There was a battle for North Greenwich and then Cutty Sark. Now south-east Londoners are in arms over the elimination of Woolwich station from Crossrail
Over the past 18 months I’ve been heavily engaged in the campaign to secure a station at Woolwich as part of the Crossrail scheme.
Crossrail is widely recognised as essential to London’s future transport network. Without this east-west rail route from Heathrow, through central London, to the Thames Gateway, the capital will grind to a halt within two decades. But Crossrail is a complex project with a hefty price tag – hence the lengthy delays while successive governments wrestle with the challenge of funding it.
After an abortive first try in the early 1990s, the parliamentary process, which is traditionally used to authorise major rail projects, is once again under way. The Crossrail select committee has been in session for almost a year now, hearing evidence on a range of issues. Among these, perhaps the most significant is the station at Woolwich. As a transport hub serving south-east London, and with huge potential to boost regeneration in Woolwich and development in the Thames Gateway, it was always seen as a key stop on the Crossrail route.
So it came as a shock when the government dropped Woolwich from the Crossrail bill. It did so purely to save money: the decision makes no sense in transport terms. It leaves only one Crossrail station south of the river – Abbey Wood, a suburban destination that cannot serve as a transport hub.
The cost of the Woolwich station, originally estimated at up to £400m, reflects the fact that it had to be built underground. Rather than exploring redesign and realignment options to reduce costs, the Department for Transport (DfT) simply decided to eliminate the station. They can’t have anticipated the reaction of the south-east London community.
We’ve got used to such treatment – in the early 1990s we had to fight to secure the North Greenwich station on the Jubilee line, without which the regeneration of the Greenwich Peninsula would never have happened. A few years later, we got into campaign mode again to reverse a similarly short-sighted proposal to drop the Cutty Sark station on the Docklands Light Railway’s Lewisham extension. Both stations are hugely successful and nobody would now dream of constructing either route without them.
For a week, the committee suspended its sittings, raising doubts about whether the Crossrail bill could be passed
Like the earlier campaigns, the case for Woolwich has won overwhelming support from local businesses and the community as well as the London Borough of Greenwich. It also convinced the select committee which, after listening to the evidence, unanimously concluded that Woolwich offered exceptional value for money and should be reinstated.
As the committee has a quasi-judicial role, it was expected that this recommendation would be implemented but the DfT refused, citing the cost of the station, now revised to £200m.
There followed a tense stand-off between the government and the committee, whose chairman, Alan Meale, rightly emphasised the serious constitutional implications of the government’s behaviour. For a week, the committee suspended its sittings, thereby raising doubts about whether the Crossrail bill could complete its parliamentary passage.
This has now been resolved as a result of Douglas Alexander’s agreement that the implications of the Woolwich station can be examined in more detail. Serious work is now being undertaken to explore opportunities to reduce the station’s construction costs and attract offsetting development contributions. Both approaches look promising.
Although the station has to be underground, its depth can be reduced, saving significant costs, and its proximity to Canary Wharf provides the prospect of substantial station-related development. So when these studies have been completed around the turn of the year, it would be surprising if the case for the Woolwich station, which already enjoys a very favourable cost-benefit ratio, isn’t even more persuasive.
But that still leaves the obvious question – will Crossrail itself survive? I have no doubt the same approach we adopted in promoting Woolwich station will help. There’s an overwhelmingly strong argument in transport terms for Crossrail, which still needs to be articulated. At the same time, the rigorous reappraisal of costs, which has been going on under the supervision of Doug Oakervee, the chairman of Cross London Rail Links, should convince a sceptical treasury that Crossrail is necessary and affordable.
Nick Raynsford MP is chairman of the Construction Industry Council and a former construction minister. For previous articles by him, search www.building.co.uk/archive