The announcement yesterday that contracts for the supply of trains for Crossrail, the new train line linking mainline services across London, is to be delayed until next year is half of a welcome one. It’s welcome in that it’s refreshing to see the government realising that the last big train contract, for Thameslink carriages, caused considerable upset when it was awarded to Siemens rather than Derby-based Bombardier. It’s disappointing in that more time is apparently needed to come to a decision that, really, shouldn’t take more time at all.
Engineer Towers is in the middle of London’s West End, so we can’t fail to notice the size of the Crossrail project. Blue hoardings covering up huge chunks of prime Oxford Street frontage; large-scale rolling roadworks; enormous cement silos overshadowing Tottenham Court Road. And they haven’t even started digging the tunnels yet (that comes next year, and for the next four years). From High Speed One to Heathrow Terminal Five to the Olympics, we’re used to massive, disruptive infrastructure projects in London; it’s part of the price you pay for the privelege of living in one of Europe’s biggest, and oldest, cities.
But the benefits of these projects, in terms of employment and maintenance of a skill base, aren’t and shouldn’t be just London-centric. Yes, the choice between companies to provide products and services is not straightforward; in the case of Thameslink, the winning bidder, Siemens, has as many employees in the UK as the loser, Bombardier.
It might seem that those wanting the contract to go to Bombardier were thinking more out of sentimentality than rationality; the company isn’t British-owned. But there’s more than sentimentality in being concerned about industry and skills in Derby. It’s been an engineering city since the industrial revolution; its social infrastructure was built around manufacturing; and it is a valuable base for apprenticeships and a centre of excellence for skills. We’re constantly being told that these things are important and to see contracts taken away from such centres on a bare financial argument rankles for all sorts of reasons.
Bombardier is one of the bidders for the Crossrail contract, and winning it could maintain trainbuilding as a viable industry in Derby for years to come. Crossrail could, therefore, benefit other UK cities than London, and that, surely, has to be a good outcome. It’s not clear why it’s going to take another year to realise that. We await the decision on the contract with interest and not a little trepidation.