London is a world class city, and for that reason all the top international businesses have office space in London. However I have the feeling that they locate their offices here in spite of the transport infrastructure in the UK, rather than because of it. Wouldn’t it be so much better to be able to champion our transport network rather than have to apologise for it much the time?
My last post about the how the London Olympics could prove vital for the economy, championed the benefits of positive thinking. And I am a big believer in having a positive mental outlook. Having nailed my colours to the mast, I am now going to have a bit of a whinge!
A couple of weeks ago, we travelled back from our family holiday in the Dordogne. The journey from St Jean de Cole to Boulogne takes about 8 hours. Almost all of it is autoroute. We stopped twice to swap drivers, have a bite to eat and let the kids stretch their legs, and go to the toilet. The roads are good, there are service stations and stopping points aplenty. And during this 8 hour drive, we did not encounter a single traffic jam. Not one. Once in Boulogne, we boarded our ferry, and not long after arrived at Dover. We’d been back in England under an hour when we found ourselves queueing on the M26, in order to get on to the M25. Soul destroying.
This weekend we drove down to South Devon, for my Aunt’s 80th birthday party. The A303 is the major road linking London to the South West, and yet it resembles something out of the stone age, which is very appropriate given its proximity to Stone Henge! It’s continually changing from dual to single carriageway and back again, which meant that we were repeatedly caught up in bottlenecks. Our journey was 2 hours longer than our TomTom had predicted. All-in-all, it compared very unfavourably with our French experience.
So why is this? Why should France – our nearest neighbour – have a fantastic road network, whilst we have to struggle on with a third-rate alternative, which seems to be expected to run at or above capacity most of the time. Some will point to population density. France has a similar population to the UK, but its land mass is about 2.5 times greater. So they have a lot more space to build roads. But then look at Japan: higher population density than the UK, and yet has fantastic transport infrastructure. Surely it’s even more important for a densely populated country to have a decent transport network. So it’s more of a challenge for the UK, than for France. But that is not an excuse. I think it’s a lack of vision, a lack of long term planning, and a lack of political will that’s to blame. For as long as I can remember the A303 has been cursed by motorists as one of the most frustrating roads in the country. So why hasn’t anything been done about it?
It’s not just the roads, either. Five years ago in China, there were no high speed railways. Now the Chinese have more high speed railtrack than the rest of the world put together! In Britain, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link – completed in 2007, and linking St. Pancras in central London to the Channel Tunnel complex at Cheriton in Kent – was he first major new railway to be constructed in the UK for over a century! Successive governments – spanning several generations – have failed to plan effectively for the future, when it comes to transport infrastructure.
And yet all is not lost. And this is where my positive mental attitude kicks in! The Tube upgrade continues, and even though it will the best part of a generation to see it through from beginning to end, we will see the benefits eventually. Substantial improvements will be complete in time for the London Olympics in 2012, we are assured. And then there is CrossRail. Ah, CrossRail. This new railway will link will link Heathrow Airport, the West End, the City of London and Canary Wharf, via new twin tunnels under London. Originally planned in the early 1990’s, but not getting the final go-ahead until 2008, preliminary work has started, and yet there are rumours that CrossRail may yet become the victim of central government budget cuts. Let us hope not. We’ve heard a great deal from the new coalition government about spending cuts, and yet – surprisingly – very little about economic growth. Regardless of how much spending is cut, ultimately it will be economic growth that will get us out of debt and out of this downturn. Effective road and rail networks should be the foundations of sustainable economic growth, not casual afterthoughts. It’s estimated that the benefits of CrossRail to the UK economy will be at least £36 billion!
With these improvements in place, more businesses will be looking for offices to let in London, and we will begin talking up London’s transport system, rather than avoid mentioning it!