Europe’s largest infrastructure project is becoming an embarrassment. Crossrail, the new East-West London rail link, which has just been delayed again and which will cost another few hundred million on top of the billions that have already been lavished on it, was meant to be only the start of a wave of exciting investments in the capital.
Jealous for his north London constituency and before he transformed himself into a hysterical evangelist for the woke Left, David Lammy was calling for a North-South line, Crossrail 2, to be built as early as 2013. And yet, here we are, over-time and over-budget, and the management of the original Crossrail cannot confirm definitively that their railway will open at the new expected date of 2021, when it was meant to be up and running in December last year.
However long it takes, and however much the bill rises, we can be sure that both central government and the feckless administration of Sadiq Khan in London will remain committed to Crossrail. Too much money has been sunk into it, and too many reputations will be broken if it is judged to be a failure. It has even been renamed the Elizabeth Line, in the Queen’s honour.
But as the bill rises, the original cost-benefit calculations used to justify the vast expenditure on the project will become ever-more stretched. And since the tunnels have already been dug and carriages purchased, it becomes hard to quibble over individual stations costing £659 million (Whitechapel, six times the amount originally budgeted), about £10 for every person in the country.
It was inauspicious that the Crossrail announcement came a day after Labour and the Conservatives set out plans for an enormous expansion of national investment, including in infrastructure. John McDonnell is promising so much money that experts have warned there aren’t enough “shovel-ready” projects to spend the cash on.
There was, in fact, a good case for building Crossrail, although demand for public transport in London is no longer rising in a straight line. What sort of rubbish will be dug out of the central planning archives to meet the new spending targets set by Mr McDonnell and Sajid Javid?
If the money is to go on rapidly-deliverable schemes that offer big economic benefits, then fine (although there is a curious reluctance to see if the private sector might take the risk on projects with a strong commercial rationale). I also suspect many motorists would like to see a proper expansion of the road network, rather than on-the-cheap “innovations” like smart motorways.
But that is vanishingly unlikely when the money is being spent for political ends, rather than economic. And the problem is compounded when it is spent through the new devolved authorities, like in London, where spending controls appear to be weak and the blame for failures can be shifted onto central government.
At the end of it all, you might end up with a fancy new railway, or whatever. But at what cost? Debt, and higher taxes in the future to pay for it.