Crossrail could be Theresa’s unintended victim

I WAS genuinely surprised when Theresa Villiers confirmed during her party’s conference that the Conservatives would oppose a third runway at Heathrow.

Surprised because this is one promise that simply won’t be kept, and she should know that; and because it flies in the face of Cameron’s valiant efforts to depict his party as serious about government.

Over at Conservative Home today, Theresa has been defending her policy, presumably in part a response to her own backbench colleague, David Wilshire, who used the same site to blast the policy earlier this week. I’ve spoken to one senior Tory front bencher who shares my utter bemusement at this policy and I doubt if he is alone.

Certainly the Tories’ traditional core constituency, business leaders, are appalled by Villiers’ suggestion that the need for a third runway could be offset by the building of a new high-speed rail network. High-speed rail will, I’m sure, have an important part to play in this country’s transport strategy in the future. But to claim that it will obviate the need for more runway capacity at Heathrow is over-optimistic at best, self-delusional at worst.

How could high-speed trains reduce demand for international travel? In fact, while Heathrow operates at 99 per cent capacity at the moment, best estimates suggest the kind of high-speed network now advocated by the Tories could reduce that by just two per cent.

An expanded Heathrow is necessary because without it, international travellers will vote with their executive club cards and turn their backs, not just on Heathrow, but on UK plc. We will not be able to maintain London’s position as Europe’s financial capital while our biggest and most important airport is choking to death.

But the policy would claim another victim which has so far been ignored: Crossrail.

Crossrail, due to open in 2017, will provide a new commuter link between Maidenhead and Heathrow to the west of London to the City of London and onwards to Kent in the east. It is not only essential to the economic prosperity of London and the rest of the country – it is also very, very expensive. It will cost more than £15 billion, with the taxpayer meeting about a third of the cost and the remaining two thirds being met through a supplement on London’s business rates and by contributions from the capital’s financial institutions, who see the new link as vital to their future prosperity.

The financial package is robust, though inevitably there are those who remain unconvinced. But how robust will the package be if the airport to which Crossrail will provide a vital link is to be left to wither on the vine? How much value will Crossrail itself add to London if Heathrow cannot expand and cannot compete? And how willing will the City be to pay for a link to Yesterday’s Airport?

The real motivation behind this Tory transport policy – one of the few that the front bench team have come up with after Ms Villers’ 18 months in charge – is votes. Or more specifically, a clutch of marginal seats to the west of London that the Tories need to win in order to have a chance of forming the next government.

What a handicap for any new government to have to carry in its first months in power: a manifesto commitment to eroding a central pillar of our economic success, a commitment which would have serious – possibly terminal – consequences for the most ambitious and expensive rail scheme since the end of the war.

Which is why it’s a promise that simply won’t find its way into the Tory manifesto at the next election. Because to include it would be to invite the (justified) accusation that Cameron isn’t serious about growing the UK economy.

But if this policy is to be ditched, it’s surely very likely that a new policy will have to be developed and promoted by a new Shadow Transport Secretary.

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14 Comments

Filed under Conservative Party, David Cameron, Department for Transport, Economy, Government

14 responses to “Crossrail could be Theresa’s unintended victim

  1. James

    I can’t understand how you would consider the financing of Crossrail to still be in a ‘robust’ state.
    The world of finance is in turmoil with even the 2012 Olympic package unravelling.

  2. David Wilshire has no “t” in his name. Crossrail is not going to have Reading as its western terminus because of corruption in Reading Borough Council and the pusillanimity of the Reading West MP Martin Salter. And Crossrail as currently planned provides no western rail link to Heathrow – a gross omission. As a former transport minister you should know that Tom.

