A TUNNEL TOO FAR
Charles Clover implores the
politicians to think again about London's rail link
THE FIRST I heard of the London East- West Crossrail link was when a man with a clipboard called at our rickety listed Geor- gian house in Spitalfields to say that they wanted to build one of the largest rail tun- nels ever in central London a few yards underneath. I can remember worse days than the day I became a Nimby, but they are few.
The first chilling thought was that our house would almost certainly crash to the ground if such a tunnel were built, but I was also struck by the guilt at making a fuss which overcomes all British Nimbys. Was my desire to stop my house falling down a selfish attempt to wreck the public good? Surely no one could argue with better pub- lic transport.
What British Rail and London Under- ground were proposing was a rail link across London from Aylesbury to Shen- field, via Liverpool Street and Paddington station, to remove congestion from the most crowded parts of the Central and Metropolitan lines and the main line sta- tions. But someone had surely looked into whether my house would fall down? From the fact that they have now moved the route beyond the end of the garden, I assume that the answer to the last question was: they hadn't.
Two years later, people from far ritzier areas of central London than ours have begun to wake up to the fact that the East- West Crossrail link is about to disrupt their lives more than any other project for 30 years. In fact, according to the dossier com- piled by English Heritage, compared with the damage and disruption caused by Crossrail, the Channel Tunnel rail link from Stratford to Kings Cross and the Jubilee line extension into Docklands do not even register on the Richter scale.
Crossrail was born in the depressingly familiar way that transport schemes in Britain tend to be: first a route was picked off the shelf (where this one has been since the 1930s), then it was announced, and then, and only then, were the environmen- tal problems that might be caused by it studied. The reason the Crossrail project got so far without ringing alarm bells is the cosy all-party agreement that more public transport in London is a good thing. Expe- rience suggests, however, that today's good things are tomorrow's environmental prob- lems. Only the Department which brought you the M3 extension through Twyford Down could dream up a public transport project such as this.
The Crossrail Bill, promoted by British Rail and London Underground, seeks unprecedented powers. It seeks to demol- ish or alter 140 listed buildings and to knock down many others. It will rub out familiar slabs of London such as the Asto- ria theatre on the corner of Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street; the Hog in the Pound pub in Oxford Street; the last 19th- century buildings in Moorgate, including the Fox umbrella shop and the Globe pub. It will mine under Britannia House, BP's corporate headquarters in Finsbury Circus, a dream of classical marble and polished wood by Lutyens, listed Grade II*, just restored at a cost of more than £60 million.
Crossrail will drive twin tunnels at a depth of around 80 feet through some of the oldest parts of central London. It will knock down the Victorian arcade in front of Liverpool Street station and, probably, most of the Georgian Truman's Brewery on Brick Lane. It will plant ventilation shafts in Park Lane and Hyde Park and turn Hanover Square, Red Lion Square and Finsbury Circus into dumps for the tunnelling spoil for a period of up to five years. And the promoters have cunningly chosen the vehicle of a private Bill — a Victorian throwback which is notoriously hard to oppose.
When the Victorians and their heirs built the Underground under central London, they mostly chose to build under roads, thus reducing the danger of subsidence to buildings. Crossrail ploughs through the middle. The most disruption is expected where the Crossrail emerges from the ground — in the middle of Spitalfields, one of the oldest, poorest and most densely populated parts of London — and where stations will be built, in places like Bond Street, Tottenham Court Road, Moorgate and Charterhouse Square.
While the scale of Crossrail's assault on London is of Victorian proportions, the number of objections to it is fully in keep- ing with the environmental age. The unfor- tunate MPs who sit on the standing 'I feel the time has come for us to have a family logo.' committee which will consider the Bill will have to sift through a total of 314 legal petitions. Fellow Nimbys, I now discover, include Lord Richardson (the former chairman of the Bank of England) and Maurice Saatchi — both represented by the Mayfair Residents' Association together with the Grosvenor Estate, Paul Getty plc, the American Embassy, the main offices of Courtaulds, Legal and General and, on behalf of rich and poor, several London boroughs including West- minster and Tower Hamlets. All are vari- ously affected by demolition or alteration of listed buildings, vibration, subsidence, noise from the trains, work sites, dust or lorry movements.
Is all this disruption worth it? Certainly, it is hard to understand why a railway is needed to bring people more quickly into areas of town like Oxford Street and Liver- pool Street which are already over-crowd- ed. It is even harder to understand why extra capacity could not be built into nec- essary improvements to existing Circle, Central and Metropolitan lines. Crossrail attracts the fanciful price-tag of £1.7 bil- lion, not including the rolling stock it will need. But no one seriously imagines that it will stop there. Some objectors believe that legal costs and compensation could double the costs of the project. Some protesters are proposing a cheaper and more northerly route under Marylebone Road and City Road.
The strange thing is that Crossrail was conceived before it was decided that the
Channel Tunnel rail link was to by with King's Cross from the east by way of Stratford. Nobody yet appears to have con- sidered whether one route might serve the same purpose. Tower Hamlets council is objecting to no fewer than seven rail schemes in the borough, all of which seem to have been designed in isolation.
An important objection to the route that London Transport's engineers have chosen is that it seems to make a bee-line for green spaces and listed buildings. There is a reason for this. Just as in the countryside protected land without planning permis- sion is comparatively cheap to build roads on, so, too, it is cheap to use green space in cities, expecially if the site is ultimately restored. More disturbingly, with Crossrail we see for the first time that listed build- ings in modern cities have become targets for tunnel builders because they do not have piled foundations, which would make them expensive to tunnel underneath. In the words of Pat Sterling, Crossrail's spokeswoman, 'What we need to do is to achieve a balance between economics and the environment. There is obviously an element of managing the cost.' So in Moorgate, the economy-minded Crossrail team have targeted listed buildings for demolition while unwanted office blocks stand empty around them. I am told it is possible to tunnel through piles structures: it is just much more expensive. If the Department of Transport was obliged to obey the law — as it affects listed build- ings — it would have to choose another route.
Meanwhile, back in Spitalfields the tun- nel rises to within 30 feet of the surface under the Spitalfields Conservation Area of early 18th-century houses. We are told that there will be 40 decibels of noise in our panelled 1720s basement kitchen. And the tunnel emerges nearby in the only green space for miles amid poor Bengali residents who will not be able to afford the legal budget of the Mayfair Residents' Association. I have discovered what Nicholas Ridley failed to grasp about Nim- bys when he was Environment Secretary — at least until someone tried to build in his back garden — that self-interest doesn't necessarily mean one is wrong when one says that public planning has become a joke.
Charles Clover is environment editor of the Daily Telegraph.