Crossrail 2 is a proposed Transport for London (TfL) project to connect existing suburban rail networks in south-west London and north-east London via a tunnel under central London. News on the funding prospects for the Crossrail 2 project has been somewhat eclipsed recently by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Crossrail 2 is seen as an important addition to London’s transport infrastructure, its funding is currently uncertain. Could some fresh thinking on the benefits that the project might offer help with its prospects?
We are now all living in a world where conventional thinking on how public money should be spent is being challenged by new thinking. This includes rethinking how we can get the most out of any investments made in new infrastructure.
The business-as-usual “silo” mentality that the UK has towards infrastructure projects (where projects are thought about as a separate “single purpose” projects) should be challenged to achieve better outcomes.
Crossrail 2 is one of several opportunities to design new infrastructure projects as “multi-purpose” assets.
The potential for an underground rail tunnel project to be designed as part of a broader purpose project is well demonstrated by what was achieved by Victoria Embankment project in central London back in the 19thcentury. Here Joseph Bazalgette designed an integrated infrastructure project that combined an underground railway with a river wall, an interceptor sewer, city utilities and an urban highway. The project also delivered a new public park at surface level. Whilst there is no technical reason preventing a similar such integrated project being built today, the typical “silo” thinking of most infrastructure agencies combined with the UK regulatory frameworks they work within means that such integrated projects rarely happen.
One idea that might be considered for making Crossrail 2 deliver more benefits is to use it as part of a low-carbon goods delivery system for the central London area. Using the weekday night hours when passenger trains would not run through the Crossrail 2 tunnels, purpose-designed trains could deliver goods and packages to central London business addresses. Self-driving electric vehicles carrying goods pallets for shops in the West End, could be loaded onto trains at depots on the Crossrail 2 network to the north and south of London and transported to stations that are designed to allow the transfer of goods to surface for onwards delivery to their end destinations.
The sort of technology required to make such Crossrail 2 to work as a goods logistics system can already be seen within the many automated warehouses across the UK. Meanwhile the technology for self-driving vehicles moving on city streets is something that companies such as Google have been developing for several years and they are now close to becoming an everyday reality.
The commercial opportunity for Crossrail 2 to be used for goods deliveries in central London could potentially help the business case for the project. Whilst the project would need to be designed to allow for this additional use, the additional cost involved would be quite marginal in the context of the overall project. TfL might also be able to explore ways of commercializing the use of power and digital cables within Crossrail 2 infrastructure by third parties. Apart from the potential business case benefits of the logistics use, the proposal would also mean that the number of lorries entering central London be significantly reduced and so help reduce both carbon emissions and street pollution levels.
Some different and more radical thinking is needed if the UK is to plan and build infrastructure that delivers “more bang for the buck”. The idea of using Crossrail 2 for goods deliveries is just more of many joined-up and integrated thinking ideas that infrastructure sponsors should seriously explore in the coming years.
In the same way that London led the world in its infrastructure innovations of the 19th century, London has the opportunity become a beacon of 21st century infrastructure innovation in a post-pandemic 21st century.