  3. Jane – Thanks for the correction on “Wilshire” – now changed. With regards to Heathrow, I would check out Crossrail’s official website (since I am no longer an official spokesman for anything to do with Crossrail). However, you’re entirely wrong about why the western terminus is at Maidenhead rather than Reading – there is absolutely no business case for extending to Reading (yet). No-one would choose to catch a “metro” service, stopping at every intermediate station, when instead they can catch a fast train and change at Paddington

  4. Blackacre

    I agree that the Tories have this policy for the west London votes and that is why I do not trust them either. It does not make the policy wrong, though. Heathrow is really not that important and it is anyway a hideous airport. Most executives would much rather arrive in Stansted in far more pleasant surroundings and take a fast train direct to the City rather than being dumped in Paddington out to the west or have an awful tube ride or long and expensive taxi transfer. I have still never seen a cogent argument for why Heathrow is economically important beyond BAA landing fees and shopping opportunities, especially for the transfer passengers who are on their way to enhance another economy and only pollute ours.

    Anyway, please can you explain how Heathrow can satisfy the environmental requirments and why it should go back on at least two old commitments that “this expansion is the last one we will do”.

    All the best to Teresa Villiers in holding the line, but I shall like you only believe it when I see the mainfesto. I have to say they are so far down with the commitment that they will probably have to stick with it now.

  5. richard

    Crossrail was doooooomed as soon as it became apparent that we were in for a recession.

    £15Bn is an enormous expense and companies in London can ill-afford a further increase in business rates when many of them are struggling to even pay their staff and suppliers.

  6. The reason why Crossrail ended up at the mini-metropolis of Maidenhead was because at the time extension to Reading would have involved resignalling Reading and the cost was added to the Crossrail budget.

    And passengers from Reading could use the Metro service for intermdiate stops along the M4 corridor.

  7. I always thought Crossrail was designed to provide congestion relief for the Central line…

    Oh dear, I’m in danger of going off message.

  8. Hi Tom,
    Do you believe that climate change is real? And if so, how can endless expansion of air travel be consistent with tackling it?

    Also, do you think oil and gas are finite resources?

    James

  9. Good post Tom. The decision by the Tories, if it stands, not to expand airports, may produce some short term plaudits but is irresponsible & incompatible with trying to seriously improve the economy.

    Even if we are currently suffering from catastrophic warming, as politicians & the BBC allege, that would not mean that the expansion of airports is doomed. Improving the efficiency of aircraft, like producing flying wings, will do far more to save oil than preventing anybody but Gore flying. In any case if we go nuclear, as every environmentalist who honestly believes CAGW is a problem wishes (both of them), it will be possible to use nuclear’s off peak capacity to make hydrogen.

    On the 3rd hand I still don’t understand why Crossrail is to cost £16 billion when the Norwegians have been cutting hundreds of kilometres of tunnels for £3.5-£11 million a shot http://www.vti.se/Nordic/1-03mapp/tunnel.htm . On that basis a new, double track tunnel could be built from one side of the M25 to the other for under £1.6 billion.

  10. Zim Flyer

    The plan is simple, reduce the need for domestic flights between our cities because of high speed rail which in turn will free capacity up at our airports.

    Not extending these airports will also help the Tories win local support in those areas where airports would be extended.

    As a Tory policy this makes sense at every level.

  11. Johnny Norfolk

    The Tory policy is for the people. Other business solutions can and will be found.
    When we have the money of course.
    When Labour have to go to the IMF for the bail out loan the condition will be to cut public spending as it was last time you were in power. REMBER. as I do.

  12. steve

    This is all very well, and anyone can see all the good reasons for a third runway, but Heathrow currently breaches EU NOX limits now, and with another runway will massively breach the limits all around the airport. The first answer to this was to put the M4 in a tunnel!!, then the next mad idea was an imaginary future plane that seemingly runs on air!

    There is no technical solution to this, the only solution is to ignore the limits, and poison people. I’m sorry but putting people’s health at risk in the chase for the god of mammon just isn’t worth it, under any government.

  13. Johnny Norfolk

    Steve.

    We all know you are correct. That is why the Tory party has faced up to the reality.
    Labour will just bury its head in the sand and ignore it like they do with most things.
    Crisis what crisis.

  14. Tom West

    “No-one would choose to catch a “metro” service, stopping at every intermediate station, when instead they can catch a fast train and change at Paddington”
    … so people travelilng from Reading (or the west in general) to Maidenhead (or stations to Paddington) are supposed to go all the way in to Paddington, then back out again? I’d rather change at Reading and catch the stopping service inbound.

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