Sunday, 7 September 2014

Putting the boot into the Boris Island Baby

Today the Sunday Times publishes a poll which says Scotland now has a majority of people favouring independence. This pushes us even closer to the concept of Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Perhaps Boris' biggest plan is his Boris Island Baby. Lets have a think about this, but first lets have a little think about transport infrastructure planning in the UK. 

A while back I was having a drink with my elder brother Frank. He was telling me about a trip he went on with the Scouts back in the 1950's. He told how they all gathered at Mill Hill Broadway and all of the Scouts gear was loaded onto a rail wagon. This was attached to the back of a train and the whole party, gear and all was transported to somewhere in Scotland (possibly Loch Lomond) for a weekend of canoeing and other outside activities. This lead us onto a discussion about how the M1 motorway, which arrived in Mill Hill around 1967, forever changed the appearance and feel of the Broadway, the old station that they left from was demolished and the new "utilitarian" 60's style station was constructed. Frank told me that at the time it seemed terribly modern. It was the new face of British Rail stations, a work of bland concrete. At the time British Rail was on a mission to destroy the past, magnificent old stations such as Euston were ripped down and replaced with "modernised" bland identikit new buildings.

At the same time Beeching was taking an axe to the National rail network and closing every line that the bean counters thought "uneconomical". No one at British Rail, or in the government of the day asked the obvious question "can we do something to make the lines pay theire way and what effect will it have on the nations infrastructure if we do this". We are left with a situation where we now have to pay tens of billions simply to rebuild the rail capacity that was so callously shut down. Perhaps the most ridiculous example is HS2. Ultimately this line is simply a replacement for the Great Central Line which Beeching shut.

They say that the ultimate stupidity is to  learn nothing from the past and repeat the mistakes. Which brings us nicely onto the subject of Boris Johnsons baby - "Boris Island". Boris has this marvellous idea that we simply shut down and redevelop Heathrow and replace it with a new airport, Boris Island in the Thames Estuary. The logic of Boris is that Heathrow is too constrained by its location to grow without huge disruption to the locality and so why not simply up sticks and start again.

There are many flaws with this huge ego trip of Mr Johnson. At present Heathrow is a very successful hub airport. Many foreign airlines use it as a transatlantic hub. If they are forced to move, at great cost, to Boris Island, junking billions of pounds worth of investment in Heathrow, who will pay? Will it be the taxpayer? If it is the airline, the first thing any sensible business will say is "Lets have a review and see if this really is the best place for us to have our European centre". As with the British Rail planners of the Beeching Era, who made the assumption that everyone who travels by train, will simply shift to another, less convenient train route, they are likely to find that other European airpots see this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to grab business from Heathrow. If an airline has to move anyway, they will be offered all manner of lucrative incentives to change their base to European airports.

Then there is the question of convenience.  Whilst there are many issues with access to Heathrow, it is well located for passengers from London, the South, West Country and the Midlands. When Crossrail opens ot will become an even more convenient location, with fast services from Central London and Essex. With the advent of Boris Island, a whole new rail infrastructure will need to be built. All of the traffic mentioned above will have to either go through London or around the M25 and we already know how bad that is. It would massively overload the Dartford river crossing and surely force many potential passengers to other regional airports.

Which takes us back to the example I gave at the start of this blog. If the Mill Hill Scouts were organising a canoeing trip to Loch Lomond today, they would presumably have a very different journey. British Rail don't hitch wagons full of canoes to the back of passenger trains anymore, so even if the boys went by train, the gear would presumably go up in a van. The point I'm making is that when you tinker with transport infrastructure, you make people rethink the way they use it. The biggest change the Beeching changes forced on the British public was to moce us off the Railways and into cars. This resulted in massive congestion on the roads, which is moving us all back onto the railways. Boris Island is likely to decimate the British aviation industry and force even more of us onto the roads or railways. We all know how difficult it is to build new roads and train lines. HS2 is a classic example. Everyone know we need more train capacity, no one wants it in their back garden. 

I had always thought that the Beeching cuts to the railway network was the most short sighted and most damaging mistake it was possible to make in transport planning in the UK. It seems that Boris is determined to prove me wrong. What I cannot fathom is that a man with such a stupid plan is being trumpeted as potentially the next Prime Minister.

1 comment:

baarnett said...

In hindsight, perhaps about a third of the Beeching cuts should not have been made. But having a car was the aspiration of millions of people.

Congestion only built up slowly, day by day, and modern car adverts are usually shot on clear roads in the Alps or somewhere similar!

What governments should have done was protect many disused routes. Then we might have had the Finchley Central-to-Edgware railway back again by now, beyond MIll Hill East.