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The capital's transport revolution refuses to slow down

Over the past two decades, London has been transformed by a transport revolution. Great new places have been created and existing centres have been reanimated by a massive expansion and reinvigoration of public transport provision across London.

Not since the glory days of the 1930s has there been the same level of confidence in the value of investing in rail based infrastructure to drive deep cultural and societal change and create much nicer places for Londoners to live and work.

London moves by rail like nowhere else in the UK. Of the UK’s 1.5bn annual journeys on the national rail network, some 60% start or end in London. Adding in the unprecedented 1.2bn annual journeys on the London’s Tube, it means that almost 80% of UK annual rail journeys start or end in London, with just 20% of the national population. Additionally about half of UK bus journeys are made in London too, making London’s districts uniquely susceptible to improvements in public transport. These changes make London liable to taunts that it receives a higher subsidy per head of population for public transport, yet because of the alacrity with which Londoners use public transport, the actual subsidy per journey is far far lower than other parts of the UK.

The nadir in transport investment from which we are now recovering was perhaps reached in the 1980s with the closure of Broad Street railway station and the release of its land for office development. Since then, the “toytown” Docklands Light Railway has grown up, as a catalyst for huge growth throughout what had been a barren wasteland of London’s abandoned docks. Then came the Jubilee Line Extension, Heathrow Express, High Speed 1 and its Javelin, the sprucing up of several underused railway lines into the London Overground and the London Underground upgrade. Of the some 20 rail crossings of the Thames in Central London, a third have been created since 1990, providing vastly increased connectivity, especially in East London where most have been formed. The Olympic Park and its 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games benefited from the unprecedented service from 10 separate railway lines feeding in trains every 15 seconds that meant spectators could enjoy the events without worrying how they might get home again afterwards.

And now London stands on the threshold of one of the biggest rail revolutions in its history. The opening almost simultaneously of Crossrail Line 1 and the upgraded Thameslink, the culmination of two vast programmes of concerted investment and political support, will transform London. The huge new stations will become key transport hubs and many more journeys now by car right across greater London will seem ridiculous when those new lines open. Coupled with other contemporary schemes of lesser magnitude such as the Northern Line Extension to Battersea, the Coxley Link to Watford and the superbly name GOBLIN (Gospel Oak to Barking Line) extension to Barking Riverside and WRAtH (Western Rail Access to Heathrow) will enliven many more places by new fresh public transport connections. The spread of London Overground will continue, with many traditional inner commuter lines benefitting from its much improved service and ambience, leading to greater patronage.

Looking further ahead, the arrival of High Speed 2 at Euston and Old Oak Common and construction of Crossrail Line 2 (a vastly more ambitious and wiser version of the old Hackney-Chelsea Line proposals) will create new exciting places and will set a fresh paradigm when London’s twin high speed stations at neighbouring Euston and St Pancras will metamorphose into linked domestic and international high speed rail hubs. This will be a hugely important mega transport interchange for the whole of the UK, with trains from all over the country interleaving rapidly with trains to a wide range of Continental European destinations, not just Paris and Brussels but also Amsterdam initially, then Cologne, Frankfurt and Geneva, and later Copenhagen, Barcelona, Madrid, Turin and Berlin, to name but a few. This whole district will attract many businesses, building on the success of the revitalised King’s Cross Central with its Google anchor resident on its eastern boundary.

There will be many newly energised districts in London created by this ongoing public transport revolution. This in turn will beget more popular new districts and places across London, fuelling its growth as a great World City. Wise investors will detect from decades away the places likely to yield the best property returns.

  • Tim Chapman is infrastructure director at Arup

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