it was known as the Chelsea-Hackney line (or Chelney for short; although that name is now reserved for the latest cast member from The Only Way is Essex). Renaming of rail lines is nothing new either; in fact we’re now supposed to refer to Crossrail itself as the Elizabeth Line, although that nomenclature just makes us wonder how many things Her Majesty is going to end up having named after her. In the past ten years alone, she’s had a considerable chunk of East London (formerly the Olympic Park), an aircraft carrier that might one day actually have some aircraft, a terminal at Heathrow Airport (formerly Terminal 2) and a cruise liner named after her, not to mention a certain clock tower on the corner of the Houses of Parliament (not that anyone seems to take much notice of that, we all call it Big Ben even though we know that’s the name of the bell, not the clock or the tower). Surely we, Republican or Monarchist, can all agree it’s gone a bit far now. Crossrail is a perfectly good name, and at this rate we won’t have anything to name after Charles or George when (or if) they or their descendants take the throne.

But to return to Crossrail 2 or whatever it ends up being called, the new line will, like its east-west predecessor, be both underground and overground. It will entail the boring of new tunnels, adding yet more perforations to London’s Swiss cheese-like subterranean landscape, connecting Dalston to Wimbledon, and on a combination of new and existing surface rail lines for the rest of the route. It’s estimated cost, at 2014 prices, is up to £32bn. This sum, we’re assured, will alleviate the chronic overcrowding that occurs on the existing lines serving the northeast and southwest suburbs.

The rest of the country can be forgiven for raising its collective eyebrows in an expression of resignation. Yet more funding lavished on London! What about the rest of the country? Isn’t the capital siphoning off enough? We’re fairly sure that even the announcement of new infrastructure around Leeds and Manchester won’t banish that particular gripe.

Feelings are mixed even in London itself. They’re digging us up again! The ground hasn’t even settled after last time! What about the roadworks, the noise, the building sites, the pollution?

And a lot of this, of course, is just an exercise of that time-honoured British hobby, complaining about stuff. We’re really good at it. In fact, it’s almost certainly been going on as long as London’s been being wrecked: that’s to say, almost for its entire existence. The city had existed for less than a century when Boudicca’s Iceni burned it to the ground; regular depredation certainly followed until another rampaging horde from Essex turned up in the Peasant’s Revolt (these days, invasions of uncivilised Essex mobs happen every weekend).

But concerns about what Crossrail 2 will do to London are valid. Already, great swathes are under threat, with protests in the West End, Chelsea and Wimbledon about looming demolitions of much-loved amenities.

London will endure these threats. Enduring is pretty much the definition of what London does. It’s survived fire, flood, blitzkrieg, terrorism, abolition of local government and the mayoralties of Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson. It bears scars from all of them, to be sure, but it’s still recognisable. Things we were told would surely make huge areas unworkable have been shrugged off.

But care still has to be taken: there’s not much point building new infrastructure to allow more people access if in the process you knock down all the things they might want to make the journey to visit.

One curious thing about the Crossrail projects is that neither of them actually forge new links; they just create extra capacity on existing ones and take away the need to use different transport modes, whether that’s overground and underground or a combination of underground lines, to travel that route. Why that should take precedence over constructing new links where none actually exist, such as new Thames crossings between Tower Bridge and Dartford, is a bit of a mystery to us.

And as for those wondering why London siphons off so much cash: it has a huge population, a seemingly unfailing ability to generate income (which improving transport links always enhances), and a surprising number of parliamentary constituencies, many of them marginal, hence the attention paid to it in politics. It definitely exerts a distorting effect on the rest of the UK that should be addressed. It’s one of those situations that you wouldn’t recreate if you were starting from scratch, but now that it exists, you have to accept it and plan accordingly.

So, more roadworks for us. More boring. More concrete. More trains.